The Inefficiency of Local Food

Photo: empracht

Two members of Congress earlier this month introduced legislation advancing a food reform movement promising to help resolve the great environmental and nutritional problems of the early 21st century. The intent is to remake the agricultural landscape to look more like it did decades ago. But unless the most basic laws of economics cease to hold, the smallholder farming future envisioned by the local farming movement could jeopardize natural habitat and climate change mitigation efforts, while also endangering a tenuous and temporary victory in the battle against human hunger.

The “Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act” sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, throws about $200 million to local farm programs. That’s a rounding error in the $3.7 trillion federal budget. But the bill follows on a federal rule that gives preference to local farms in contract bidding for school lunches. It also builds on high-profile advocacy by Michelle Obama, who has become a leader of the food reform movement, joining the likes of Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and famed-chef Alice Waters. The bill’s introduction came as the world population hit 7 billion, a milestone that provides a stark reminder of the challenge agriculture faces to feed a world population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050. Experts estimate that in the next 50 years, the global food system likely needs to produce as much food as it did in the previous 10,000 years combined.

Amid heightened concern about global climate change, it has become almost conventional wisdom that we must return to our agricultural roots in order to contain the carbon footprint of our food by shortening the distance it travels from farm to fork, and by reducing the quantity of carbon-intensive chemicals applied to our mono-cropped fields.

But implicit in the argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a “relocalized” food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong. Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.

Specialization and Trade

Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.

In 2008, according to the USDA, Idaho averaged 383 hundredweight of potatoes per acre. Alabama, in contrast, averaged only 170 hundredweight per acre. Is it any wonder Idaho planted more acres of potatoes than Alabama?

Forsaking comparative advantage in agriculture by localizing means it will take more inputs to grow a given quantity of food, including more land and more chemicals—all of which come at a cost of carbon emissions.

It is difficult to estimate the impact of a truly locavore farming system because crop production data don’t exist for crops that have not historically been grown in various regions. However, we can imagine what a “pseudo-locavore” farming system would look like—one in which each state that presently produces a crop commercially must grow a share proportional to its population relative to all producers of the crop. I have estimated the costs of such a system in terms of land and chemical demand.

My conservative estimates are that under the pseudo-locavore system, corn acreage increases 27 percent or 22 million acres, and soybean acres increase 18 percent or 14 million acres. Fertilizer use would increase at least 35 percent for corn, and 54 percent for soybeans, while fuel use would climb 23 percent and 34 percent, for corn and soybeans, respectively. Chemical demand would grow 23 percent and 20 percent for the two crops, respectively.

In order to maintain current output levels for 40 major field crops and vegetables, a locavore-like production system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals. The land-use changes and increases in demand for carbon-intensive inputs would have profound impacts on the carbon footprint of our food, destroy habitat and worsen environmental pollution.

It’s not even clear local production reduces carbon emissions from transportation. The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser estimates that carbon emissions from transportation don’t decline in a locavore future because local farms reduce population density as potential homes are displaced by community gardens. Less-dense cities mean more driving and more carbon emissions. Transportation only accounts for 11 percent of the carbon embodied in food anyway, according to a 2008 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon; 83 percent comes from production.

Economies of Scale

 A local food production system would largely upend long-term trends of growing farm size and increasing concentration in food processing and marketing. Local “food sheds” couldn’t support the scale of farming and food processing operations that exist today—and that’s kind of the point. Large, monocrop farms are more dependent on synthetic fertilizers and tilling operations than small polycrop farms, and they face greater pest pressure and waste disposal problems that can lead to environmental damage.

But large operations are also more efficient at converting inputs into outputs. Agricultural economists at UC Davis, for instance, analyzed farm-level surveys from 1996-2000 and concluded that there are “significant” scale economies in modern agriculture and that small farms are “high cost” operations. Absent the efficiencies of large farms, the use of polluting inputs would rise, as would food production costs, which would lead to more expensive food.

Health Implications

A local food system would raise the cost of food by constraining the efficient allocation of resources. The monetary costs of increased input demands from forsaken gains from trade and scale economies will directly bear on consumer welfare by increasing the costs of food. And, as we try to tackle obesity, locavorism is likely to raise the cost of precisely the wrong foods. Grains can be grown cheaply across much of the country, but the costs of growing produce outside specific, limited regions increase quickly. Thus, nutrient-dense calories like fruits and vegetables become more expensive, while high fructose corn syrup becomes relatively cheaper.

