Tribalism and locavorism

by John Quiggin on July 9, 2012

Salon today reprints an article from Alternet by Jill Richardson, defending local food against an attack by Pierre Desroches and Hiroku Shimizu, who are associated with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and whose work is based, she says, on neoliberal economics. Richardson runs with a fairly standard critique of neoclassical economics, starting with the standard joke about the chemist, physicist and economist stranded on a desert island.

What’s interesting about this debate is that in intellectual terms both parties are on the opposite side to the the one they imagine.

Far from using economic arguments of any kind, Desroches and Shimuzu present an engineering-based (and entirely convincing) debunking of the concept of food miles – the key point is that long distance sea transport uses less energy per unit of food than even a short car trip.

Although they briefly mention the hypothetical possibility of legislation, Desroches and Shimuzu are not primarily concerned with opposing government intervention. Rather, they claim that promotion of local food is wrong and dangerous even in the absence of legislation and is ” a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production”.

But wait a moment! When did the Mercatus Center start channeling JK Galbraith and Ralph Nader? Is Mercatus opposed to marketing fads, even fads that may “dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption, the environmental impact of modern food production, and the affordability of food”?  If Mercatus won’t support free commercial speech, who will?

Looking at Richardson’s article, much of it could be a libertarian paean to the amazing diversity of products under capitalism, and to the invincibility of small business. For example

But when chickens can roam freely, eating grass and bugs in addition to chicken feed, their eggs become more nutritious. It would be extremely difficult to produce eggs this way on a large scale and do so profitably. But it’s easy and fun to do for homeowners with small backyard flocks.

Richardson asserts that industrial-scale food production raises GDP, but the very existence of locavores proves this wrong. As far as GDP measurement is concerned, if locavores are willing to pay $2/pound for fresh local strawberries, while non-local strawberries sell for $1/bound, then the local variety is worth twice as much, even if the two physically identical.  A huge part of GDP consists of intangible values llike this, created by marketing campaigns or popular perceptions.

To sum up, true believers in the free market should be entirely indifferent as to the reality or otherwise of ‘food miles’ just as they are to the vast numbers of meaningless marketing claims with which we are bombarded. If ‘buy local’ is a successful sales strategy, why should the Mercatus Centre care whether it is actually saving the planet. Conversely, of course, those who actually care about carbon footprints may find some useful information in the Desroche-Shimuzu critique.

What’s happening here, I think is a manifestation of the fact that, in the US context, tribalism generally trumps ideological consistency.  Mercatus is attacking the locavores because they are (seen as) elitist liberal DFH types, and the locavores are fighting back in the same terms.

 

{ 183 comments }

1

Scott Martens 07.09.12 at 7:54 am

Now that I live in Germany, I’m finding that my cynicism about organic food – which is motivated by most of the same concerns as Desrochers & Shimizu’s cynicism about local food – is very shocking to people. In Belgium, that was very much not the case. Basically, I resent paying more for food that is neither better tasting, nor more nutritious, nor, as far as I can tell, significantly better for the environment or produced by more worker-friendly firms. Life in Germany seems, so far, to mean getting nickeled-and-dimed a lot, so it matters to me more than it used to. It really shocks people when I say that I avoid buying organic foods if I have a choice.

But… I do shop at local organic chains quite a lot simply because no one else sells some of the weird things I buy. Finding reasonable quality unsalted shelled peanuts for nasi lemak is monumentally difficult in Germany, even at organic grocers, and finding them cheap is impossible. In a sane world, peanuts shouldn’t cost more per kilo than pork.

That said, I do defend local produce on the grounds that it usually does genuinely taste better and if I have to pay an arm and leg for something, I’d rather some farmer in the village was pocketing the money than Aldi Süd. At least farmers in the village buy drinks for me. I wish there was a CSA here, but somehow that concept hasn’t quite penetrated this part of Europe yet, and I don’t eat enough potatoes to want to buy the 30 kilo bags one of the families in the village sells off the back of their truck. I find myself oddly on Jill Richardson’s side here, despite a disposition to agree with Desrochers & Shimizu, and the reason is because she doesn’t engage in any of the ecological arguments I would have expected and disliked. I think organic food is a scam, but I’m not so hard on the local food movement. A commitment to fresh food raised by accessible people on this side of the world takes a lot of the fear and mystery out of food that just magically materializes in the grocery stores under cellophane. It is probably more nutritious, not because it’s local but because “local food” almost always means fresh vegetables. That’s worth something to me and I don’t think it’s wrong for businesses to meet that need.

But as a comprehensive food ideology… No, I am not giving up tropical fruits or cheap ketchup.

