Food Miles Silliness

Maybe its because I live in Phoenix, but the local food movement has always seemed silly to me.  To somehow argue that food grown in our 6 inches of annual rainfall is better for the environment than trucking product in from more suitable growing regions has always struck me as crazy.  Russ Roberts links several good articles on the local food movement, one of which included this nice snarky observation:

The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.


  1. Noah:

    File under be careful what you wish for - many cities in this country get there fresh water from hundreds of miles away and ship their refuse hundreds of miles to landfills. If food must be locally grown, then shouldn't fresh water and trash be as local as food?

  2. thedirtymac:

    Historically, food miles have an inverse relationship with the incidence of famine.

  3. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA):

    I'm almost six days late on this thread because, well, I've been growing food. Though trained as a soil chemist and agronomist, I farm for a living, meaning that I don't have an off-farm job, and I refuse the farm-program subsidies for which I'm eligible.

    Our operation grows wheat, soybeans and alfalfa amongst the "industrial" crops, along with certified organic vegetables and fruit for specialty crops. For carbohydrate and protein crops, "local eating" is quite simply silly unless you happen to be in the region. Kansas is the Wheat State, and there are some fantastic local flours, most of which are also shipped east towards places where growing decent grain is utterly hopeless. Neighboring Arkansas happens to grow about 40% of America's rahss. That's rice once you get farther north.

    Where "local food" can actually make a difference is in the case of specialty crops, for which freshness, flavor, and minerals are often important characteristics. Growing them in season at a smaller scale allows (but does not guarantee) better attention to quality.

    I agree completely about growing food in the Phoenix area, yet I must point out that California vegetable production is tremendously subsidised, to large degree because the climate is almost as hostile as that of Phoenix.

    It takes between two and four feet of water per acre to grow many California veggies. Last I checked (a few years ago) federally-subsidised water was selling for about $18 per acre-foot. In counties not having such subsidies, free-market water cost over $650 per acre-foot. That's a lot of subsidy money -- $1,000 to $6,000 every year -- for people to suggest the model's working well.

    So here's my practical observation: eating local makes a LOT of sense for fruits and vegetables in season as well as dairy, meat eggs and such, provided they're well-grown ... which is far from certain with many local producers.

    It makes no sense whatever for the protein and energy grains unless you live in a prime production region for those crops. And it makes even less sense to turn it into a religion, which some people have obviously done.

    Oh, and about that "energy" issue? The largest single energy use for foodstuffs is COOKING them. Much greater than transportation or production.