Finally, higher costs on certain foods may be a solution to the big health challenge in the developed world. But higher prices on any food are precisely the wrong prescription for the great health problems in the developing world, where millions remain undernourished. As the food crisis of 2007-08 revealed, winning the war on human hunger requires a constant commitment to getting more food out of less land, water, and other inputs.

From roughly 1940 to 1990, the world’s farmers doubled their output to accommodate a doubling of the world population. And they did it on a shrinking base of cropland. Agricultural productivity can continue to grow, but not by turning back the clock. Local foods may have a place in the market. But they should stand on their own, and local food consumers should understand that they aren’t necessarily buying something that helps the planet, and it may hurt the poor.

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  1. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • DanSanto says:

      Maybe it’s tastier to you! I suspect you’ve been raised on mostly factory-produced corned beef, and so your taste buds have grown accustomed. (mainly to all the syrup typically used in factory-made corned beef)

      Local production of corned beef has a lot more variety, but if you find a source which knows how to make it well by the traditional means, traditional flavour kicks the arse of anything factory-made.

      That doesn’t change the fact that the factory stuff is much cheaper, though. Most people have to be relatively well-off to consistently buy food at a higher price if they can get “close enough” tasting food for half the cost. On the large scale which includes large populations of poor people (at whatever level ‘poor’ is defined) – cheaper will win out.

      Local production will most likely always be a niche market.

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      • Kyle Guerin says:

        Except that organic and local consumption is the largest growing agricultural market as defined by the USDA. This article fails to account for increases in efficiency of urban agriculture.

        Thumb up 10 Thumb down 8
    • Bill West says:

      You clearlly have never had home “corned” beef. Lets at least get our facts straight. 1) It only takes 5-7 days, 2) there is no vat, only a ziplock or tray, 3) there is no brine, just rub with salt and 4) IT IS AWESOME! There is no comparison to the “factory” version.

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      • Chris Harrington says:

        My Mother made her own corned beef from home raised beef cows, fed on home grown grasses as much as possible. Cheap, efficient, and hands down the best corned beef I have ever had and ever will have.

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      • PRice says:

        This article Focuses so exclusively on fuel consumption and blatantly ignores serious issues with international commodity ag that depends on kicking millions of fully sustainable subsistence farmers out of their own homes and businesses and turning them into slave wage migrants. The system that has also been responsible for literally Hundreds of Millions of famine deaths as the commodity foods these people grew is shipped off to the highest paying markets, rotting during shipping, on the dock and at the store as those markets saturate, while the migrants starve for lack of sufficient money to compete. It’s not like a for-profit system is going to ship all the now rotten food back to starving 3rd world countries.

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    • Gleamer says:

      I make my own. It’s very easy and takes very little time. The impact and cost to our planet is minimal compared to the big factory stuff, which btw, tastes horrible.

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    • IGnatius T Foobar says:

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    • Micah G says:

      Sometimes what makes the most objective sense is not what is the most palatable. The fact is, however, that local farming has its costs and those must be weighed with the advantages of large scale farming. Coming from an area (near the Rio Grande) that has a robust local farming movement, I have seen first hand the environmental impact (soil erosion; habitat loss) that can result from the simple-minded notion that “local is ALWAYS better.” I don’t question the intentions of these local farmers, I only ask that the presumption not be in favor of large or small scale agriculture.

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      • Chris Harrington says:

        Micah G, that is a valid issue and a real one as you note. However, your example is less an issue with the scale of agriculture than it is with the region it takes place in. Erosion is preventable, if the people farming an area know the dangers and proper measures to take and there is adequate incentive for them to take those measures. For the first farmers in that area, there were none of those factors, because the land had mostly never been farmed before. Thus assumptions and habits took root that are today hard to let go, and erosion proceeds.
        Where I am, in rural Japan, the locals have been farming the same land for around 8 centuries, and they have learned, over time, a permanently sustainable system (which is recently being replaced by more standard mechanized and chemical based, albeit small scale, methods) which was very strictly enforced by its practitioners.
        The key is knowledge, incentive, and cooperation.