2

sanbikinoraion 07.09.12 at 9:09 am

I suspect the really eco-friendly way to shop is “go to the biggest supermarket you can in the smallest vehicle you can as late in the day as you can”; but cycling to the 24-hr Tesco at midnight isn’t quite as glamorous as striking up a conversation with the surprisingly handsome and well-read farmer’s son in the “local” farm shop.

Scott — “organic” for meat nearly always means “much better animal welfare” if you care about that sort of thing. Of course, as the UK supermarkets have learned, it also means “I’m a customer who is not primarily differentiating based on price”. I suppose that, insofaras that subsidizes the cheaper lines, it’s another transfer from the rich to the poor, and so we shouldn’t quibble too much about that, frustrating as it may be for those who care about the planet and still have to balance the books…

3

GW 07.09.12 at 9:29 am

Scott Martens,

If you need reasonably priced unsalted shelled peanuts in Germany, you have to shop at an Asian supermarket (one with a principally Asian customer base) not an organic foods store.

4

GW 07.09.12 at 9:29 am

Should read “unshelled”.

5

Metatone 07.09.12 at 9:32 am

@Scott Martens – not to open a whole can of worms, but as someone who grew up next to a non-organic farm and saw the impact of the chemicals used on our back garden, I have to say that there are clear environmental benefits to at least some forms of organic farming – they just aren’t about climate change, rather about the leaching of various compounds into waterways etc.

6

Scott Martens 07.09.12 at 10:16 am

San@2: Possibly, but organic meat is very expensive here. If I only bought organic meat, I’d be a vegetarian for purely economic reasons, and I find animals just too tasty to do that. I do buy organic eggs though, sometimes.

GW@3: I do… They have half-kilo bags of peanuts from Indonesia somewhere at the local Asian grocer, and the price is only mildly onerous. But they are the worst peanuts I have ever consumed. I honestly do not know by what process they can give a peanut the texture of wet styrofoam.

Metatone@5: Given the way copper sulfates are allowed for organic agriculture in Germany with very little restriction, I am a lot less than certain about that.

7

soru 07.09.12 at 10:47 am

In Germany in particular, organic means ‘safe according to Vedic theories of woo woo’. The phrase Life Force is never that far away. Now, this does usefully exclude some dangerous things that scientific opinion at one time thought not unsafe. But it also leads to counting some equally dubious stuff as safe.

As long as the people doing the work acknowledge the existence of things like E Coli and mycotoxins and manage the risks, it’s a toss up as to whether the overall result is better or not.

But beware anyone in charge of the production side who thinks organic is safe-by-definition, and so dismisses those risks as invented by the Heritage foundation…

8

Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 07.09.12 at 11:02 am

There used to be a ha-ha-only-serious line often repeated in Ireland to the effect that conventionally-grown crops in Ireland still had fewer “chemicals”* than organic crops in Germany, because of the lasting side-effects of heavy industry. No idea whether it was actually true.

*obviously everything consists of chemicals in one sense.

9

Rob 07.09.12 at 11:05 am

If Mercatus won’t support free commercial speech, who will?

Um, dude, I don’t think they’re arguing that talking about food miles should be banned. They’re just saying that it’s stupid and counter-productive.

10

MattF 07.09.12 at 11:06 am

I’m firmly in the ‘tastes better and higher quality’ camp. Locally grown arugula from my local farmer’s market (I know, don’t laugh) is fresher, has no stems, no grit and tastes better than the supermarket stuff, so the somewhat higher price makes sense. Now, it’s also true that my local farmer’s market has stands that sell chocolate, coffee, and cheese from California so it’s not locavorian by any standard.

11

Walt 07.09.12 at 11:13 am

Rob, the point is that they don’t care about any other stupid marketing gimmick, just the marketing gimmick that appeals to the left. Which is quite telling.

12

Walt 07.09.12 at 11:23 am

Though I do have to give Mercatus credit. Locavorism is the biggest piece-of-bullshit idea floating around the left today. The only thing close is the anti-vaccine movement, but that seems like a bipartisan bit of craziness (I know fundamentalist Christian parents who are anti-vax). If you think it tastes better, then go ahead and eat it. If you like to buy from small organic farms because they’re better about avoiding chemicals, or because they treat the animals better, then go ahead. But as a public policy question, the actual distance food is shipped is of almost no importance for the environment.

13

Katherine 07.09.12 at 11:24 am

Seems fairly clear that what is meant by “organic” and probably “local” is very nation specific.

Round these parts (the UK) if I refer to something organic, I probably mean something certified by the Soil Association. Now, I don’t know if they are any better or worse than any other accredition scheme, but there are many areas where I have to trust the labelling, when it comes down to it.

