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 lea
d 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.


Eric M. Jones.

Something to consider: Corned Beef

Local (especially European product) is put into a brine and spice solution, sealed in a vat and allowed to naturally marinate for some months while soaking up all the flavors.

Modern Big Industry: Meat is thrown onto a conveyor where stainless steel needles inject brine and spices at high-pressure, then mechanical hammers soften up the meat and distribute the marinate. Then they wrap it in plastic and it's on its way to you.

Result: The modern Big Industry stuff is far tastier and much cheaper. Small producers don't stand a chance.

DanSanto

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.

Kyle Guerin

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.

Philippe

Why don't the guys who points out how numbers have no meaning ever take apart these anti-locavore posts?

Jamie

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.

bryanska

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.

Anon

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.

Enter your name...

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.)

James

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.

Drew

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.

James

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.

Eric M. Jones

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?

Chad

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.

abUWS

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

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

Abir mandal

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

Peter Lange

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.

Rae

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.

ImPerceptible

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.

Jake

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.

Enter your name...

None of that is really relevant: An ear of corn grown next door has exactly the same preservatives and additives as one grown 2,000 miles away.

And yes, there are ignorant people who believe the upper Midwest is a great place to grow strawberries and oranges, and who support locavore movements without realizing that they are effectively supporting a complete absence of fresh produce in their own supermarkets for several months each year (or growing everything in a petroleum-powered hot house at enormous expense to both the consumer and the environment).

stephenie

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...

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

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?

aepxc

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

Pick your two, because you cannot have all three.

Kwaku

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

rebel mouse

i couldn't agree more!

Eric Lai

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" (http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/aug97/livestock.hrs.html).

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.

Travis

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.

Doug

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.

Ted

You use Corn and Soybeans as the crops (and potatoes) for making assumptions about the local food movement. That does not make sense as those are a large scale crops. What about looking all the other fruits and veggies that are grown? Lettuce, berries, apples, carrots etc. Buying local with those make sense in regards to health, fuel consumption, etc. Sure, to get my local corn syrup supply from the farmer down the road I would need more cropland. But what about the everyday fruits, veggies, and meat we eat?

It is very cheap to truck or boat food from around the world. It will always be cheaper. But basing an anti-local movement based on corn and soybeans makes no sense to me.

Enter your name...

Most of the foods you eat are those large-scale crops. The bulk of the typical human diet is grains, not fruit. Look at the plant foods on your breakfast plate: toast, bagels, muffins, and cereal are grains. The contribution of berries, if any, is present only in that thin veneer of jam.

SteveD

I think there is an externality that you are not taking into consideration: health.

This came into focus when I read this paragraph:

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.

What you're describing is a locavore system that continues to supply inputs (corn, soybean and wheat) to the broken processed food industry. While it might be efficient by some measures, the processed food industry is killing us (and costing a lot of money in the associated medical and pharmaceutical intervention).

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Enter your name...

Or he's remembering that most of us don't live in climates that are especially well-suited for producing non-starchy fruits and vegetables.

If you live in Iowa and Nebraska, corn and soybeans (and pigs) are what your local farms are good at growing. If you live in Kansas and Oklahoma, wheat (and cows) is the local crop. There is nothing about "eating local" that actually means "eating fruits and vegetables". If you live in a climate that is well-suited for growing grains, eating local probably means eating more starch and meat, and less fruits and vegetables.

I agree that a diet (very) low in processed foods would significantly improve everyone's health. However, there's no need for these unprocessed foods to be grown within a certain number of miles of each person. California's good at growing strawberries, so they should sell them to the whole nation, not just to Californians.

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Swintah

Well, it sounds like you can enjoy you efficient, cheap, tasteless monocultured grains and straches and I can enjoy my inefficient, expensive, delicious locally grown and harvested meats and produce. You can also enjoy being dependent on an exploitative agribusiness and all the global infrastructure it relies upon and the nasty side effects of a diet high in starches and grains, while I enjoy getting my food from my rural neighbors and all the wonderful side effects of a diet high in nutrition and flavor.

To each their own.

Callenlaw

That's kinda the whole point of this article, Swin -- you, and your neighbor, and his neighbor might be able and willing to use local food, but when you expand that beyond an immediate neighborhood (or aggregate the effects of every neighborhood doing this), you run into inefficiencies of scale and comparative advantage problems. That's why the author began with the proposed "Local Farm, Food and Jobs Act" -- it's unrealistic, and perhaps harmful, to require the entire nation (and, given the US's oversized impact, perhaps the entire world) embrace an inefficient system merely because you and your buddies like your fancy grains. Since you say "to each her own," I'm going to assume that you really meant to agree with the author's point, were being ironic, and weren't trying to sound as ridiculously smug as you came off.