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      • Micah G says:

        Chris H, I will have to take a closer look at the agriculture model developed in Japan. I understand that, being an island of limited resources, the Japanese have an incredibly efficient and sustainable local-food system. I am currently working with some local groups to increase awareness of the adverse effects of local farming which, at least in my area, is not very sustainable. Living in a tundra environment poses significant issues as well, which could be remedied with some simple steps (particularly an emphasis on growing low water-consumption foods, and keeping farm animals away from ditches and irrigation to avoid contaminated run-off). As I mentioned in my original comment, I don’t question the clearly positive intentions of the locavore movement, I simply ask that some thought be put into the implementation.

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  2. Philippe says:

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    • Jamie says:

      Here is a very good reason from the article itself: “I have estimated the costs of such a system in terms of land and chemical demand.”

      How can one take numbers apart when the author has merely made them up in the first place? This is an opinion piece replete with estimates and guesses.

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      • bryanska says:

        Estimates are the best anybody can do. Don’t forget that estimates were made to correctly calculate the circumference of the Earth based on simple deduction.

        The presence of an estimate does not demonstrate lack of rigor or inaccuracy.

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      • Kevin says:

        I agree – large scale monoculture production underutilizes land & requires massive chemical use. The backbone of the argument is weak.

        I think it’s also worth noting that large scale US farms are often subsidized and supported by government pro-business infrastructures, frequently at the expense of less powerful players in the macroeconomic global arena. “Trade”, in that it enables US corporate monoculture, is not proof that locavores have nothing to argue for, and the current macroeconomic climate should not be taken as constant.

        This article never seems to really address the locavore movement in any serious way, but rather settles with constructing a fantastical mathematical extrapolation and leaving it at that.

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  3. Anon says:

    Would this not naturally occur as a byproduct of fuel and transportation costs? I understand that forcing local agriculture ignores comparative advantage, but wouldn’t this advantage cease to exist if the shipping costs increased enough? As fuel costs, and thus transportation costs, increase, the economies of scale will lose their advantage, and local agriculture seems to be the only solution.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Transportation costs are such a small part of the equation, and the comparative advantage so large, that transportation costs would have to approximately quadruple to matter for most goods.

      To give a somewhat extreme example: Idaho’s advantage for producing potatoes is basically 100% compared to the deep south. Idaho’s extra transportation costs are just 10% to 15%. The cost of transportation would have to go up seven to ten times to make them equally competitive.

      (Remember that “fuel” is not the same as transportation. Fuel is used on the farm, even when you’re selling only to people within bicycle distance.)

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      • James says:

        As you say, potatos are one extreme: they have a long storage/shelf life, don’t need (much) refrigeration, and don’t spoil easily, so they can be shipped by rail or truck and not incur much in the way of transportation cost.

        Towards the other extreme you have for instance fruits like strawberries & peaches, which need to be picked semi-ripe and shipped quickly & expensively. As a consequence, the store-bought varieties never develop full flavor, and a significant percentage of the crop is lost to spoilage in shipping, at the grocers, or after purchase: a cost which these analyses don’t seem to include.

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      • Drew says:

        The average semi-trailer can hold anywhere from 40,000 – 45,000lbs of product. The cost of fuel, even with the fuel from a refrigerated trailer and with a cross country trip the total cost per pound comes to a bit over 5 cents at 40,000lbs, and thats with a 6mpg average, which is a baseline mpg. This is a bit off the cuff, so forgive me, but that being said, I can’t see how anything shipped in massed quantities can be expensive, even at the current level of diesel prices.

        As for the taste/quality issue, I can’t speak to that, though I will point out that its kind of hard to quantify tastiness.

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      • James says:

        You’re using truck numbers. It’d be interesting to redo the math for air freight, and with allowance for a lot of spoilage.

        Really, a lot of these analyses seem to be primarily agenda-driven, so whoever’s doing them cherry-picks (if you’ll forgive the pun) whatever example best fits the agenda, and adds or leaves out ancillary costs such as spoilage to make the numbers look better.

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      • Martin says:

        The maximum capacity of a 53′ trailer is 40,000 lbs of WEIGHT. However:

        1.) Density matters. A full truck may be able to hold 40,000 lbs of potatoes but only 20,000 lbs of cabbage.

        2.) Not all trucks drive full. While full truckloads are the most efficient, produce buyers don’t always order in full quantities, or have the systems in place to consolidate less-than-truckload shipments.

        It might not eliminate the entire competitive advantage, but there is more that goes into the realities of that advantage when it comes to transportation costs than you may think.

