Food Miles Silliness and the Virtue of Prices

I have written a number of times on the silliness of food miles and the locavore movement (here and here and here).  For some reason the energy and resource intensity of foods is being judged merely on one component - transportation of the end product - which actually is only a tiny competent of food costs (and thus their resource use).  Is it really more environmentally sensitive for us Phoenicians to grow our corn in the Arizona desert, where soils are unproductive and water must be imported from hundreds of miles away, rather than have it grown in the fertile soils of Iowa and trucked in?

Someone in the media, at least in Australia, finally notices:

TWO brands of olive oil, one from Australia, the other shipped 16,000 kilometres from Italy, sit on a supermarket shelf.

Most eco-friendly shoppers would reach for the Australian oil. But despite burning less fossil fuel to get here, it may not be better for the planet.

Contrary to popular belief, ''food miles'', or the distance food has travelled before we buy it, is a poor indicator of our food's total greenhouse gas emissions, or ''carbon footprint''.

More important is the way our food is farmed and produced, and how far we drive to buy it....

It turns out that stuff like economies of scale really matter

''Local food can often have a higher carbon footprint than food from afar,'' says principal researcher Brad Ridoutt.

He says even home-grown vegetables, with ''zero food miles'', do not necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint than those bought in the supermarket.

''With my veggies, I drive to Bunnings to buy fertiliser, and I go away for the weekend and forget to water them, and in the end I only harvest a few things that I can actually eat.

''By contrast, big producers, who can invest in the latest energy-efficient, water-efficient technology, and make use of all the parts of food, can be much more efficient,'' he says.

Of course, transporting food from producer to retailer still burns fossil fuels that release greenhouse gas emissions, in turn accelerating global warming. But freight emissions are only a fraction of those released during production, meaning even imported food, sustainably produced, can have a smaller carbon footprint than local alternatives.

Even the most rudimentary reading of economics should have given greenies a clue.  In commodity products like most foods, prices tend to be driven down to a point that they reflect resources (and their relative scarcity) that went into the product.  The cheapest foods tend to be those that use the least, and least scarce, resources in production.  So buying locally grown food, which often tends to carry a price premium, should have been a flashing red light that maybe this was not the least-resource-intensive choice.


  1. Reformed Republican:

    Even the most rudimentary reading of economics should have given greenies a clue.

    Greenies have demonstrated, over and over again, that they do not have even a rudimentary understanding of economics.

  2. a leap at the wheel:

    This episode of skepoid / inFact lays out why food miles is a pretty stupid metric anyway. 10 miles for 1 bag of produce in a consumer car is much, much worse than 1,000 miles by freight hauler of a container of produce.

  3. NL_:

    If only there were a way to compare every limited resource so that we could make investments across unrelated areas of a business in the least wasteful manner.

    It's like some people have never heard of "prices" before.

  4. NL_:

    By the way, this post made me go to the Wikipedia entry on food miles, which includes a gauzy and unfocused discussion of fair trade versus food miles. Then it says this:

    "Sometimes the food grown for export takes up land that had been used to grow food for local consumption, so local people can go hungry."

    As though people are going to labor all day to make food to sell to somebody else, then go hungry themselves. That might in some hypothetical instances be a problem if you make a crop that isn't readily edible (e.g. a cash crop) and the market suddenly drops out, leaving you without the money to buy food. But how is it any better to be a subsistence farmer who has to constantly worry about weather or natural disaster wiping out his crop. And a cash crop farmer has the ability to bank some savings in a way that a subsistence farmer often cannot (typically eating or gifting away his surplus before it spoils).

    It's such a weird view of economics that somehow food going abroad means less at home. If somebody is trading away food, wouldn't they be getting money in return? Or are foreigners easily hypnotized into spending months planting, growing, harvesting and transporting food for no compensation at all?

  5. Evil Red Scandi:

    @NL_ - “Sometimes the food grown for export takes up land that had been used to grow food for local consumption, so local people can go hungry.”

    Well people who salivate over things like food miles tend to be hard-core statists who worship central planning, and in a centrally-planned economy it's pretty easy to see something like this happening. So it certainly does make sense, just not in the way the writer imagined.

