Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?

We made some ice cream at home last weekend. Someone had given one of the kids an ice cream maker a while ago and we finally got around to using it. We decided to make orange sherbet. It took a pretty long time and it didn’t taste very good but the worst part was how expensive it was. We spent about $12 on heavy cream, half-and-half, orange juice, and food coloring — the only ingredient we already had was sugar — to make a quart of ice cream. For the same price, we could have bought at least a gallon (four times the amount) of much better orange sherbet. In the end, we wound up throwing away about three-quarters of what we made. Which means we spent $12, not counting labor or electricity or capital costs (somebody bought the machine, even if we didn’t) for roughly three scoops of lousy ice cream.

As we’ve written before, it is a curious fact of modern life that one person’s labor is another’s leisure. Every day there are millions of people who cook and sew and farm for a living — and there are millions more who cook (probably in nicer kitchens) and sew (or knit or crochet) and farm (or garden) because they love to do so. Is this sensible? If people are satisfying their preferences, who cares if it costs them $20 to produce a single cherry tomato (or $12 for a few scoops of ice cream)?

This is the question that came to mind the other day when we received an e-mail from a reader named Amy Kormendy:

I emailed Michael Pollan recently to ask him this question, and nice guy that he is, he promptly answered “Good question, I don’t really know” and suggested I pose it to you good folks:

Wouldn’t it be more resource-intensive for us all to raise our own food, than if we paid an expert to raise lots of food that s/he could sell to us? Couldn’t it therefore be more sustainable to purchase food from large professional producers?

We’re taught that the invention of division of labor gives us a more efficient way to use resources on a societal scale. I love gardening, but it takes me more time and overall investment to get inferior produce to what I could buy from a professional farmer nearby. Similarly, a friend once attempted to sew a skirt for herself. Adding up the time and energy to visit the store, select and buy the fabric & pattern, go home and measure, cut, and stitch, she says the skirt cost her $200, resulted in lots of wasted fabric, and she stitched the hem crooked. “I could have bought a better skirt for $50 at Nordstrom,” she said — her experiment in self-sufficiency was a bigger overall resource hog than the conventional supply chain to her local retailer. So, some of Professor Pollan’s advice seems to be that we would be better off as a society if we did more for ourselves (especially growing our own food). But I can’t help but think that the economies of scale and division of labor inherent in modern industrial agriculture would still render the greatest efficiencies in resource investment. The extra benefit of growing your own food only works out if you count the unquantifiables such as the sense of accomplishment, learning, exercise, suntan, etc.

I very much understand the locavore instinct. To eat locally grown food or, even better, food that you’ve grown yourself, seems as if it should be 1) more delicious; 2) more nutritious; 3) cheaper; and 4) better for the environment. But is it?

1) “Deliciousness” is subjective. But one obvious point is that no one person can grow or produce all the things she would like to eat. As a kid who grew up on a small farm, I can tell you that after I had my fill of corn and asparagus and raspberries, all I really wanted was a Big Mac.

2) There’s a lot to be said for the nutritional value of home-grown food. But again, since one person can grow only so much variety, there are bound to be big nutritional gaps in her diet that will need to be filled in.

3) Is it cheaper to grow your own food? It’s not impossible but, as my little ice cream story above illustrates, there are huge inefficiencies at work here. Pretend that instead of just me making ice cream last weekend, it was all 100 people who live in my building. Now we’ve collectively spent $1,200 to each have a few scoops of ice cream. Let’s say you decide to plant a big vegetable garden this year to save money. Now factor in everything you need to buy to make it happen — the seeds, fertilizer, sprout cups, twine, tools, etc. — along with the transportation costs and the opportunity cost. Are you sure you really saved money by growing your own zucchini and corn? And what if 1,000 of your neighbors did the same? Or here’s another, non-food example: building your own home from scratch versus buying a prefab home. With a site-built home, you need to invest in all the tools, material, labor, and transportation costs to make it happen, and the myriad inefficiencies of having dozens of workmen’s pickup trucks retrace the same route hundreds of times all for the sake of erecting one family’s home — whereas factory-built homes like these create the opportunity for huge efficiencies by bundling labor, materials, transportation, etc.