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      • Richard Hershberger says:

        “As for the taste/quality issue, I can’t speak to that, though I will point out that its kind of hard to quantify tastiness.”

        Yes, this is an excellent reason for ignoring an argument based on economic theory. When I buy local produce, I’m not looking for potatoes. Potatoes shipped from two thousand miles away taste just fine. I am looking for fruit which is allowed to ripen properly. I am looking for varieties which are bred for flavor, not for ease of shipping. I am looking for really fresh greens and corn that was picked that morning.

        Inasmuch as economics enters into the discussion, I want to support local farmers who grow local produce, rather than mass producing lowest common denominator crops. Why? Because local produce tastes better. Even if this is hard to quantify, the local farmer sells me something that the centralized food distribution system is simply unable to provide.

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      • nancy says:

        i know one argument that drives a lot of locavores is the sustainability argument (not discussed in this article)- is dumping non-renewable fossil fuels into our food sustainable in the long run? the authors are assuming that local food is grown with exactly the same methods as the large factory farms. this is mostly not the case. they are usually organic (certified or otherwise), and depend upon local resources (manure, green and brown compost, etc) to complete a closed-cycle farming process. i actually would not be as opposed to industrial farming if it was a sustainable system. even purchasing “organic” food from 2,000 miles away, or from Argentina, costs in fossil fuels. the CSA (community supported agriculture) that i am a member of uses old-fashioned human labor to till, plant, weed, and harvest their produce. i think that with so many Americans out of work, this might be a good option!

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    • J says:

      In a word, no. A farmer uses more gas to haul a ton of food 40-50 miles in his pickup than a train uses hauling a ton of food 2000+ miles. If consumers drive out to the farm instead, small scale food transportation becomes even less efficient. Economies of scale in transportation are gigantic, and the costs you mention apply to all methods of transport, not just trains and semis.

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      • Shane says:

        Well, I guess we need to build more rail so we can all go to the farmers on trains, then! Over the long long term, even considering the cost to build the trains, we’ll be better off.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 18 Thumb down 14
      • Kieran says:

        Trains are certainly more efficient than pickup trucks, and a fantastic means of transporting goods, but I think your figure of 40 times more efficient is way off.

        This study shows that freight trains are about four times as efficient as freight trucks:

        And personal trucks are only fractionally less efficient (about 20% or so?) than freight trucks, so the efficiency ratio is closer to 1:5. In other words, maybe a train could haul that ton of food 250 miles on the fuel a farmer would use hauling it 50, but bringing in food from 2,000 miles away, even by train, is still using a lot more gas than even a farmer driving it 100-200 miles.

        Also, if that food coming from 2,000 miles away is transported by freight truck, you can almost compare the distance directly. 2,000 miles by freight truck is much, much less worse than a farmer driving it 50 miles in his pickup.

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      • J says:

        Don’t know if this thread is still active, but thanks for the link. I note that on page 61, the report lists ton-mile fuel efficiency for rail as 452 ton miles per gallon. Figure 1.1 on page 4 also supports that conclusion. On page 66, the report shows a semi truck configuration getting 104 ton-miles per gallon. As you note, a train is a little more than 4X as efficient as a semi. That is not what a locavore farmer is using to bring his product to market. Where your numbers break down is in comparing pickup trucks to semis. Speaking from personal experience, an F-350 diesel with a one ton load gets at best 10 MPG (and I mean at really, really best), or 10 ton-miles per gallon. Based on the numbers in your link, rail transport would thus be about 45 times as efficient.

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      • Rick says:

        That arguement makes sense when we all go to the freight yard for groceries. Once those apples/potatoes get off the train they still need to be trucked to the local supermarkets. This may be fewer miles than from the farm to a farmers market, but it IS much more than zero.

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      • Emily says:

        Ah, but do we ever calculate the cost of maintaining roads and highways in the “cost” of truck transportation? Because I guarantee that 40,000 lbs of food, not to mention the truck itself, is doing way more damage than any farmer. This is often excluded when calculating true costs, but it is incredibly relevant.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        What about folks driving to the grocerie store?

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      • ben says:

        what if the ride their bike?

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    • Terry says:

      Yes, increased fuel costs would increase transportation costs. But it would also increase porduction cost. As the article noted, only 11% of energy use is in transporting the food to your market. The vast majority is in production. If locallly grown food uses significantly more enery to produce the same yield of crop, they will in fact have a greater negative environmental impact. The article listed many sources of energy expendatures to produce food other than just the cost to transport it.

