Posts tagged ‘food miles’

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.

Norman Borlaug on Organic Farming

Reason asked Norman Borlaug about the claim that organic farming is better for the environment and human health and well-being.  His answer:

That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive...

I want to add a big "ditto" to this answer in reference to the whole food miles and locally grown food movement.  There is a lot of evidence that trying to get all of our food locally will actually increase energy use.  It will certainly harm the environment by increasing land use.

Why?  Because currently, economic incentives push farming of a particular food item towards the land that is best-suited and most productive for that item  (government subsidies, both direct, e.g. farm programs, and indirect, e.g. subsidized water for agriculture in arid areas like Arizona and SoCal, interfere with this, but that is a different subject).  The locally grown food movement seeks to shift crops from large productive farms located in the best soils and climates for that crop to smaller farms located in sub-optimal growing areas.  This HAS to increase agricultural land use, prices, and in many case, energy use.  More here.

Food-Miles: Most Moronic Metric Ever?

For some reason, a group of people on this earth have convinced themselves that food-miles, or the distance food had to travel from the farm to the table, is somehow relevant to the environment.   Food-miles is one of the best examples of the very common environmental practice of looking at a single factor out of context of the entire system. I have written about the food-miles stupidity before.

We actually have a name for the system in which food-miles are reduced to their theoretical minimum:  Subsistence farming.  It used to be that most food was grown just a few feet from the table where it was eventually eaten because nearly everyone was a subsistence farmer (or hunter or gatherer).  We abandoned this system, and thereby increased food miles, for a number of reasons:

  • It is very inefficient, not just from labor inputs but from a land use standpoint as well.  Some places are well suited to potato or rice production and others are less so.  It makes a ton of sense to grow things on soils and in climates where they are well-suited rather than locally everywhere. 
  • It doesn't work very well in a lot of areas.  Subsistence farming here in Arizona is not very practical, and would use a ton of water
  • It leads to starvation.  Even rich countries like France were experiencing periodic famines just 150 years ago or so.

But the main reason food miles and local subsistance farming is stupid is that it has nothing to do with environmental health.  Everyone looks at the energy to transport food, but no one looks at the extra energy cost (not to mention the land use cost) of growing food locally in climates and soils to which the food is not well-suited.  To this point:

European consumers shunning imported food supposedly to limit climate
change should not make African farmers a scapegoat, a Brussels
conference has been told.

In Britain, several supermarkets have
begun labelling products flown into the country with stickers marked
"air-freighted," to reflect concern about the contribution of aviation
to global warming.

But Benito Müller, a director at the Oxford
Institute for Energy Studies, dismissed the concept of food miles as
"an extremely oversimplified indicator" of ecological impact.

he was "really angry" with the implicit message that agricultural
produce from Africa should be avoided, Müller claimed that less
greenhouse gas emissions are often emitted from the cultivation and
transport of such goods than they would be if grown in Europe.

imported from Kenya during the winter, he maintained, have a lower
"carbon footprint," a measure to ascertain the effect of a method of
production on the environment "” than those grown in a heated British
greenhouse, even when their transport by air from Africa is taken into

Sustainability Through Poverty

In my previous post on urban planning, I mentioned the increasingly popular idea of sustainability through povertyDon Boudreaux responds to the currently hip idea that somehow we need to revert to a more local economy with local food production.  This is absolutely absurd, for any number of reasons.  I'll just list three:

  • It doesn't work.  The total energy used for transport, say of food products, is a small percentage of the total energy used in the total production process.  The energy transportation budget is generally smaller than efficiency gains from scale or from optimizing location.  For example, a wheat farm in Arizona on 50 acres is going to use a lot more energy (and water, and fertilizer, and manpower) than a wheat farm on a thousand acres in North Dakota.
  • It leads to poverty.  Our modern society, our lifestyles, our lifespans all are a result of the fantastic increases in efficiency we have reaped from the division of labor.  A push to localize all production reverses the division of labor.  Many products, such as semiconductors, become outright impossible on a local scale.
  • It leads to starvation.  It is hard for us to imagine famine in the wealthy nations of the world.  Crop failures in one part of the world are replaced with crops from other parts of the world.  But as recently as the 19th century, France, then the wealthiest nation on earth but reliant on local agriculture, experienced frequent crop failures and outright starvation.

More on the food-miles stupidity here.  And an interesting study that shows that processed foods greatly reduces waste and trash to landfills was here.

