Prices and Sustainability

I had a discussion with a locavore-type person in Boulder, Colorado last week at their farmers market.    He told me that while his costs to grow his produce were higher than the stuff I might find in Safeway, his products were more sustainable.

I asked him how that could be.  I observed that in a well functioning market, the costs of his inputs should reflect their relative scarcity and the scarcity of the resources that went into them.   Over time, particularly in a commodity market, prices were a sort of amazing scarcity integral.  If his costs were higher, that should mean he is using more or scarcer resources.  Isn't that the opposite of sustainability?

In fact, prices are such an amazing, almost magical, gauge of an item's resource intensity that it should tell us something that folks who purport to care about sustainability tend to have a disdain and distrust for markets and prices.   Sure, I understand certain externalities (CO2, for example, if you accept it as one) are not necessarily priced in, but the mistrust of prices seems to go beyond this.

In this particular case, his argument was the food was local and so used a lot less resources in transportation, and organic, so used less fertilizer and other chemicals.  But this is simply tipping the scales, trying to apply new weights and priorities to certain inputs that simply don't obtain in the real world.  The locavore focus on transportation costs is amazing, as it focuses on just one narrow cost and energy input for food, ignoring the energy of production and the energy to deliver other inputs to the local farm.  Take our situation in Phoenix -- sure, a local farmer used less energy to truck the finished food to market, but how much energy and other resources were used to move the water to grow it hundreds of miles to our desert here?  Or what about land use -- organic local farming may save trucking and chemicals, but what if the yields per acre are a third of what one might get on the best soils in a another part of the country?  Prices take into account the scarcity of not just tranportation fuel but land and labor as well.  Sustainability advocates often want to put their thumb on the scales and overweight just one resource.  That is why, for example, in the name of CO2 reduction we are clearing tons of virgin land, including land in the Amazon, to farm biofuel products.


  1. August:

    I agree folks focus too much on transportation costs, but given the number of subsidies in agriculture, he's still probably right. We see a substantially reduced price in the grocery stores because the government subsidies corn, wheat, soy beans. The government's willingness to hand out intellectual property rights to gmo's and then allow Monsanto to sue people who don't even want their crap on their land is also a problem. Just the rules surrounding the processing of livestock jacks the price up, and encourages unhealthy practices. Before FDR we knew we had a basic, unalienable right to go to the farm and see the animals we were going to buy before they were slaughtered, and they could be slaughtered right on the farm before our very eyes. The list of thing the government does to befuddle the free market in food is long, ridiculous, counter-productive, and down-right unhealthy.

    I just had a conversation with someone yesterday or the day before- someone who used to be green party, maybe still is, I don't know. What I do know is she sounded a lot like a libertarian because she had come to realize the government is just in the way of people providing the goods she wants to buy. I see this on the internet too, especially among people interested in practicing permaculture. They know governments are usually the ones who are spraying pesticides everywhere in order to destroy invasive species, and making up a bunch of crap rules that limit the ability to innovate, even on private land.

  2. Scott:

    At the farmers market I co-founded in Churchville, NY we are proud to offer avacados from Mexico and mangos from Costa Rica. Many of our guests ask if these products are grown locally (really). I like to say "everywhere is local to someone" as someone smarter than me once taught me. We are also proud to offer our community the best produce on the market at approximately 20% less than our giant competitor, wegmans. Providing families with nutritious food and cost savings seems sustainable enough for us up here in churchville - not to mention it doesn't hurt our wallets :)

  3. jon:

    I agree the pricing on food is so skewed by the government subsidies it is hard to know which one is truly sustainable. The main reason I buy from a CSA is for the fresh organic food - for my health and for the taste of fresh produce. If I didn't have a black thumb I would just grow my own. I do think that it would actually cost more for a farmers market rather than at the store since everyone must make a trip to the farmers market (often out of the way) and then make their normal trip to the grocery store. Also, semis have a higher efficiency for hauling items - cars don't necessarily have this advantage.

  4. Chris:

    This just in, governments obfuscate true pricing information with their meddling.

