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).

 


amy.leblanc

obviously, as a vegetarian for almost 10 years, i would like to see everyone switch to a more sustainable diet. but what doesn't make sense to me about this quote is how many people eat read meat and dairy every day and never switch to chicken/fish/eggs "less than one day per week" anyway? is this an even valuable calculation, or just more fun with freakonomics?

Mike

Beyond what everyone else says above, I think the big thing about doing-it-yourself is practice. Sure that lady's skirt was not worth the fabric it was made from, but that was her *first* skirt. If she can create a nordstrom quality design on her very first go, then why the hell is she not in clothing design? The sky would be the limit! As it is, if she keeps it up, she may not go as far as to specialize in skirt making, but with practice she can "minor" in it and learn how to do it more and more effectively over time.

Likewise, as long as your ice-cream making is a one -off, of course it will cost a lot of money and effort. But if you make it a weekly ritual, then one week's effort and cost can carry over into the next, and not to mention the intangible benefit (mentioned by a reader above) of making memories and enriching your children's lives.

Joe

I eat locally by getting all of my food out of the trash. After all, my consumption does not result in any additional production or transportation of food. I take seeds from the vegetables around spring time and plant them in my garden. I have one of the downspouts of my house aimed into an old trash can, so I don't have to use any city water. My fertilizer consists of fruits and veggies from the trash, poop from rabbits, and a little bit of my own piss for nitrogen.

As far as time spent growing vegetables, if you consider the amount of money it would take to put me on the depression pills I would need if I were inside all the time, then it's much more efficient for me to spend my time outdoors gardening.

The food that I do buy is almost entirely local. Dumpster food is very diverse, so that's not an issue. But there are a few things I do like that I can't get from the trash, or don't get often: I buy organic peanut butter from a hippie commune in Missouri (I live in Michigan), local organic raw honey, bread made from local organic flour in a bakery a few miles from my house, and Organic Valley butter, which is made by a Midwest farmer's cooperative.

With all of my food consumption, the only impact I really make on the environment and on the economy is with the few spices I buy occasionally (I grow my own basil, sage, oregano, etc, but I don't think I can grow cinnamon), and the organic, fair trade chocolate and coffee I buy for my girlfriend. I get her flowers as well, but those are from the trash too.

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Frank

The only reason someone would avoid or pass over better, cheaper quality goods would be of the external gains they get from the process. Importance of externalities puts a roundabout in the attempts to value utility.

Simon

There's nothing wrong with doing things yourself, even if it's more inefficient. It can be fun, the resulting food can be better, you have more control over what goes in it, etc. It might be worth it even if it costs more! More problematic is the claim that it's good for the economy or the environment.

It's hard to predict whether certain actions will have a good or bad overall effect on the economy or the environment (see the NYTimes article on "green noise"). I think the easiest way is to factor in all the costs (including environmental ones, through taxes), maybe get rid of unnecessary subsidies that only distort market signals, and then just let the market decide.

There are problems with large-scale industrial farming, for sure. But neither do I envy countries where most of the population survive by subsistence farming (like many African countries). In countries with higher population densities and less arable land than in North America, is it possible to escape poverty while sticking to small-scale, less intensive farming? I think we can still be in control of what comes out of large-scale farms, through government regulations, vigilant consumer groups, and an educated public.

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Philip Ferrato

Being a locavore is about making choices. Local farmers are experts at growing things. Just buy tomatoes and asparagus in season, not when they have to be grown thousands of miles away.

As for growing one's own food, it's a choice. You have to enjoy it, and make realistic assumptions about what can be accomplished. If that means growing only strawberries, that's great. You'll probably have great strawberries to both eat and give away because the growing conditions and hybrid choice are correct.

Indeed I'm sorry your orange sorbet was such a misadventure. Just because a company manufactures an ice cream maker does not mean that it makes good ice cream or sorbet. And that's only the first glitch in your argument. Why the assumption that you're even going to get it right the first time? And yet you're willing to permit an entire chain of assumptions follow. A dismal science, indeed.

Some things, like ice cream and skirts, are best made by professionals. Ice cream makers tend to get minimum wage. That hypothetical $50 skirt from Nordstrom would most likely have been made in a foreign sweatshop, plus having gone through a round of markdowns on its "retail" price.

There are things we can accomplish on our own. Sometimes it save money, sometimes it reduces our carbon footprint, sometimes it's a pleasure. I make preserves. Baking bread is another good example. You're not just removing a basic food from the distribution chain, you're changing the chain to bring the raw materials closer. The locavore esthetic is about choices. You make it sound like the road to malnutrition.