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    I think it is useful to ask the broader question: Is “Local” the best way to go for all production? Should you buy local pottery instead of pottery made in England or Japan (e.g.)? Can’t your local tailor sew up clothes as good as Givenchy can?

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    • Chad says:

      An relevant point, though food is a bit different since most of what we are talking about are perishable items. Pottery (or other such durable goods) can be transported in much more cost-effective ways, do not have to be refrigerated, be transported in a timely manner, etc. I would be willing to bet the relative difference in transportation costs between a local vs non-local pot will be much less than the relative difference in transportation costs for a local vs non-local tomato or a gallon of milk.

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      • abUWS says:

        I actually happen to be in the food industry. Not produce, but I do sell to grocery stores.

        There actually aren’t huge additional costs to refrigeration. I think it is about 30%-50% in transportation. Your average “straight-job” truck carries about 10-12,000 pb;s for the same mpg and using the same amount of human input as a semi hauling 40,000 lb’s. The trip itself isn’t so much a time factor as the distance expands either. Figure an hour or two to loand and unload both trucks (including waiting and paperwork) at either end, but the small truck is taking 4-6 hours to cover 100 miles and the semi is covering 600-800 in 12 hours, or essentially, the same 1 days work for the driver. In both cases the cost of fuel/lb transported is about the same, possibly cheaper for the semi.

        I have a farmers market outside my building one day a week and a Whole Foods on the corner. The Farmers market doesn’t even come close to moving the amount of merchandise that Whole Foods does. And they are doing it with a dozen trucks and one to two people per truck, where Whole Foods brings in a couple of full eighteen wheelers a day. (Actually, they are even more efficient than that, since their trucks come in at night when there is no traffic, and the farmers market, though there early in the morning, leave into rush hour traffic.

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      • Alex says:

        So the farmers market is employing vastly more people than Whole Foods; why is this not part of the equation?

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      • Abir mandal says:

        so they are less efficient. Why is that a good thing?

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    • Nate says:

      You’re forgetting about the importance of a region focusing on it’s comparative advantages! It’s populist thinking like that that can lead to protectionist policies that make everyone worse off.

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      • Emerson says:

        Exactly. Making the comparative advantages of regions a moot point is not the best economic policy, looking at the big picture. Utilizing free markets to their fullest capacity is to the advantage of everyone.

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    • Nancy Ging says:

      No, I don’t think the “local” advantage always applies to all products, though I start locally when looking for a product. To me, it applies to food for a couple of reasons: 1)I like food that is nutrient dense; most food needs to ripen properly to be that way. 2) It’s been my experience that I have zero say in how my food is treated and handled unless I can talk to the farmer. People are less likely to mislead or drop quality for a profit when their sales are face to face. By the same token, the farmers have a better chance to get a fair price, because they can talk to me about their economic constraints, too.

      In short, I buy local food because it is healthier–i.e., the best quality I can find. That is not true for all products. For example, a book from a local bookstore is the same quality as a book from Amazon. However, Amazon can get it to me faster, cheaper, and delivered to my door–exactly the same quality.

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  5. Peter Lange says:

    There seems to be one flaw in this argument, and I readily conceed that I may just be reading this wrong, but it seems to me that the argument is that food production will be less efficient because, for example, Alabama is not as inducive to growing potatos as Idaho is. This is only a concern though if the local food movement is intent on providing the same level of diversity in food that we currently enjoy. If, instead, we concentrate on crops that excel in our local environment, then the only real hurdle would be those presented by scale.

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    • Rae says:

      I think you hit upon the basic flaw in this argument.

      I can understand you wanting to grow potatoes in Idaho rather than Alabama, but I thought at the heart of the locavore movement was that you would eat potatoes in Idaho and something else in Alabama (I’m thinking chicken). In other words the locavore movement is about sourcing food which is normally grown in your area, nor forcing farmers to grow crops because you want that specific food.

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      • ImPerceptible says:

        Sweet potatoes grow very well in the south. Short season potatoes do as well. They don’t store well though. We can eat short season potatoes from late spring until early summer, corn until fall, then sweet potatoes over the winter. Local, yummy, and inexpensive.

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      • aljai says:

        Yes exactly the article also fails to take inti co sideration permaculture, food forests, wild edibles and other nutrient dense and sistaianable practices in the ‘local’ debate! And assumes ‘local’ farming still means industrial methods but applied locally, whoch is erroneous and badly researched and reoorted!