4) But growing your own food has to be good for the environment, right? Well, keeping in mind the transportation inefficiencies mentioned above, consider the “food miles” argument and a recent article in Environmental Science and Technology by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie-Mellon:

We find that although food is transported long distances in general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

This is a pretty strong argument against the perceived environmental and economic benefits of locavore behavior — mostly because Weber and Matthews identify the fact that is nearly always overlooked in such arguments: specialization (which Michael Pollan mostly dislikes, and which has been around for a long, long time) is ruthlessly efficient. Which means less transportation, lower prices — and, in most cases, far more variety, which in my book means more deliciousness and more nutrition. The same store where I blew $12 on ice cream ingredients will happily sell me ice cream in many flavors, dietetic options, and price points.

Whereas I am now stuck with about 99% of the food coloring I bought, which will probably sit in the cupboard until I die (hopefully not soon).



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  1. TyrantKing says:

    I was thinking about a similar problem this weekend. If I wanted to grow enough food to feed my family I could never do it. There are many reasons, climate, available land, know-how, time, etc. For those reasons, I don’t so much mind that the government subsidizes farming. It’s one of the compromises that make our modern society sustainable. We have to have food, so let’s subsidize the people who make the food so they keep making the food. But what happens when the government effs up the whole deal by encouraging the food producers to produce ethanol instead? I still can’t produce my own food and soon I may not be able to buy food either.

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  2. Dan says:

    Think of it this way: you want to specialize until you have people who can grow food full-time. But after you’ve done that, further specialization just means longer supply lines.

    You’re bad at making ice cream because it’s not your full-time job. But surely you can find someone in your local area whose job is to make ice cream. There’s no need to go to a supermarket and get the ice cream shipped from halfway across the country.

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  3. Shannon Clark says:

    There is, however, a happy middle ground. Being a locavore doesn’t require that you make everything yourself just that you focus on seasonal and local foods. So you could buy that orange sherbet from say a local ice cream store who, in turn, buys milk from a local farmer and uses local fruits (sugar is however tricky because our government policies make sugar artificially expensive here in the US)

    Best however might be a local seasonal fruit not orange sherbet (the pasturized juice probably resulted in the off flavor) berries this time of year or stone fruits here in CA.

    I eat almost entirely a locavore lifestyle but enjoy a huge range of foods. San Francisco makes this a bit easier than many places though I managed well in Chicago as well. Food for cooking I buy almost entirely from farmers or small, local specialty shops. Eating out I select mostly restaurants sourcing locally or at least organic and fair trade (coffee and teas) and though not a subsistence budget my spending is not very high either (for large dinner parties

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  4. caleb says:

    I think you’re confusing the argument.

    As an all or nothing decision, yes, specialization works better.

    However growing ones own vegetables can lower the cost and environmental impact ones food consumption has overall even if you need to buy food in addition to what you grow yourself.

    There are also other benefits: you can reduce your personal level of waste through composting organic trash, you can save money on exercise tending to your garden depending, and the time you spend has a very low opportunity cost compared to other activities (ie that hour you spend gardening you aren’t buying movie tickets)

    If you spend your saved money on steak or making ice cream, its a wash but that’s a different decision, isn’t it?

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  5. Ian says:

    I do some gardening of my own, and found it to be pretty cost effective, but it differs wildly depending on what you’re growing. A few herbs won’t cost much in the way of seeds, soil, containers, and fertilizer, and produces a lot, and fresh herbs can be pretty expensive at a supermarket. I think I’m breaking about even on tomatoes, though they taste a lot better than what I’d buy at a store. There are all kinds of things that I don’t even try growing, though; it’s so cheap to buy onions or potatoes at a store.

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  6. Sarah says:

    I think the moral of this story is, if you’re going to do it yourself, do a good job of it. What if the $12 of ingredients had made enough drop-dead-delicious ice cream to wow all your friends at a dinner party? Worth it? Yes.
    As you mentioned, it’s only worth it if you include ‘the unquantifiables such as the sense of accomplishment, learning, exercise, suntan…’
    The same could be said of nearly any hobby. Should I be playing video games, or letting someone else do it? Should I read this new book, or should I just let Michiko do it for me? Should I play golf, or just lay around and watch it on tv? It’s called leisure. Just because this hobby happens to be a job for some doesn’t mean it’s not “worth it.”
    PS Why don’t you bake some cupcakes and dye the frosting orange?

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  7. Ed says:

    What a shame… you had all that wasteful unproductive bonding time with those children. Wait…why do they call economics the dismal science again?

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  8. Darren says:

    The reasons I’ve seen to entice me to locavorism is that the specialists are focused on efficiency and not quality. Foods are bred for transportability and uniformity in size and shape, and taste falls after these. I’m relatively certain that nutrition of a single tomato is tied more to taste than to size.

    Larger farms are also not inclined to grow food sustainably. see for details

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