  5. ErikTheRed:

    I've spent some time working in the transportation industry and while fuel cost management was not my specialty I was exposed to it quite a bit. Fuel is a major expense in this ridiculously competitive field with very tight margins. Trucking, rail, and steamship companies are extremely good at using as little as possible. In many cases, they can move an item halfway around the world using less fuel than you consume going to the store and purchasing it - even if you drive a Prius or something like that. We did the math once and I don't recall the exact result but it was something like two bags of groceries driven 3 or 4 miles in a Prius = moving them 8,000 miles using modern intermodal logistics. No matter how efficient your car is, its weight-to-cargo ratio is a pathetic joke when compared to a big rig and not even worth laughing at when compared to a train or container ship.

  6. Alby Dürer:

    Recently there's been a ultra-locovore restaurant trend in which all food is produced at the restaurant where it is served - usually from a greenhouse on the roof or a field behind the restaurant.

    This led me to create the hyper-über-locovore (HUL) movement. HUL members consume only that food which is grown, harvested, processed, and produced entirely within their own mouths, driving food transportation costs down to a new low. On special occasions we allow hyper-über-locovore members to exchange food grown in their mouths with that grown in the mouth of another HUL member, but only if both parties are already within a few feet of each other and didn't meet for the specific purpose of exchanging HUL food, which would violate our HUL rules.

    I believe we have created the most "sustainable" food movement yet, though I am working on another movement to grow food directly in one's small intestines. So far progress has been quite good, but my recent experiments growing pineapples has been somewhat painful...

  7. MingoV:

    @Scott: We once were neighbors. I lived in North Chili for a while.

    @August and @Jon: The federal government interferes with prices of common grains, rice, sugar cane and sugar beets, and dairy products. It sometimes interferes with beef prices. "Truck farm" crops such as beans, peas, carrots, radishes, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, tomatoes, etc. have not been interfered with. Neither have berries, orchard fruits, or nuts. My point is that most food prices are not directly affected by the federal government.

    I come from a simpler time when people were not concerned about whether crops had been fertilized with chemical granules from Agway or cow shit from the farm next door. People were happy to find ripe bananas in grocery stores, and they didn't care if the bananas came from a country that displeased our government or a powerful union. There was no locavore movement: people were happy to buy local crops, but they knew that upstate NY farmers rarely grew wheat, rye, soybeans, and Idaho potatoes, and couldn't grow citrus fruits, peaches, pecans, figs, etc. Those were trucked in, and people were pleased to buy those non-local foods.

    Sustainability is good practice for a future catastrophe in which a locality is completely quarantined from the rest of the world for years. Therefore, sustainability and survivalism are a good pairing, though I doubt that people supporting those two movements will get along.

  8. mesaeconoguy:

    Exactly right, thank you coyote for making this point I’ve been chomping at the bit to make to these people.

    Prices are information; contained within that information are countless tradeoffs, including cost of producing locally vs. “importing” from elsewhere (including domestic).

    The key point these people miss is that you are disadvantaging yourself by choosing to produce at higher cost – and that invisible difference goes unnoticed, but it’s there (seen vs. unseen).

    Some people have indifference and utility curves which pick this alternative, but they’re still disadvantaging themselves monetarily.

    At its foundation, the “sustainability” movement is ignorant of comparative advantage.

  9. Jason Brunson:

    I think localvores need to find a better word than "sustainable" since I would bet donuts to heirloom tomatoes that the person didn't 'just' mean sustainable. But even if he did it is still worthwhile to look at why a lot of people (such as myself) try to eat more locally.
    The point that prices include a lot of information to help make proper decisions is true, but saying that people are "putting their thumbs on the scale" is not as accurate. We all have subjective values and if that person puts a higher value on reducing his carbon foot print then he is willing to pay more to do so (whether he actually is and if that really matters is a separate question), while others may choose non-industrial meat because they value animal welfare, or hate run off from large CAFO's. These are all things that people can value and be willing to pay more for, like a brand name or trendy style but, hopefully, with more substance to the reasons a person might value it.
    I try to buy local because I believe that well managed local farms produce food that have a better nutrient profile, I also think that they are at least a little better for the environment. I buy local meat from grass feed cows when ever I can because it is better for you but also because I think it is more humane to the animals and better for the environment than CAFO's.