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    • mike says:

      I sure hope everyone in Idaho is cool with just eating potatoes for every meal.

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      • Tristan says:

        I doubt it, but perhaps the larger point is that there are places in the world where it is not particularly sustainable to live, and perhaps people shouldn’t live there in great numbers.

        That said, Idaho is not exactly bursting at the seams with sprawling suburbs 😉

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      • Louisa says:

        Idaho has deep, fertile topsoil and used to grow a hell of a lot more than potatoes before modern agriculture turned it into a monoculture. Monoculture is not inevitable and it is not how we used to live- in the vast history of agriculture, it is almost entirely an anomaly (but ask the people of Peru from a thousand years ago how they liked their mostly potato diet- they used to have literally thousands of very different varieties). Farmers in the midwest used to grow their own kitchen gardens just fine until the economics of the situation told them it would be best to grow just one crop- potatoes in Idaho, corn and soybeans in Iowa. If local demand for other crops rises and subsidies for commodity crops go down, farmers will adjust.

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      • Steve says:

        We can grow a lot more than potatoes in Idaho. The real problem in terms of efficiency is that most people eat meat. We need to eat primarily plant based foods if we are going to feed the world and we need to stop the use of chemical farming and eating huge quantities of sugar if we want to survive the healthcare crisis. A dollar spent on a healthy diet is a dollar saved in healthcare costs and a priceless increase in quality of life. Our government has advanced the agenda of industrial agriculture and food production so it is up to individuals to get educated and learn how to thrive.

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    • neoclassical_libertarian says:

      “If, instead, we concentrate on crops that excel in our local environment, then the only real hurdle would be those presented by scale.”

      Who is “we”? The producers? The producers won’t specialize only on the crops for which their local environment provides a comparative advantage. That’s because the consumer tastes–which would include things other than just potatoes in Idaho–will force producers to grow things consumers want. Even if one producer takes up this task of producing just the crops which make economic sense locally, other competitors will find it in their self-interest to produce other crops, which consumers want AND don’t have a comparative advantage locally, and drive the former producer out of the market.

      Furthermore, the hurdle–even if we accept your flawed hypothesis–would not be the only one from economies of scale. If you actually read about Edward Glaeser’s argument above, there is a second hurdle: the one from transportation itself.

      “Devoting scarce metropolitan land to agriculture means lower density levels, longer drives, and carbon emission increases which easily offset the modest greenhouse gas reductions associated with shipping less food.”

      So, that’s two hurdles, even under your flawed hypothesis. Three for people who are well acquainted with economic reality.

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  6. Jake says:

    Is anyone really under the assumption that localized food sourcing means that farmers that have never grown oranges because their region doesn’t have the climate for it will start growing that oranges? I find that very hard to believe. My biggest issue with industrial food production is its high reliance on unnatural preservatives and love affair with high fructose corn syrup and other additives that help people get fatter for cheap. No one would have a problem with Cargill, etc. if they operated under ethical means to produce food that isn’t genetically enhanced. Industry titans have the power to do it, but they won’t, no matter what their ad campaigns tell you. The only way to change this whole system would be to operate under a standard industry-wide code of ethics; not exactly a foreseeable proposition.

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    • Enter your name... says:

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      • stephenie says:

        Your point about corn is lost on me. How can you say with such certainty that corn grown next door is the same as that grown 2000 miles away? There are many different types of corn grown, products used to grow it corn, and manners in which to process it. Just another sweeping generalization that fuels the narrow-minded critique of local foods if you ask me.

        Sure there are ignorant people in the world, even those that think oranges grow in the mid-west (I can’t say they’re ignorant for thinking the same about strawberries because they actually do grow here and they are quite tasty!), but I think that’s a minority.

        And there are plenty of examples of hot houses, hoop houses and greenhouses being operated without the use of petroleum-power. Again, another sweeping generalization.

        Please, let’s try to keep an open mind and not assume things without knowing all the real, tangible facts and ideals about making local food systems a reality- maybe not the only type of food system, but at least one that works to support real food and access to it for all.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        It’s absolutely illogical for someone in Iowa or Nebraska to say that his local corn is preservative-free and additive-free, but when that same ear of corn is transported 1,000 miles, it magically acquires preservatives and additives. The act of transportation does not add these chemicals to food.