Update: More on food miles here at Reason

Food Miles Stupidity

Via the New York Times:

THE term "food miles" "” how far food has traveled before you buy it "” has entered the enlightened lexicon.

Which should tell you all you need to know about the "enlightened."

There are many good reasons for eating local "” freshness, purity,
taste, community cohesion and preserving open space "” but none of these
benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces
fossil fuel consumption. In this respect eating local joins recycling,
biking to work and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.

Actually, most recycling, with the exception of aluminum which takes tons of electricity to manufacture in the first place, does nothing to reduce our carbon footprint.  And I must say that I often enjoy buying from farmers markets and such.  But does "food miles" mean anything?  And should we really care?  Well, here is an early hint:  The ultimate reduction in food miles, the big winner on this enlightened metric, is subsistence farming.  Anyone ready to go there yet?  These are the economics Ghandi promoted in India, and it set that country back generations.

Well, lets go back to economics 101.  The reason we do not all grow our own food, make our own clothes, etc. is because the global division of labor allows food and clothing and everything else to be produced more efficiently by people who specialize and invest in those activities than by all of us alone in our homes.  So instead of each of us growing our own corn, in whatever quality soil we happen to have around our house, some guy in Iowa grows it for thousands of us, and because he specialized and grows a lot, he invests in equipment and knowledge to do it better every year.  The cost of fuel to move the corn or corn products to Phoenix from Iowa are trivial compared to the difference in efficiency that guy in Iowa has over me trying to grow corn in my back yard.  Back to the New York Times:

On its face, the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer.

Sure, if you look at complex systems as single-variable linear equations.  Those of us who don't immediately treated the food mile concept as suspect.  It turns out, for good reason:

It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of
measuring a product's carbon footprint through food miles alone, the
Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other
energy-consuming aspects of production "” what economists call "factor
inputs and externalities" "” like water use, harvesting techniques,
fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of
transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon
dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage
procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached
surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on
New Zealand's clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat
to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton
while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in
part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In
other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to
buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from
a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy
products and fruit.

All I can say is just how frightening it is that the paper of record could find this result "surprising."  The price mechanism does a pretty good job of sorting this stuff out.  If fuel prices rise a lot, then agriculture might move more local, but probably not by much.  The economies to scale and location just dwarf the price of fuel. 

By the way, one reason this food-mile thing is not going away, no matter how stupid it is, has to do with the history of the global warming movement.  Remember all those anti-globalization folks who rampaged in Seattle?  Where did they all go?  Well, they did not get sensible all of a sudden.  They joined the environmental movement.  One reason a core group of folks in the catastrophic man-made global warming camp react so poorly to any criticism of the science is that they need and want it to be true that man is causing catastrophic warming -- anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists jumped into the global warming environmental movement, seeing in it a vehicle to achieve their aims of rolling back economic growth, global trade, and capitalism in general.  Food miles appeals to their disdain for world trade, and global warming and carbon footprints are just a convenient excuse for trying to sell the concept to other people.

A little while back, I posted a similar finding in regards to packaging, that is worth repeating here for comparison.

Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish
produced. The average household in the United States generates one
less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico,
partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste. Turning a
live chicken into a meal creates food waste. When chickens are
processed commercially, the waste goes into marketable products
(such as pet food), instead of into a landfill. Commercial processing
of 1,000 chickens requires about 17 pounds of packaging, but it also
recycles at least 2,000 pounds of by-products.

More victories for the worldwide division of labor.  So has the NY Times seen the light and accepted the benefits of capitalism?  Of course not.  With the New Zealand example in hand, the writer ... suggests we need more state action to compel similar situations.

Given these problems, wouldn't it make more sense to stop obsessing
over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical
advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation
services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn't we create
development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can
provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the
nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to
conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and
distribution, with the hubs in a food system's naturally fertile hot
spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting
them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?

Does anyone even know what this crap means?  You gotta love technocratic statists -- they just never give up.  Every one of them thinks they are smarter than the the sum of billions of individual minds working together of their own free will to create our current world production patterns.

Postscript: There is one thing the government could do tomorrow to promote even more worldwide agricultural efficiency:  Drop subsidies and protections on agriculture.   You would immediately get more of this kind of activity, for example with Latin America and the Caribbean supplying more/all of the US's sugar and other parts of Asia providing more/all of Japan's rice.