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Alison

I have also had the $12 ice cream experience (in my case they were about a $120 quart of tomatoes), but I blamed the results on myself. I didn't know what I was doing and had a lot of upfront costs that, had I continued, would have been spread out over time. Still, I'm certain that growing some of my own food could be very cost effective over time -- I know because I have seen people in Africa growing corn in highway medians and every other little spot of dirt and they weren't doing it as part of the locavore movement.

Anyway, locavorism isn't about growing your own food as much as it is about supporting local producers who are doing the math every day to stay in business. My question is, why wouldn't you rather support your neighbor than some big agribusiness?

PBrady

You can't make ice cream and Amy can't garden. Stop jerking around on youtube and do a little research next time.

How about opportunity cost. Did Wikipedia not turn up anything? My first time, earlier this year I spent four hours turning over the soil, by hand. And another 10-30 minutes planting and then you just turn the water on and off as needed. They pretty much do the rest.

I gained four hours of exercise and spend less time in a grocery store with shorter visits and less of them. That adds up to a noticeable amount of time and gas saved.

No one but the moderator is reading this post, but lastly, you throw away a lot less money. Ever buy some produce and don't actually eat it all? If you grow and cover your cost 14.62 (post #206), it doesn't really matter if its wasted. Just more compost for next year. Which is also a good use for anyone who printed this article.

Pragmatist

But if one is a citizen of the world, *everywhere* is local!

Seriously, most of these comments sound petty anyway, when compared to the rioting going on elsewhere in the world over high gas and food prices (higher than ours in this country, I might add). Here we Americans are quibbling over the economic/environmental/social/whatever price of producing a bunch of tomatoes (or ice cream, or a skirt) when there are so many out there who can't even afford to buy or produce them for themselves in the first place!

The "localvore/organic" argument only seems to work if one can afford to buy at those prices in the first place ($3.50 for a single fruit or vegetable? $250 for a cotton skirt? $5 for a single pint of "organic" ice cream? No thanks!) Otherwise, like so much else in the world today, it becomes simply a have/have not issue. Those who can't afford to buy/grow local anything will simply have to make do with supermarket fare because it's cheaper- and only in a dollar price sense, because the other social/environmental costs ultimately don't matter when one's on a limited budget and has to feed one's family.

So why isn't anyone here talking about helping these people, making prices for *all* foods more equable no matter where their origin is (and no, I'm not an economist and don't know how to do that myself), instead of filling their own stomachs and trying to make themselves feel virtuous? Doesn't anyone feel any guilt here for not helping people who are hungry *now*?

I do what I can to contribute to my local food bank and to other hunger-related charities around the world, but I'm only one person...

What are the rest of you doing about it?

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jabber

The relative insignificance of transportation in determining a food's overall resource cost is a more compelling argument.

çet

Ike

If growing in small plots locally what can be grown when the growing season(s) permit was the "best", why is it that every nation of people who are able to do so, stop doing that? The history of food production is plain: from subsistence farming and ranching - locally, eat when it's there starve when it's not - to mid-sized farming and ranching - as it was when I was a kid sixty years ago - and you get some stuff year round but you'd better can for the fruits and some vegetables, to modern - and oh, so despicable! and unorganic and unfriendly! - farming and ranching. If you had grown up in the 20's through the 60's of the last century you'd have quite a different outlook on food production, the treatment of farm animals, the use of chemical as opposed to organic fertilizers etc, and all those related issues. And, for what it's worth, if you find modern pesticides deadly or unhealthy to humans, go kiss the Sierra Club and other Watermelon organizations; their boy Bill Ruckleshouse banned DDT without even reading the transcript of his own agency's eight month long hearings, full of science disproving the alleged deadliness of DDT.
And as far as subsidies and other government money goes, you can all get over that as well. Do you really think that the Federal government which hands out over $1 trillion a year just in money is going to stop because it's believed to be "naughty" in some corners of the nation? Not a chance.
And it's quite true that home-grown veggies and fruits are much tastier and that home cooked food is also and home-cooked deserts are just swell. If you know how to grow and cooke and make 'em of course. But those are matters of personal taste and doing those things isn't about "saving the word", it's about pleasing ourselves. No justification required, other than, "I like it".

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Harriet

Truth in advertising, please. Your blog isn't about whether buying locally produced goods is wise or economic, it's really about the merits of specialization.

