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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).