Pawel

Steve, this is completely wrong as you are projecting the current ill production methods of food onto the local farmer in your hypothetical. Study the farming style of Joel F. Salatin and his farming and please revisit the assumptions in this article http://www.polyfacefarms.com/

Regards,
Pawel

DagnyG

Yes, local food production is less efficient than a centralized system. That's good, because the opposite of efficiency is resilency and robustness.

Peter

You seem to be relying on a key assumption yourselves: that what can be produced in California or Idaho must also be produced in Alabama. This is not, to my knowledge, a part of the eat local movement. Rather it would prefer eaters to enjoy the foods local to their region, a big change. But what that means, as described in the dilemma, is that you can't/shouldn't get apples outside the north east, as it is a local NE crop.

The other argument, is that there are certain externalities of the current food system, such as pollution, soil erosion, fattier meats, and fossil fuel consumption, that rather than internalized through taxation, are actually subsidized. The argument is made then, small, poly-crop farms, such as polyface, are more efficient in that they limit some of these externalities.

There is, however a compelling case to be made that the efficiencies of polyface, cannot be translated into a system to feed 7 billion. Or that consumers will not sacrifice the variety afforded to them by the modern system.

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Pawel

Not to mention that, modern manufacturing of food itself is energy rich, you are transporting not only the killed cows but you are transporting the corn you feed them using combustion engines to do the work that on an organic farm a grass fed cow does her self by just walking around and munching on grass... the current mass manufacture methods are of food are completely unsustainable from that energy perspective. That is before you go into the health issues and drugs required to keep the cows alive in the modern manufacturing process versus the lot stronger grass fed cow with its own healthy immune system.

Ryan

Interesting. I think this must be directed at some audience that the author believes wants to fully replace modern agro business. I see small/local/urban agriculture as enhancing the current system.

Consider. What are we really talking about if not creating or repurposing greenspaces? To me that suggests there are a host of positive externalities that the author didn't consider. Urban heat island reduction, the clean up of brownfields and wasted or disused urban spaces, the opportunity use gardens as a lab to teach science and social design and the health benefits of community gardening as an activity spring to mind.

Moreover, many if not most, local farmers who favor this sort of growing promote organic methods. Simply subtracting the benefit of industrial scale to make claims about fertilizer/chemical requirements is specious as it doesn't take into account farming methods that obviate the need for those products.

You also have to consider that in many cases these projects are being run on a nonprofit basis, so that is a cost reducer. : )

I would also add that the author uses industrial ag's formulation that maximum calorie production equals ending hunger. But as is become clear with the plauge of first world obesity, calories might fill stomachs but that doesn't mean the food produced is nutritious or healthy. A fair assessment would take into account the long term health costs of a highly processed diet.

Obviously, we are going to need industrial agro business for many years to come but there should be space for experimenting with alternatives and assessments of relative value of those alternatives needs greater scope.

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Matt

The industrial food system is "efficient" under a very narrow definition. Yes, it is efficient at converting fertilizer and pesticides into food calories, however negative externalities of this conversion process, including soil erosion, groundwater contamination, exodus of carbon from the soil to the atmosphere are exempt from the balance sheet. This article assumes that small farms emulate the industrial practices of large farms - this is not the case: wise small farmers use completely different methods. Pioneers of ecologically sound agricultural practices such as the late Masanaobu Fukuoka in Japan, Sepp Holzer in Austria and Elliot Coleman in the US do not use chemical or petroleum inputs: no tilling, no pesticides and no fertilizer. Many thousands of other small farmers around the world utilize similar practices, and have done so for millenia. They demonstrate that local agriculture can produce as many or more calories per acre than industrial farms without any petrochemicals nor any of the negative side effects. Moreover, small farming actually reverses negative effects of large industrial farms by sequestering carbon dioxide, increasing topsoil and maintaining water quality. The ‘fact’ that food produced industrially costs less than foods produced locally is due to a dumping of 'externalized' social costs (e.g. groundwater poisoning, climate change) downriver to other places and future generations. Local food is only 'inefficient' if you define efficiency in the narrowest of terms, ignore its high social costs and shun the evidence that small, ecological, and economical farms are in fact quite efficient if all costs and benefits are counted.

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John B

Like many of the writers, I enjoy going to farmers' markets and buying locally grown food.

Unlike many writers, I do not have the ego to force my preferences on millions of people who live in cities or who cannot afford to do this.