As Randy (#32) has pointed out, your foray into sorbet production wasn't at all about buying local. It seems not one of your ingredients was locally produced so the finished product doesn't even meet the basic "locavore" criteria.

Tucker

A few points- first to all posters talking about seed producers, GMO seeds are not the issue, especially not 'terminator seeds'. Hybridization increases yields by about a third, but subsequent generations quickly lose that benefit and yields fall to below non-hybrid seed in 3-8ish generations depending on whether it is a single, double, or triple cross hybrid. There are major issues with how they are researched in terms of how agribusiness prioritizes which factors to maximize productivity on (they maximize labor and land productivity and pay little attention to nutrient or water productivity). If you want to go back to seed saving you will lose at least 10% of the global food supply, not to mention that unless you are paying triple price for the heirloom, organic produce you can't buy things that are produced off of that at all. Believe me, I grew those heirloom, organic tomatoes, they are really picky with much smaller yields, you need to sell them at triple the price.

The second point is that nobody is paying the real cost of water because of ridiculous water rights regimes in this country in addition to the real cost of transportation. Make the real cost of water and transport factor in to the cost of food and we'll have to buy from closer to home. Or we'll buy on things shipped more by sea, but that would require a reduction in trade barriers that those Californians getting subsidized for depleting the water table wouldn't put up with. There is no way I should pay less for oranges coming from California than from Brazil.

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Michael in Altadena

Stephen - great article, and the responses were also very interesting. It's nice to see so many thoughtful people sharing ideas and opinions about something other than how much they hate a particular politician.

T

Very interesting discussion here.

I must echo comment #65, and your point #4, which you quote Weber's and Matthews' abstract and state that buying locally may make no difference. I don't think many people have access to this article. Looking through the whole article, an interpretation of the article is that the transporting either beef/diary or fruits/grains/vegetables are the same, but the "average" American eats much more meat and diary. Meat and diary are so much more energy intensive to make, and gives off so much greenhouse gases when they are created, they overtake way too much any good you made by eating locally. Also a paragraph in their study does suggest that if you already are a vegetarian, or you have cut down on meat, eating locally could cut a bigger percentage of a vegetarian's footprint. As comment #65 says, I didn't find much, if any, word about how specialization plays a role in their study, although you used their article as support for specialization.

I would say, if everybody in the US did really had to grow their own food, they certainly would eat a lot less meat, which, according to the study you have cited, might possibly be better environment. However, practically, I doubt any event that forced everybody to grow their own food would be good. I imagine it would be a famine or some other disaster.

But anyways, let's not talk about extreme case. I speculate that a person who chooses to grow their own food are probably going to eat more vegetables and eat less meat, which itself will be more environmentally friendly and maybe even be the better part of gardening than reducing transportation costs.

Steve, I can't wait for you to make ice cream again, mess it all up, get pissed off, and then rant here and cite some study or research, and blog another contrarian thought, like for example, "You know, I think selling bottled water is much better overall for the environment." That would be fantastic!

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Michael

Those folks who are able to grow, and gather, all the food and substances they need for living are those who live as a group, working together and yes, dividing labor. Nuclear families could never be expected to achieve such an amazing feat.

Randy

I think most locavores perceive that the food they are eating is more nutritious or has a lower risk of infectious agents, carcinogens or other substances deleterious to their health. Whether real or imagined, the economic benefit of reduced health costs, better quality of life, and possibly longer lifespan thus become part of the economic comparison.

In your ice cream example, you have combined cream, orange juice, food coloring, and sugar, all mass-produced, highly-processed items, all likely shipped hundreds if not thousand of miles to get to you, and all likely produced from ingredients and additives that are unknown to you. The perceived health benefit by mixing them is minimal. This is why your ice cream maker, like so many other before it, is destined to gather dust in the dark recesses of some kitchen cabinet.

communal

Check the incidence of obesity, heart disease, diabetes...
If we can do better, healthier, why not? Because a few people would make less money? Now that's evil!

Strat O. Caster

David Ricardo. That's all.

Xanthe

If you are measuring the value of local food only by what you pay in the store, than producers like Monsanto will come out looking pretty good. If you measure the value only in carbon emissions, then French wine compared to California wine will look good too.

However, we need a more holistic measurement of the value of local food - one that considers externalized costs associated with agri-biz and little things like the nuclear waste that's generated by, well, anything that's produced in France.

The most important (and overlooked) reason to support local farmers is the social value that is gained when you know the people who grow the stuff that you put into your body either directly (through produce) or indirectly (the chemicals that they are NOT pouring into your watershed).