    There are a lot of variables that go into pricing but just like I could produce a cheap widget by using crappy supplies much of the food we get is the edible form of a cheap widget. There are other, more debatable, reasons to favor getting at least some of your food local such as the points made by John Rob at, but for me getting better tasting, more nutritious food is a good enough reason. The fact that you are probably supporting a more environmentally and "sustainable" farming system (especially when compared to government subsidized mono cropping) as well as more humane animal treatment is just a bonus.

  10. mesaeconoguy:

    And do so at enormous unseen cost.



  11. Fred_Z:

    Comment of the day, I think, though the the pineapple mental pictures were quite repulsive.

  12. Eric H:

    "Take our situation in Phoenix"

    Bingo! People can only live in such places in hordes because of massive subsidization. Water systems, roads, Luke AFB, ... how many subsidies can we find? Without them, perhaps people would live closer to where the food is?

  13. mahtso:

    A while back I saw a story about Ms. Obama and other dignitaries eating in a locavore restaurant (near Pittsburgh I believe). The news was touting the wonders of locavore, but what hit me is that most of these people had traveled thousands of miles to get there. Sort of defeats the purpose, doesn't it?

  14. skhpcola:

    Organic produce is no healthier than conventionally-produced produce. There isn't a single, unimpeachable study that has been done that even suggests that. From pesticides, to chemicals of other varieties, to bacteria, there is no difference. Too, "organic" pesticides (all producers use pesticides, even the "organic" producers) are most persistent in the environment, so they are actually _worse_ than conventional varieities.

  15. Jason Brunson:

    Organic may or may not be (is there an "unimpeachable" study that shows they are not?) but local quite often is. Just the act of picking when riper means you got a lot more micronutrients.

  16. kevinsdick:

    Literature showing there aren't really big significant differences for organic:

  17. randian:

    You see much the same thing in "green" energy. It uses 20x more land. Or more. I dare you to have a conversation with a green on the subject of wasted land needed for "green" energy projects.

  18. skhpcola:

    You want proof of a negative? Who goes looking for that?

    Please tell us more about "lot(s) more micronutrients," without introducing woo from hucksters and greenie grifters.

  19. skhpcola:

    "I believe that well managed local farms produce food that have a better nutrient profile"

    Your belief doesn't make it reality. A tomato is a tomato. One grown in Florida provides the same nutrients as one grown in California.

    "I also think that they are at least a little better for the environment."

    What you think doesn't make it true.

    "I buy local meat from grass feed cows when ever I can because it is better for you..."

    Bullshit. But go ahead and flog your ego.

    "I think it is more humane to the animals"

    You do a lot of thinking, don't you? I suppose that you think that cows also do a lot of thinking, above and beyond "Foooood!"

    The remainder of your twaddle is specious. I see that Coyote Blog has a newcomer that will find a panting compatriot in LarryG. Never content to rely on facts and logic, you just "know" shit and have a compelling need to convince everybody else of your religion-like beliefs. Good luck to you, sir.

  20. skhpcola:

    "people would live closer to where the food is?"

    You mean like hunter-gatherers? Good plan. You reject agriculture and ranching. Gotcha. Technology sucks!

  21. Jason Brunson:

    I do think a lot, you might to try it, you might also want to try being civil, especially when you are just making things up.
    Let's take this piece by piece:

    "A tomato is a tomato. One grown in Florida provides the same nutrients as one grown in California."
    Wrong. Wrong to the point of ridiculousness. Where a fruit is grown will influence their micronutrient content, often times a little sometimes a lot. Do you actually think soil has nothing to do with it? Our is dirt just dirt to you? But more to the point when you harvest something impacts micronutrients greatly. An orange picked early in Florida and gas ripened in route to Oregon is not going to be comparable to one picked when ripe and eaten soon after.

    "What you think doesn't make it true."
    Same for you, you added nothing.

    Eloquent. But wrong. We know grass fed and finished beef is higher in omega 3`s among other things.

    I am new to the comments here (although I have enjoyed the blog for a couple of years) and I hope the standard here is normally more than rude bluster to hide a complete lack of knowledge.