So until someone comes up with a pan-European accredition, or even an international accreditation, “organic” seems to be in the eye of the beholder. That’s leaving aside ha-ha-funny-yes-shut-up-now arguments that all food is “organic”

14

Tom T. 07.09.12 at 11:41 am

JQ, I see Richardson’s characterization of D&S’s work, and I see your characterization of the Mercatus Center, but I don’t see DesRoches & Shimizu themselves saying that their point is meant to be a neoliberal or libertarian one. Without that, this supposed contradiction disappears, it seems to me.

Indeed, if they’ve written an article that runs counter to the general ethos of the group they work with, that sounds like the opposite of tribalism.

15

Philip 07.09.12 at 11:51 am

sanbikinoraion @2, UK supermarkets definitely seem to more about price discrimination than animal welfare with organic meat. Free range chickens are marginally more expensive than battery ones but organic ones are extortionately priced and I can’t tell any difference in quality. If you are really bothered about animal welfare an meat quality the go to your local butcher or, if you have one, local farm shop.

I do think fresh and seasonal products taste better and being local helps with this and also helps with economic sustainability. Of course it matters where you live, I worked in the South of Italy for a year and the local produce was excellent and readily available on street stalls, vans going door to door, small shops, and large supermarkets. There really was very little need to get fresh ingredients imported or even from other parts of Italy. Farmer’s markets and organic produce seem like marketing cons to me.

16

Tom 07.09.12 at 12:00 pm

Possibly, but organic meat is very expensive here. If I only bought organic meat, I’d be a vegetarian for purely economic reasons, and I find animals just too tasty to do that.

I believe this is largely the point, that we should be eating less meat anyway.

The problem, I think, as with so many environmental-related causes, is that solutions have been focused almost exclusively on consumer choices. The industrial food industry has some serious problems, so how do we fix it? “Buy X and buy it in this way and you will reduce your carbon footprint.” Which of course does very little to change the overall problem. And such actions are easily co-opted by corporations (e.g., Whole Foods). What needs to happen are broader changes at a policy level: ending corn subsidies, better regulation of industrial farms, etc. The only way anything substantial gets done is through political changes, not shaming people into buying different kinds of products.

17

B 07.09.12 at 12:20 pm

“Farmer’s markets and organic produce seem like marketing cons to me.”

Seriously? Is there anyone here who’s actually a farmer, or knows a farmer, or has lived or worked on a farm? I come from a farming family, and we’ve been selling produce via several farmers markets for 25+ years. For us it’s been the difference between making a living, and bankruptcy.

And as for organic produce – I recognize that poisoning farm workers is not as important as paying a slightly higher price for food. Wouldn’t want to cut into that yearly vacation.

18

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.09.12 at 12:35 pm

I think the following books are useful—indeed, fundamental—for thinking about the subject matter of this debate, which should be conducted within the framework of global distributive justice:

· Bardhan, Pranab, Samuel Bowles and Michael Wallerstein, eds. Globalization and Egalitarian Distributive Justice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press/New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006)
· Barry, Christian and Thomas W. Pogge, eds. Global Institutions and Responsibilities: Achieving Global Justice (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005)
· Brock, Gillian. Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
· Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen. Hunger and Public Action (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989)
· Drèze, Jean, Amartya Sen, and Athar Hussain, eds. The Political Economy of Hunger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)
· Gottleib, Robert and Anupama Joshi. Food Justice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010)
· Miller, Richard W. Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
· Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, Melville House Publishing, 2007)
· Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981)

19

Neville Morley 07.09.12 at 12:38 pm

Katherine’s point about having to trust accreditation schemes is an important one; I buy most of our meat from a local farm shop partly because it’s putting money into the local economy rather than a supermarket chain but mostly because I can see that the animals are decently treated. Buying locally offers better access to information – and the possibility that your supplier is more open to suasion than a corporation. On a larger scale, I suspect the same is true for accreditation bodies; I trust the Soil Association label more for UK-produced goods than for anything from overseas, simply because there seems to be a better chance of rigorous, regular inspections. Food miles as a proxy for trust?

20

Derek Bowman 07.09.12 at 12:55 pm

So how big a movement is ‘locavorism’ and how central is the idea of ‘food miles’ to it? The excerpts I’ve read from Desroche and Shimuzu’s book just seem to be attacking a straw man. Apparently a ‘locavore’ thinks that all (most?) food should be locally sourced but also that we shouldn’t have to change our food choices to match (so, e.g. we’ll have to spend lots of energy growing indoor tomatoes all winter long). All of the advocates of local foods that I’ve seen advocate ‘in season’ eating, and none of them advocate an exclusive reliance on such foods. And of all the social and environmental benefits to buying from local farmers (and even growing your own food), the idea of ‘food miles’ has always been toward the bottom of the list.

(That said, I wasn’t especially impressed by Jill Richardson’s rebuttal – so I guess I’m not just in it for the tribal identification).