        And, sure, strawberries grow in the Midwest… in small quantities, briefly. They’re called “June bearing” strawberries because that’s the only month you can expect much production from them up there, and the quantities involved are so small that most of the production is in private gardens.

        On the Central Coast of California, where the climate is actually suited for this plant, commercial-scale strawberry harvests usually start in late February and continue into November in some fields. When Watsonville, Calif. (the strawberry production capital of the world) is picking strawberries at each end of its season, your garden in the upper Midwest will be growing something called “snow”.

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      • Klaus says:

        The act of transportation does not change the food, but the long travel usually mean a disconnect between the buyer and the producer. The local Food movement exactly challenges this disconnect. It is the different way of treating soil, environment etc, which makes “buy local” a more sustainable effort.

        Is it also not a telling sign, that you are masking behin “Enter a name” anonymity?

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      • Richard Hershberger says:

        It is absolutely logical for someone to prefer local corn because it is fresher, and therefore probably more flavorful. As for growing techniques, someone who cares about this can ask the local farmer what he does. This isn’t an option for centrally distributed produce.

        And you really want to talk about strawberries? I grew up in California, and never quite understood the excitement about strawberries. Then I moved into the East. We get one month of strawberry nirvana. We can buy those Watsonville strawberries any time we want, but they are expensive and tasteless. I happily trade away year-round strawberry mediocrity for one month of strawberry excellence.

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      • Jord says:

        Conspicuous in their absence are the subjects of quality and nutrition. They are related. An ear of corn picked a week ago and transported several thousand miles, may or may not be preservitive and additive free, but it will not be as fresh as one picked today and sold at the farmers’ market. Fresher food will have more viable nutrients. One has to examine the growing conditions (good quality soil, avoidance of added chemicals) as well as the freshness (just because something appears to be fresh doesn’t mean it is – evidence ‘fresh’ orange juice that is over a year old, preserved in tanks with oxygen removed so it remains viable – but ‘fresh’ it ain’t)

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      • Sarah says:

        I live in the midwest, in Kansas and my growing season is from April thru october/november, for my personal garden. Again your actually being a bit ignorant..because not all of the midwest is exactly the same or has the exact same growing season. I can grow strawberries for months.

        And although my personal garden doesn’t grow things in the in Kansas our dormant commercial gardens are growing this thing we call wheat. We grow the wheat for the world.

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      • nancy says:

        i actually am growing quite an abundance of fresh veggies in my compost and passive-water-heated (i have black-painted pails filled with water that the sun heat in the day and they release their heat through the night) greenhouse at this point- no fossil fuel required and i’m eating fresh all-year round!

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      • neoclassical_libertarian says:

        I see that this forum is being dominated–at least when it comes to incessantly thumbing up comments which have no intellectual substance–by your average pro-rent control left-wing crowd, which thinks the infinitesimal benefits from, apparently, relatively more fresh, local produce offset the costs from #1 lack of comparative advantage, #2 lack of economies of scale, #3 increased carbon emissions — all three arising from moving production locally. (For the folks unable to stomach #3 because they didn’t read the article in the first place: look up Edward Glaeser’s analysis.)

        The pivotal point which most of you didn’t get is this: the above Freakanomics post is about the unintended inefficiencies arising from local production — not which kind of produce is fresh. Of course local produce might be fresh for a while. But at what costs? How many of us would pick slightly more fresh produce which cost substantially higher (factoring in all costs from #1, #2, and #3 above) than produce from interstate commerce? Well, look at it this way. The local vs. interstate debate is akin to protectionism vs. free trade. How many of you deliberately avoid Asian-made goods and buy domestic-made goods, which are substantially more expensive? Well, *under market situations* human beings respond to incentives, including the ones who say they support local or domestic producers (note: this comment section is not a market situation, so most of you might behave differently). Every empirical study demonstrates that people will opt for competitively priced goods and services, including goods and services from inter-state commerce and international trade. This is also known as the law of demand. There is no exception for inter-state commerce vs. local trade.

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      • Ben says:

        Root cellars? I ate 90% food I grew or raised myself all 12 months out of the year…in Alaska. And it was tasty.

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    • Chad says:

      As the above person mentions: local and organic are not synonymous.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Nor is “local” synonymous with GMO-free, high-quality, or unprocessed foods, or with small-scale farms.