  22. FelineCannonball:

    I'll grant you that a "locavore" in Phoenix is an idiot. I'd also argue the things that differentiate the cost of produce (local, organic, fair trade, etc.) are generally unrelated to ecological sustainability.

  23. skhpcola:

    Your reliance on new-age bullshit jargon such as "micronutrients" reveals your assclownery.

    And, no, civility is the last resort of brigands and fools when dealing with obvious retards that peddle pabulum and bullshit. LarryG, popularly known as "Lartard," is of this variety. He, like you, are so convinced of your moral and intellectual superiority that you both find it appalling that anybody could call you out on your obvious (to sentient beings) bullshit.

    Whatever. You keep on spending your (hopefully) hard-earned dollars on bullshit food. I'll eat regular beef and tomatoes and eat a can of sardines for the extra Omega-6 and -3. Folks like you that bemoan technology and gnash their teeth over cheap food are laughable. Get a hobby and a life, bro.

  24. Jason Brunson:

    Seriously? Micronutrients is a standard word used to denote vitamins, minerals, and such.

    Clearly you have issues but your brand of anger + ignorance makes the internet such a fun place...

    I have both a hobby and a life, you however may need to look into a hobby that doesn't involve attack those you don't know about things you don't understand.
    I hope your out burst was cathartic and wish you best, hope you find the help you need.

  25. skhpcola:

    No, retard. "Nutrients" is a standard word to denote vitamins, minerals, and such. "Micronutrients" is a term used by asshat fucktards trying to sound more intelligent than their aspirations could ever take them. Your ilk like to mentally masturbate your egos by believing that your eco-religious bullshit is real. It's in your head, halfwit.

    I'm not angry. I'm certainly not ignorant. What I am is fed up with pseudo-scientific bullshit peddled by credulous fuckwits who repeat anything that sounds trendy and politically correct. Unlike most vacuous circus clown-wannabes, you and the Lartard like to flog expired equines until you exhaust the other party. Now piss off, I've got important things to do that don't involve morons and the minions of bad science.

  26. BobSykes:

    A very good post, Coyote. I taught environmental engineering and science for 37 years. The best single indicator of an activity's total environmental impact is cost. Although not perfect, it integrates energy, materials, labor and capital usage. Consequently, higher cost activities almost always have bigger and more negative environmental impacts than do cheaper activities.

    One also needs to consider impacts on people, especially low income people. High prices affect their ability to buy adequate and/or nutritious food. Also, the insistence that food be locally grown means out-of-season foods are unavailable, especially to the poor. Prior to globalization of the food market, people had very poor diets in winter, and vitamin and mineral deficiency diseases like scurvy were common. Low caloric intakes and imbalances between carbohydrates, fats and protein also affected health and disease resistance.

  27. me again:

    Jason - don't let Mr potty mouth be a downer. Not sure who pissed in his Cheerios, but I'm with you. If anyone needs a hobby and a life, it is skhpcolablahblahblah...

  28. stevewfromford:

    Compare the energy cost of moving a few hundred pounds of locally grown produce to market in a pick-up from 30 or 40 miles out of town to the energy used to move a T/L from California to the terminal market and the locally grown carrots won't look very "sustainable". Additionally any large farmer is MUCH more energy efficient in growing, harvesting, cleaning and packing the product than any small farmer could ever hope to be. I say this as a life long, large scale (though once very small scale!) organic farmer who prefers not to wear rose colored glasses.
    I used to struggle with this internally as I grew my business and discovered that even though I was farming thousands of acres organically there was nothing particularly "sustainable" about my industry. Eventually I made peace with the fact that while I was providing a choice for the consumer that was one reasonable choice among many there was nothing particularly noble about what I did over what any farmer does. I'm grateful that many make the organic choice and pay me the premium I receive but I no longer look for moral absolution in what I do for a living

    Gotta say though, in my experience, organically grown produce can taste much better!

  29. rxc:

    As Scott noted, there are some items that will never be "local" for most people, because they only grow or exist in places that are not "local" to those people. And, given that lots of places are covered in snow for substantial periods of time, if they want something fresh it has to come from somewhere else.