  6. Patrick Moffitt:

    I am more concerned with the selling of agriculture's nitrogen footprint. EPAs Science Advisory Board has blessed a 25% across the board nitrogen reduction for the US and 45% for the MIssissippi River Basin (which drains about 40% of the continental US). If enacted it will change agriculture as we know. The proposed nitrogen critical load path way is potentially more damaging to fossil fuel use than is CO2.
    Nitrogen (reactive) is necessary for life and cycles through the environment in complex and not fully understood ways. Every energy, housing and agriculture decision we make impacts the nitrogen cycle. Control nitrogen and you control all those decisions. Unfortunately, EPA has all the regulatory authority it needs. The Florida and Chesapeake Bay TMDLs are just the beginning.

  7. Don:

    Patrick Moffitt: Link please? I've not read anything on that.

    “Sometimes the food grown for export takes up land that had been used to grow food for local consumption, so local people can go hungry.”

    Yeah, in Stalinist Russia.

  8. marco73:

    Food miles is not the silliest greenie idea.
    How about purpose building skyscrapers in New York City to grow food:
    Yes, yes, let's use up some of the most expensive real estate on the planet to put up a building for farming.
    If its such a good idea, why hasn't a developer like Donald Trump put up such a structure? It might be because he can make a lot more money putting up buildings where people pay big money to live.
    Sure, there are people in NYC who have rooftop gardens and grow boutique vegetables and herbs, but for real industrial farming you can drive less than 1 hour from mid-town to New Jersey, and find all kinds of fertile farmland, and sure not for $1 million per acre.

  9. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States:

    >>> Even the most rudimentary reading of economics should have given greenies a clue.

    That last word is the tricky part. They're missing the "clue" slot in their tiny widdle bwains.

  10. ringo:

    Cost isn't the biggest reason "vertical farms" are a stupid idea. The biggest reason is that they violate the laws of thermodynamics. One of the website articles I read on the topic said something to the tune of "while growers have used greenhouses for well over a century, there has been no development so far of multi-story farms." He went on to discuss how much excess energy they were going to generate by re-processing their own waste stream.

    I think the whole thing is iconic of an urban mindset divorced not only from the natural world, but from the world of stuff that works, and even from the laws of physics itself.

    Having said that, if somebody wants to build the worlds biggest mushroom farm in Manhattan with his own money, I say have at it. If he can convince people who think it is cool to buy season tickets for enough money that he can turn a profit, all the better and I say more power to him.

    In regard to pricing, I agree but would caution that policing externalities (and avoiding price controls) is critical to proper functioning of prices, and that agriculture is full of non-market cruft. Having said that I'd also like to point out that price is only half of any purchasing decision, the other half is "what do you get" and and "because I like it" is a perfectly legitimate rationale for buying something with your own money.

  11. marco73:

    I think its actually kind of cute whenever an urbanite tries to tell a farmer how to farm "better".
    Yeah, get up at 4am for milking, then slop the hogs, plow, plant, fertilize, repair all day, then afternoon milking.
    Rinse and repeat for decades.
    Oh yeah, every year you are betting the farm, literally, that weather and pests won't wipe out your harvest.
    I have a great uncle who is turning 90 soon, and he has farmed the same land he was born on. He sure doesn't need a Columbia degree to tell him when an idea is stupid.

  12. rxc:

    It is only in the last 30 years that it has become reasonable to transport food, other than bulk grains like wheat or corn, from continent to continent. This ability comes from the development of containerization (by a US company), and the shifting of jobs from ports with stevadores(sp?) to container ports with hugely efficient inter-modal connections. Also, the ability of large airplanes to transport large amounts of time-sensitive fruit, veggies and fish, while they are, at the same time hauling 300-500 people around, has made it all possible. Cheap food is piggy-backing on methods developed to efficiently transport other goods/people. Now that we have this wonderful system in place, the greenies moan and complain that we need to go back to the good old days of walking down the road to the farmer next door and doing some trading for food.

    They are living in a delusion. They want to control everything and everyone to achieve an idyllic past that never existed.

  13. Patrick Moffitt:

    Reactive Nitrogen in the United States: An Analysis of Inputs, Flows, Consequences, and Management Options – A Report of the EPA Science Advisory Board - August 2011

    For the Mississippi River basin yu can look at any number of Gulf of Mexico hypoxia reports including COASTAL NUTRIENT REDUCTION STRATEGY TEMPLATE – JANUARY 15, 2010 and
    Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan 2008

  14. Andrew_M_Garland:

    Greens want to be inventive, productive, and rich like all those other people they read about. Unfortunately, most of the useful things are being done and there is horrible capitalist competition. There is much less competition in new and vibrant areas which merely need a subsidy to get going. Well, those projects usually don't go anywhere without the subsidy, but they certainly are new and vibrant, not like the old, dirty industrial society that is no fun to invent in.