21

Jane 07.09.12 at 12:58 pm

I am less interested in the food mile issue than I am in the idea of spending my money locally, and having that money stay available within my community. When I pick up my CSA veggie/fruit share from a farmer I know, then I know that is happening. When I spend money at the supermarket on produce, I have no idea which giant agribusiness outfit is benefitting.

22

Omega Centauri 07.09.12 at 1:04 pm

To get away from food quality, but towards the embodied energy content of food, it depends upon a lot of things. The cost of transport can be highly variable. It is true that shipping by water -or train is very energy intensive. However, if you are buying fresh fruits or seafood from half a world away, the only way to avoid spoilage is air transport. So obviously if you are buying grain, local versus nonlocal makes very little difference, but if you are buying tomatoes, the difference in transport energy could be very significant. The little bit I looked at the energy content of food, it is hugely dominated by the energy-intensive agricultural phase, and by very common extremely energy inefficient cooking methods. These usually are several times greater than food transport costs. Non think about this, which cooking method uses less energy, a microwave, or an open fire? Do you think even one percent of the energy in the fuel makes it into the food? Favored traditional methods are often exceedingly energy inefficient.

23

Eli Rabett 07.09.12 at 1:15 pm

Markets are the Tastevor’s friend. The problem with supermarket veg and fruit is that it is never ripe. In the US, Asian supermarkets, that buy the stuff when it has ripened from the wholesalers who are trying to get rid of it, provide a tastier product, but it goes bad faster (obviously).

Eli has some apples in his fruit bin that have been there since January when they were bought for a sauce. About as tasty now as then.

24

Anarcissie 07.09.12 at 1:19 pm

A friend of mine pointed out that Richardson’s article was written, like most of Alternet, etc., for office drones with some time to kill. They want to have their prejudices confirmed, not challenged, and don’t have time or energy for involved, fact-laden, intellectually complex arguments.

I think the issue of tribalism on the Left is interesting generally, however. For instance, gun control — taking guns away from working people and the poor and giving them to the cops and the military — would seem to be a rightist, not a leftist program. But what people use guns as a necessary tool in their daily lives? Rural people. And what kind of ideologies do rural people adhere to? Mostly rightist, or at least conservative. Therefore, gun enthusiasm is rightist and gun control is leftist — at least for the Near Left. Indeed, tribal attachment trumps ideology.

25

tomslee 07.09.12 at 1:24 pm

Speaking as an office drone with some time to kill, I call tribalism (not to say snobbery) on Anarcissie.

26

ajay 07.09.12 at 1:27 pm

For instance, gun control—taking guns away from working people and the poor and giving them to the cops and the military—would seem to be a rightist, not a leftist program.

But which people are generally the victims of gun crime? Urban people. And what kind of ideologies do they adhere to? Mostly leftist, or at least liberal…

27

understudy 07.09.12 at 1:31 pm

There is a public policy component, in that a number of states are providing public subsidies to local farmers (many of whom use undocumented workers) to sell their products (in competition with unionized grocery stores). Food miles is frequently one of a number of arguments supporting this subsidy. But, that supports your point about tribalism.

28

Aulus Gellius 07.09.12 at 1:33 pm

“But what people use guns as a necessary tool in their daily lives? Rural people.”

This reinforces your basic point, but it’s important to look at the other side of the issue too. What people are at high risk of being victims of criminal gun violence in their daily lives? Mostly poor urban people. Who tend to be liberal, therefore, etc, etc.

29

Data Tutashkhia 07.09.12 at 1:43 pm

It’s populists who want guns to be available. Could be right, could be left.

30

Katherine 07.09.12 at 1:50 pm

I think misunderstanding about food miles is entirely understandable, and not necessarily evidence of tribalism. After all, the message generally is that use of private cars and lorries and planes, and fuel consuming vehicles generally, is a bad thing because collectively it adds a huge amount of CO2 to our atmosphere and contributes to climate change. This we know to be a Bad Thing.

So when someone comes up and says “as a public policy question, the actual distance food is shipped is of almost no importance for the environment”, it’s not unreasonable for the average person, with no special knowledge on the subject of energy use in food production, to do a bit of a double take.

It’s also entirely counter-intuitive to say that food miles are not less with locally produced food. Sure, a long ship journey might use less energy than a short car journey, say, but the food that’s come off the ship still needs driving somewhere presumably, says the probably-uninformed-but-quite logical part of my brain.

What I think I’m saying is that if some relevant information seems, on the face of it, counter-intuitive, perhaps it’s more sensible to put misunderstanding down to lack of information than tribalism.

And when I read things that say that food miles are a small part of food’s environmental footprint, as it were, I say – interesting, good to know – now what is a larger part?

31

Bloix 07.09.12 at 1:51 pm

“Mercatus is attacking the locavores because they are (seen as) elitist liberal DFH types”

No. This paper is precisely targeted to be used in lobbying against a specific regulatory initiative: country of origin labelling, or COOL. See pp. 12-13 of the paper.