    I like to eat locally because often you can get food that has not been bred mainly for looks and transportability. The heirloom tomatoes that taste good do not look nice and they don't travel well, so they are limited to being truly a local food. However, I accept that this means that I don't get them in the winter, or if I do, I have to pay more for them. I don't have any moral or ethical issues buying raspberries in February - it is only a matter of whether they taste good and whether I think they are worth the high price. Often they don't, but sometimes I am surprised.

    What the locavore pushers don't realize is that they can only get things like fresh food in Minneapolis or NYC in January because there exists this enormous transportation system that is used to move all that stuff that they consider frivolous and evil. It also transports stuff that they consider absolutely vital, and the tomatoes in January just go along with it.

    And when they say that they don't need tomatoes in January, I would ask them where they would get their salt? And the other spices that make food taste good? Those items are only available at a reasonable price because of the transport system that moves stuff they don't approve of.

    They have no idea how the world works. They also think that you can get more electricity simply by adding more sockets in your house.

  30. JW:

    I like to eat locally because often you can get food that has not been bred mainly for looks and transportability

    I miss heirloom tomatoes. They're not easy to find around here.

    That's the main thrust of locally grown produce: it's potentially fresher than food not grown locally and can taste better as a result. Of course, all things being equal, we're not talking about growing tropical fruits in a sub-temperate zone, but just your basic veggies.

    But, that's it. It's not more nutritious in any meaningful way and it's not better for you. It can taste better. Full stop. Localvores are fad-chasing halfwits who care more about signalling their ignorance of things to other trendy idiots. But, their money is as green as any full-witted person's and my hat's off to the businessmen who can honestly fleece these giggling twits with their "local" products.

    I don't have any moral or ethical issues buying raspberries in February - it is only a matter of whether they taste good and whether I think they are worth the high price.

    This. It also hardens an economy against the threat of famine. When your food is grown on 2 (or more) continents, it's hard for a regional drought to knock out your ability to buy food. It'll be more expensive in all likelihood, but it beats starving.

  31. rxc:

    Your note about hardening the food supply is very important. That enormous transportation system I described makes the food supply robust to natural disasters and unpleasant external events. It may upset the local producers, but the society as a whole, benefits.

    Unfortunately, the people who are supposed to be concerned about the welfare of the masses don't seem to understand it.

    So much for having the "smart people" decide how to run a society.

  32. a_random_guy:

    Our host is right that the market price is a good representation of total resources required for production - but only if the government doesn't distort the market. Crop subsidies, artificially low water costs for irrigation in dry climates, and other artificial incentives can substantially distort the market.

    If the guy you talked to has been in business more than a year, he knows a lot more about the business than you."

    What one knows about the business and what one *says* are two very different things. If a local, small farmer were to admit that his little operation uses more fuel and fertilizer per pound of harvest, he would be arguing himself out of business. So he is not going to say that.

    Sustainability is nonsense. So is nutrition: no one in the first-world has a problem with nutrition, unless they eat poorly. Whether or not your tomato contains 10% more nutrients is completely irrelevant. Valid arguments: local produce can be picked slightly riper - but you had best self-pick - and it can include interesting varieties that don't travel well. Anything else is nonsense.

    For me, the biggest reason to buy local produce is a completely different one: to support local businesses. I like having small, local businesses around, and I am willing to pay slightly more to support them. It doesn't matter whether it's a local farmer, a bookstore, or a computer shop. But I don't delude myself that the products are any better; I am paying for something else entirely.

    FWIW "organic" is just as silly as "local". Organic mostly forces practices that (like crop rotation) that good farmers would use anyway. Similarly, some stupid practices (massive overfertilization) are not allowed. Beyond that, the organic trend is nonsense. Just to take one example: pest-resistant apple varieties contain higher levels of naturally occurring pesticides, which are just as unhealthy as their artificial counterparts; more, orchards are allowed to spray certain "natural" pesticides, but "natural" does not necessarily mean non-toxic or environmentally friendly.

  33. epobirs:

    Perhaps due to a lifetime of reading Science Fiction, I think of anything produced within the Earth's gravity well as local.