        My great-grandmother (who died a few years ago) owned a small-scale cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere until her death. She produced grass-fed, free-range beef. Just the thing, right?

        It was, frankly, the quality of beef that got sold to fast-food hamburger joints. High-quality beef requires both high-quality stock and high-quality feed, not poor bloodlines and dry, scrubby pasture. But the local foods movement would tell you that this was great food so long as it was sold to a fast-food joint near her, but became awful after it traveled a certain number of miles.

        The small-farm people would tell you that hers were fantastic no matter where she sold them, because she only had a few dozen head of cattle, whereas her second cousin’s, which were treated exactly the same and were pastured in adjacent fields, were awful, because he ranched enough of them to (barely) support a frugal family on.

        These idealistic arguments always remind me how little people know about farming. I favor and support good farms. Whether a farm is a good one is not determined by its location or size.

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    • Rick says:

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    • Alexander says:

      Show me the evidence (science, doctor) that proves eating GMO’s is bad for your health. Show me the evidence that states Organic is more healthy. Show me the evidence that HFCS (in moderation) is bad for you.

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  7. aepxc says:

    Complexity, efficiency, robustness (i.e. flexibility/adaptability).

    Pick your two, because you cannot have all three.

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    • Kwaku says:

      It is ture that we cannot have all three. Eficiecy is needed the most for the country to be able to make

      the most out of the little we have in order to gain more for the satisfaction of the country and the other parts of the world.That is to say taking advantage of our comparative advantage

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  8. Eric Lai says:

    In terms of feeding the world’s increasing population, I think the key factor is not that people eat local — it’s that people reduce their consumption of (and thus the demand for) industrially raised meat products. A daunting proportion of our corn, soybeans, and other crops are used to feed animals instead of people.

    A 1997 study out of Cornell indicates that “if all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million” (

    The benefits of a reduced emphasis on meat production/consumption would be manifold; not only would producing less meat free up grain and help alleviate hunger, the health of the public would also benefit from reduced meat consumption.

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    • Travis says:

      Not to mention, it would also help alleviate one of the concerns in the article, that being consumption of more land for agriculture. Animal production tends to be intensely inefficient, while small scale diverse farming tends to be much more efficient in production per unit land.

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      • Doug says:

        Pastureland is pasture because it’s unsuitable for row crops. if it was suitable, farmers would be growing crops instead of grazing cattle. It’s too rocky, the soil is poor, the topography makes it difficult to plant crops. Ruminant animals (cows, sheep, goats) do us a favor by converting things we can’t eat into things that we can.

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    • Nate says:

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      • stedebonnet says:

        The point is that the meat production is irrelevant. People don’t need meat (necessarily) to survive. I’m sure that the Cornell study controls for the impact of reduced animal/ meat production.

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      • Lindsay says:

        …what? No one would starve because meat production drops, unless you are implying that meat industry folks are incapable of finding other sorts of work?

        I don’t know about 800 million, but if you look at the numbers of how much food livestock consumes… no number would be terribly surprising. It’s the definition of inefficient, in terms of input & caloric output.

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    • rehajm says:

      All that grain/carbohydrate and no protein? Not exactly a healthy diet, is it?

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      • Tristan says:

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      • Mountain says:

        @Tristan– meat doesn’t give you high blood pressure and strokes, simple carbohydrates (usually processed) do. Americans eat 40% less beef than they did in 1976 (94+ lbs then, 56 lbs now), but rates of high blood pressure and stroke haven’t declined, they’ve gone up– as have obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

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      • John says:

        Notice that the grain production was corn/soybeans. Soybeans have more protein than carbohydrates by weight. Now, you would need to complement your cornbread/tofu diet with other grains and veggies – including other protein sources, to get a balanced protein – but a healthy diet would be possible.

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    • Jord says:

      This business about feeding the world’s population on the grain which we otherwise feed to animals needs examining. NEITHER the animals NOR the humans are particularly well nourished on said grains. Vegetarians spew out the sentiment regularly. People who are interested in quality nutrition (that which will not only keep them from hunger, but also from malaise) will avoid both animals fed with grain, opting for pastured animals (probably local), and tending also to use minimal grain in their diets. Grain is used to fatten animals and for some reason we think it’s the solution to ‘feed the world.’ Ensuring people get enough nutrition is more complicated than ensuring that they get enough food – although, clearly, ensuring they don’t stave may come first. Is living unwell a goal to which we should aspire?

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