You are not naive enough to believe that the authors chose this topic because it interested them as an intellectual matter, are you? Don’t you understand that stuff like this is produced because there is either a direct or indirect funding source that pays for it to be produced?

32

bianca steele 07.09.12 at 2:00 pm

Eli: Apples are supposed to last all winter.

I’ve been buying peaches only when they’re marked “Eastern” since last summer, and I’ve only gotten one tasteless batch, near the beginning of June. The organic tomatoes were marked “Vermont” and were much better than the “on the vine” tomatoes. But the “local food” display seems to think “local” means “marked with the location no matter how far away it is.”

I heard someone, I think nutritionist, on the radio last year say you’re better off buying canned fruit in winter because it’s prepared near where it’s picked, when it’s actually ripe.

33

Jason 07.09.12 at 2:09 pm

There’s no mention of a carbon tax from Mercatus either.

The best part of this is that they basically break down the price. Obviously the information aggregating aspects of Hayek’s price mechanism are somehow obscuring key points that need to be made.

Nice call John.

34

Patrick from Iowa 07.09.12 at 2:09 pm

The answer to the question, “But what people use guns as a necessary tool in their daily lives?” is, in 21st North America, “Nobody, except people committing or policing crime.”

And even then, the “necessary” renders the answer, “Almost nobody, and not ‘daily’ by a long shot.”

Okay, maybe people homesteading in Northern Canada or Alaska. How many of them are there? (They’re the real locavores, though.)

35

Substance McGravitas 07.09.12 at 2:12 pm

Mercatus is attacking the locavores because they are (seen as) elitist liberal DFH types

I think it’s about justifying cross-border trade and destroying in-country labour strength. This sort of thing was getting a lot of attention last year in the dumber media; I don’t think the attacks on locavores stray too far from that template.

36

Marc 07.09.12 at 2:16 pm

In a practical sense, fresh vegetables and fruit taste better than ones engineered for travel and days away from being picked. We are members of a local CSA, and the produce really does taste better than store-bought for the first couple of days after getting it. (It’s pretty much the same as Kroger after that – but certainly no worse). There is also some real benefit in supporting a local family, as opposed to a mega-corporation.

The pressure for things like free-range chicken is an important push-back against industrial agriculture: the idea that how ones treats animals is irrelevant, and the only thing that matters is cost. Again, there is a difference in taste between frozen and fresh chicken, just as there is between fresh and dried herbs.

Now if people were arguing against, say, eating citrus fruit unless you live in the tropics the critiques of localist food would have a point. But that’s not the actual basis of why the movement is becoming popular in the US.

37

Nick 07.09.12 at 2:20 pm

@Derek Bowman: “All of the advocates of local foods that I’ve seen advocate ‘in season’ eating, and none of them advocate an exclusive reliance on such foods. And of all the social and environmental benefits to buying from local farmers (and even growing your own food), the idea of ‘food miles’ has always been toward the bottom of the list.”

Seconded. Hopefully, these kinds of discussions lead to a better public understanding of labeling distinctions (e.g., organic v. local); and encourage consumers to commit to a more honest accounting of the community, economic, and environmental benefits realized through their support of (relatively) local producers.

38

ffrancis 07.09.12 at 2:24 pm

“But what people use guns as a necessary tool in their daily lives? Rural people.” Umm, I am a rural person. I live in an area so rural that I have to be wary of coyotes trying to hump my leg if I go outside for a pee at night. Deer – and groundhogs – occasionally claim a share from my large commercial organic garden. The only gun I own is a century+ old single shot .22 which has been locked in a trunk in the attic for the past two decades and which I keep only out of nostalgic respect for my uncle from whom I inherited it and as a hedge against the possibility of the house being surrounded by porcupines and my having to shoot my way out. I know no one around here who “use[s] guns as a necessary tool” in his or her daily life and the only ones who even tote them about in their vehicles are police and game wardens. I am quite happy not to live in whatever rural area you seem to be imagining.

39

textibule 07.09.12 at 2:26 pm

The foodmile dehypothesis that posits that it is totally reasonable to import NZ lamb to Europe in january because it’s in season, A1 foodie quality, and uses almost-free water transport and almost-free freeze continuity, was an unpleasant revelation to this inveterate locavore.

There are other things to consider as posters here have pointed out. One thing to add, in favor of local food production is, that it somehow seems desirable, in our day and age, to live in a locality that knows how to produce its own food. Here in France, this is particularly ingrained in the notion of ‘terroir’. One never knows if some day soon the S might HTF.

Also of importance, perhaps, is this article from this weekend’s NYT investigating the quasi-total capture of the organic food certification process in the USA by big agribusiness. Quelle surprise!