Go into stores in New York City and try to imagine how many "local farms" would need to exist to provide fruits and vegetables to 8 million people. There would quickly be food riots and starvation due to the lack of food--because you won't allow mass produced or non-local food (no Idaho potatos!).

There are farmers' markets in NYC and they are well received. But they serve a tiny % of the population.

Making it harder to feed people is not a good policy.

Klaus

The whole argument against the Local Food movement is the assumption that local producers will be lots of small copies of the big infrastructure. There is very littel need for high-fructose corn syrup, if the goal is providing hearty local food, and not preprocessed look-alikes. f we look carefully at the unsustainability of mass produced high fertilizer food, we will need to cahnge course. The local food movement is just one part of the search for ways to get out of the dominance of big mono-crop "genetically enhanced" patented industrial food. If we do not move in to that direction we will be very unhappy to learn that we can not build it up quickly enough, when we will need it in the future.

Suzanne Lainson

As others have said, the goal isn't to duplicate agri-business on a local scale. We don't really want to grow our own soybeans. However, planting gardens in our backyards can give us fresh vegetables. Much of the mass produced crops in the US go to feeding animals or for energy. If we changed our diets, ate less meat, and maybe had some egg laying chickens in our backyards, we could grow highly nutritious foods efficiently and locally.

There are some very interesting urban garden experiments where warehouses are being turned into profitable vegetable gardens that sell to local businesses and consumers. The current business model for agriculture could be replaced by new business models that create growing environments in places never before used. We have focused on land for crop growing because we used to have lots of it. But if we focus on how to turn more underutilized space in cities and suburbs into growing machines, a lot more creative solutions will likely open up.

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Enter your name...

The question isn't whether you want to grow soybeans in your backyard. The question is whether you are willing to completely forego the health benefits of eating any kind of soy at all, on the grounds that it can't be efficiently grown in your climate.

Is eliminating tofu, high-protein soy flour, and soy milk from your (and all your neighbors') diet, or making it an expensive luxury, a reasonable response to the fact that it's both better for the environment and cheaper to grow soybeans "far away" in the Midwest than "locally", say, in Florida?

Should everyone in the upper Midwest give up all forms of citrus fruit, since hard freezes kill citrus trees? Does that sound like a way to improve people's health to you?

We once had a purely local food system. It was not associated with either food security or with good nutrition for non-wealthy Americans.

Suzanne Lainson

Focusing on growing more food locally does not mean totally eliminating foods growing elsewhere. And given the problem of obesity in the US population, the current system doesn't appear to be providing the optimum diet for many people anyway. There appears to be significant room for improvement.

Weston

You mention math based on conservative estimates for corn and soybean production. Are you looking at only corn and soybeans used for human consumption? Or does this also take into account the corn that is used to make my toothpaste and gasoline? Also, an analysis of the top 40 crops is ridiculously low. There are over 5,000 varieties of potatoes worldwide (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potato), most of which are not grown in Idaho.

You completely miss the point of the locavore movement emphasizing regional foods that used to be grown in a certain area. We will not feed Africa by increasing the crop yields of fields in Idaho.

Travis

These types of criticisms will make much more sense, when it comes to efficiency and environment, once industrial agriculture becomes either efficient (monetarily and land per calorie) or environmentally neutral.

Noah

"it will take more inputs to grow a given quantity of food, including more land and more chemicals"

I think this is telling of the author's perspective. He's focusing on the "local" part and ignoring the call for a holistic change in agriculture. It's easy to take down a locavore strawman, because localized food by itself doesn't make much sense.

If you are truly eating local, you eat what can be easily produced locally in your region in a given season. Tomatoes are out of season? No tomatoes for you. It's how much of the world still eats. And chemicals? I don't know many locavores that would be happy with *any* chemicals on their food. So saying it will take "more chemicals" is completely missing the point.

Finally, there is this assumption that food production must be scaled to its maximum to meet population demand. This idea is ridiculous if you actually think about it. Eventually the world population has to stop growing. It would be far better for the world if the population peaked at 10 billion than at 20 billion, especially if we can only feed 15 billion (that means 5 billion starve, if you're bad at math). Better that the cost of food go up now because we adopt sustainable practices and naturally reduce population growth than the alternative.

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Chad

Without access to birth control, I do not think that food costs are going to be effective at reducing population growth. The prospect of possibly dying from AIDS doesn't stop people in Africa from having kids (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map-of-HIV-Prevalance-in-Africa.png and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Countriesbyfertilityrate.svg).

Even with all the condoms in the world, raising food costs is going to lead to a lot more suffering than some pesticides and GMOs will.