    Greens are very smart, and they want to show it. Government gives them a way.

    The Godfather, "I'm Smart" - Video 0:23

    Fredo: I'm your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!
    Michael: That's the way Pop wanted it.
    Fredo: It ain't the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I'm smart! Not like everybody says... like dumb... I'm smart and I want respect!

  15. howard luken:

    I am forced to eat crappy, tasteless, cardboard vegetables from chile when I live in the state that grows more food than any other, california. Where do our vegetables go? Japan and now china. I remember a time in ohio as a kid we grew the best tomatoes on the planet. In our backyard. For free. Now the pinheads who still believe there is a left right or libertarian view argue over shipping costs when 30,000,000,000,000 dollars and counting have been given to the zionist bankers. Soon you won't be allowed to do anything in this new zionist soviet state of amerika, including buying food

  16. howard luken:

    Your carbon footprint leads them right to you. Stop exhaling CO2 and die already so the aristocracy can eat you.

  17. Rob:

    At the store yesterday the tomatoes from Guatemala were a lot cheaper the the tomatoes from Wilcox AZ.
    "Food Miles"? what about all the extra miles and energy hauling all those "recyclables" around.

  18. Buy Local Food!!:

    If only to create a sense of self worth,it is better to have local people producing as much as they can. Even grossly inefficient work is a better way to spend time than taking food stamps and popping pills. The societal costs of unemployment do not get loaded onto imported food costs.

  19. Jon:

    Why do I purchase local produce from a CSA? Freshness, it's worth the extra cost. If it doesn't come fresh, then who cares where it comes from? Not me. A fresh peach shipped from Utah is way better than those you find in the grocery store. We buy a few boxes every year from a group that purchases all at once. The farmer picks and ships them right before they are completely fresh, by the time they get here I have to eat as many as possible and dehydrate or freeze the rest, mmm, they're so good!

  20. Peter:

    A friend of mine raises her own chickens. She said you do farming for the love of it not to save money. She estimates the eggs she eats probably cost her $10 each.
    A group in our area is trying to get the local towns to the point of self sufficiency for crops that can be grown locally. Problem is there isn't enough farmland. There are woodlands but the state requires 2 acres of woodlands to be permanently protected for every 1 you want to use is order to save a bunch of moths they consider threatened species, that would probably be very destructive to your garden in the first place. Likelihood of the local farming groups success - None.

  21. Douglas2:

    Years ago I read a book about building an eco house written by a UK academic couple. They were obsessed with externalities and the lifecycle eco cost of every material used. They called it "embedded energy".

    The biggest lesson I took from the book was how great a proxy "price" was for the amount of petro energy used in making, distributing, selling, and delivering any product.

  22. jd:

    I met a water manager from Australia at a professional conference c. 2009 who stated their farm exports were limited during their prolonged drought becase they saw exported food as exported water, which was too valuable. They were also instituting market pricing for water to reflect its scarcity. So, if it such actions resulted from the market pricing of water vs some edict dictating the value of the water exported, it could have made conceptual sense...I haven't had the chance to follow up on how it all actually played out and the drought has now let up so maybe there will be an ebb and flow.

  23. A Critic:

    "Even the most rudimentary reading of economics should have given greenies a clue. "

    I'm a libertarian, not a greenie, and I have a different take. It's downright stupid to have a supply chain of hundreds or thousands of miles for the necessities of life.

    "Is it really more environmentally sensitive for us Phoenicians to grow our corn in the Arizona desert, where soils are unproductive and water must be imported from hundreds of miles away, rather than have it grown in the fertile soils of Iowa and trucked in?"

    It would be more environmentally wise for you to not live in an arid wasteland that is not capable of supporting your life. You are literally betting your life on two things: 1) that the supply chain and system will continue to exist for your lifetime - and that includes things like the fiat currency, the supply of oil, law and order, all of which are of dubious durability, etc and 2) that the fertile soils of Iowa will remain fertile as the remaining fertility, quality, and quantity of that soil is destroyed.

    "The cheapest foods tend to be those that use the least, and least scarce, resources in production. "

    Not true. Cheap food is cheap because it uses scarce resources, including oil topsoil and micronutrients, without replenishing them. Expensive food is expensive because it replaces and even adds to the resources used.

    I understand your position - you like your cheap lunch. Truth be told TANSTAACL. Do you understand my position? You are eating the fertility that any wise person would bequeath to their descendants. As the bumper sticker meme says "I'm spending my children's inheritance now!" - and yours should read "I'm eating my children's means of sustenance now!"

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