40

bianca steele 07.09.12 at 2:39 pm

Marc:
I don’t know what the produce is like where you are. In northern and western New England there’s limited local fruit beyond apples and berries. Some of the farm stands and pick-your-own places have peaches, but not enough to supply stores, and I’d guess they’re varieties that don’t travel well.

When we visit California, we go to the supermarket to pick up fruit for snacks, and the produce section is literally something out of a dream. And yellow bell peppers the same price as green, instead of four times as much! (Most of the cookbooks I pick up are useless either because they throw around $5 vegetables like parsley, or because they have crucial ingredients that just can’t be found without a trawl of all the possible specialty stores.) It seemed to me that prices have gone up and availability gone down over the past 10 years, with overseas food scares, weather, and labor issues, but I don’t have the data to prove that.

41

Silly Wabbit 07.09.12 at 2:42 pm

I don’t get the current conservative/ libertarian meme that roughly says “people who eat local food are elitist liberals”.

I grew up in a lower income rural area and we ate local, organic vegetables all the time. Granted, we never called them “organic” or “local” but just about everyone we knew had a garden of some type, some of which were quite large.

Near my current home is a farmer’s market frequented mostly by Latinos (and me). Again, I imagine that the clientele is mostly lower income. The food is all local and organic and if you buy in season it is cheaper than the supermarket.

These are just two examples but I imagine they are not isolated. I think it’s somewhat inaccurate to claim that local food== high income white liberals. Immigrant groups, lower income rural whites and all other manner of folks are raising their own food.

I’ve not quite figured out why some libertarians deride local foods (e.g Tyler Cowen et. al.). Local food systems can require little to no sponsorship, subsidy or assistance from the state and can provide high-quality and affordable food. To me, this is exactly the type of system that any good anarcho-capitalist should be clamoring. I suppose it depends on which flavor of libertarianism is your favorite.

With regards to self-described conservatives I understand their ridicule a little better. Agri-business has traditionally leaned Republican. Maybe some of that Agri-business money spills over into more traditional parts of the libertarian ideoscape.

Environmental impact is a function of an array of variables and there is a large empirical literature on the environmental impact( hereafter “I”) of food. While I am not an expert in this area I think a reasonable conclusion is that the sources of I vary considerable from food item to food item. Growing tomatoes in a Minnesota winter probably has a higher I than simply importing them from Mexico. With that being said, in-season veggies purchased locally will almost always outperform comparable veggies brought in from thousands of miles away given current agricultural practices. In other words, holding constant other variables environmental impact for in-season foods will increase as distance traveled increases. “Food miles” or “place of origin” should be only one consideration.

The Mercatus folks are not doing anything terribly innovative by critiquing “food miles”. Again, the empirical literature and folks working in this area have long recognized that “food miles” are not the penultimate measure of a particular food items environmental impact. Indeed, I imagine that you could find a number of left-leaning scholars who would agree that “food miles” is not a good proxy for “total environmental impact”. It’s not a terribly damning critique of local food either; its really got to do with measurement issues.

Indeed, the Mercatus article seems to focus solely on carbon emissions which is, of course, only one part of I. There are better and more sophisticated ways to measure I. The ecological footprint would be more appropriate but there are others. Sadly, these other instruments go unmentioned by the authors as if they do not exist at all. Its a glaring omission.

42

Cheryl 07.09.12 at 2:52 pm

Jill Richardson’s article only skims the surface of the massive amount of data collected on the harms of industrial agriculture and the economic ideology that underpins it. Cherry picking the food miles is like ignoring massive corporate pollution and focusing instead on the polluting effects of cow farts. Food miles don’t matter but Al Gore’s travel promoting climate change does? There is no one else in the ocean except the tankers? The energy in ocean transport cannot be limited to the ocean alone- the land is usually taken from local farmers and farming, the goods are processed and transported for ocean transport on both sides (energy intensive) and the profits of the farmers in the receiving country are also undermined. Free roaming chicken are just as likely to be raised in a co-operative as in some form of local capitalism.

43

ajay 07.09.12 at 3:07 pm

Cherry picking the food miles is like ignoring massive corporate pollution and focusing instead on the polluting effects of cow farts.

You say that as though a) they were mutually exclusive – industrial farming is a thing! and b) cow farts were a trivial, minimal source of pollution. Livestock emissions (belching, in fact, for biological reasons, in the case of cows) represent 28% of total methane emissions – 80 million tons a year, which is equivalent to 2000 million tons of CO2. That’s significantly more than the total CO2 emissions of the entire nation of Russia.

44

Josh G. 07.09.12 at 3:13 pm

Bloix @ 29 made about the only really sensible comment in this thread so far.
To put things in clearly understandable terms, the Mercatus Center is a sock puppet of the Koch Brothers. It’s really no more complicated than that, and this sock puppet deserves no more intellectual respect or intellectual engagement than does the average forum troll. Since the Internet solution of banning the sockpuppets isn’t available in real life, the only alternative is to relentlessly shout the sockpuppets down and point out what they really are and who is really behind them. Under no circumstances should they ever be treated as intellectually serious debate opponents.

45

Sebastian 07.09.12 at 3:13 pm

I’m confused, is there some sort of part of libertarianism that says you aren’t allowed to expose idiocy?

I would tend to suspect that there aren’t papers showing that Miller Light actually fails to make you sexy enough that ridiculously buxom women throw themselves at you while you’re drinking [responsibly of course] because everyone knows that already. While the food miles thing sounds semi-plausible.

Walt, the way worries about genetically modified food get expressed is almost as bullshit as the food miles thing. I realize that TV interviews with protester’s end up showing loud people, not necessarily smart people (something those on the right should remember about Occupy Wall Street and those on the left should remember about the tea party). But it makes me crazy crazy crazy to hear anti-GM food people talk about it as if they are worried that scary science is making food that is going to modify their own personal DNA. Your stomach doesn’t let you process food in ways that let the food alter your DNA unless you’re eating highly dangerous viruses. And then they invariably talk about genetically modified corn vs. ‘real’ corn. Umm hello, corn was genetically modified by natives in America a couple thousand years ago. You can’t get corn that isn’t genetically modified by humans. Argh.

46

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.09.12 at 3:27 pm

Re: Josh G. @ 39:

The argument should be assessed on its own merits. If one can identify a specific premise (or premises) or evidence relied on in a premise (or premises) that is inaccurate, distorted, misused, what have you, due to association with the Mercatus Center, then by all means do so (i.e., detail the causal mechanisms that explain how such association determines the specifics of the argument or foreordains its conclusion: thus you might, by way of an experiment, ignore the association and examine the cogency of the argument on its own terms in the first instance). Otherwise, you indulge in a classic (informal) fallacy of argumentative reasoning, namely, the circumstantial ad hominem. (Being informal, such arguments are not necessarily fallacious, but in this instance, yours clearly is.)

47

Anarcissie 07.09.12 at 3:34 pm

ffrancis — I lived in rural areas in the Adirondack mountains and in Canada for many years. I might concede that it is possible that the people in these areas may not have really, really needed guns. However, almost all of them thought they needed guns. One of them shot a bear in his living room. (Long story involving laying mash.) Many of the poorer people depended on hunting for a good part of their diet; 120 pounds of venison for the price of a bullet being preferable to paying several hundred dollars you don’t have at the supermarket. Maybe they could have done without, and maybe the fellow with the bear could have chased it away, etc., but the fact is they didn’t think so and neither did any of their peers.

The case of guns in an urban area is more ambiguous. Many people seem to want to own firearms of some sort but not let other people have them, especially those perceived as being of differing tribes. As a result there are a lot of laws and a sort of hierarchy of permission and tolerance favoring the police, politicians, bureaucrats, business owners, their friends and relatives, and so on. I myself would favor universal disarmament, but it’s not a popular idea.

48

Hugh 07.09.12 at 3:34 pm

The food-miles issue, while not irrelevant to a policy discussion about how best to grow food and feed people, makes for a slightly misleading entree into the complex issue of petroleum and emissions in agriculture. The petroleum used on-farm accounts for much of the energy used in agriculture and it’s overuse has some wider ranging consequences. Food miles aren’t totally insignificant but it’s substantially more complicated than calculating the emissions generated by the apple my student gave me, depending on whether it came from Pennsylvania or Washington State or even abroad.

Since the instinct when discussing food miles is often to call bullshit because of an oversimplification centered on emissions (whether or not we can stand the dirndl-wearing back-to-the landers that want us to make our own maple syrup or the survivalists with a whole freezerful of home-dressed venison), a great deal of the debate ends up taking place far away from the soil in which the food that’s on the table (so to speak) is being grown. Enumerating some of the problems with chemical agriculture and petroleum reveals some less-well-understood benefits of organic agriculture. Likewise, identifying the limitations of organic agriculture, with particular focus on distribution and year-round availability, quickly demonstrates some of the appeal of industrial agriculture.

Three of the petroleum-related downsides to industrial agriculture – poor soil nutrition, poor soil structure, and heavy reliance on petroleum-based fuel, fertilizers, and pesticides – make a compelling case, to me at least, but apparently to some others as well, for choosing organic produce. The heavy use of farm machinery and the manufacture of the fertilizers and pesticides account for the emissions from industrial farming, but the use of the fertilizers and pesticides creates the poor soil nutrition and structure, and associated problems, that compound the problem of emissions.

Industrial fertilizers mostly emphasize the three macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which promote leaf growth, fruit-set, and root growth, respectively (this is a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s enough to be getting on with) . There are dozens more critical nutrients than those (boron, calcium, magnesium, selenium, copper, manganese, etc.) that go into producing, say, a healthy tomato. In soil where only those three macronutrients are regularly replenished, our tomato will be nutrient deficient.

Industrial pesticides kill indiscriminately and thus compound the problem of nutrition. The soil-dwelling organisms that vanish from industrially-farmed fields do a lot of the heavy lifting of making those other nutrients available by bringing them to the topsoil from the subsoil. The channels that some of these critters, like worms, make in turn create spaces for healthy root growth, which encourages plants to seek nutrients a little deeper in the soil. An added advantage of these soil structure processes is that the soil can hold more water. This might at first seem great for the plants only, but it has larger benefits as well. In heavy rain, the topsoil, rather than washing away, stays put. If the soil isn’t managed well and the crops are fed with a narrow range of nutrients, soil erosion becomes a problem since the water has no way to percolate into the ground and the plant roots are too shallow to hold soil particles in place. On a small scale, you get a basement flooding in a mild thunderstorm because the soil around the house is compacted from recent construction or renovation. On a large scale, you get the devastating floods in the central United States in the summer of 2011. After the rain, the soil is even more nutritionally void than it started out.

Sure, when you want a ripe tomato in Washington, DC in January, you are going to either have to settle for something picked green, ripened with ethylene gas, and trucked in from somewhere else where tomatoes grow in January but not close enough to transport them ripe . OR you have to pay for the extra costs of a local farmer keeping a greenhouse or hydroponic growing operation going nearby, so the tomato can be ripened in situ. Or you can have canned last seasons tomatoes if you thought ahead (not so good if you want a BLT, though). Or you can use canned tomatoes from the store (ditto).

In the end, I’d rather spend a few more cents or dollars on a vitamin supplement that gave me 100% of my RDA of calcium than one that gave me 50% (of course, I could just eat some fruit). Just so, I’d rather my homegrown or store/market- bought tomato have all the macro and micronutrients available to it in healthy soil and I can therefore justify paying a bit more for it on similar grounds. Eating better overall might just possibly save me some money on medical expenses down the line, too. If I pay more for better nutrition, I may also get a better tasting tomato anyway. And if the soil conditions that produced my better tasting tomato help retain water in the soil and preserve topsoil, I can think of that as money less likely to have to be spent shop-vacuuming my basement after it rains. Or, since I bought, rather than grew, this tomato, I can think of it as less money FEMA needs to spend trying to save poorly managed agricultural land when it is under 10 feet of water from heavy rain and melting snow. And since I’d rather that everyone’s food be maximally nutritious and that as little land as possible was submerged by flooding, I would be delighted if policy makers and wonks took all this stuff into account when they debate food miles and are tempted to dismiss organic and local agriculture as bullshit.

I’m confining myself to produce here because I don’t eat meat, dairy, or eggs, and I do grow vegetables and fruit. Similar concerns do, however, apply to industrial meat and dairy production as well as major concerns about animal welfare, worker safety (libertarianism and the workplace, what?), and food contamination.

At any rate, I don’t see the need to choose between a tribe that wears dirndls and babbles quaintly about rural agrarianism and vaguely about “spirit energy” and one that dismisses out of hand that there is any tangible or demonstrable value to organic agricultural practice. There are plenty of tangibles to work with.

49

Pete 07.09.12 at 3:40 pm

The thing about locavorism is that the amount of food that can be grown “nearby” is fairly fixed, unless you’re actually switching gardens to food production. In the extreme case, recall that 40s Britain was suddenly under the constraint of nearly no imported food, and that was extremely hard to manage. In 2010s Britain, there isn’t enough food for everyone to eat only locally, so explicitly choosing it must simply displace someone else into importing a replacement.

(Less so if you’re actually changing your diet; eliminating NZ lamb probably reduces the miles quite a lot quite easily, whereas eliminating imported citrus is much harder)

50

phosphorious 07.09.12 at 3:41 pm

I’m confused, is there some sort of part of libertarianism that says you aren’t allowed to expose idiocy?

I had thought that there was. For example, libertarians are against the sort of government regulation that would prevent homeopathic remedies from being sold as genuine cures. If people are willing to purchase it, libertarians are willing to defend it.

Except local produce. . . this needs to be defeated, and now!

51

Silly Wabbit 07.09.12 at 3:58 pm

“I’m confused, is there some sort of part of libertarianism that says you aren’t allowed to expose idiocy?”

My critique is essentially that the Mercatus article is that is essentially shadowboxing and is not informed by the existing literature on environmental accounting; the latter is a major problem with the piece. There are probably a few people who fetishize “food miles” but there is no one with an informed opinion who would suggest that food miles are a good proxy for environmental impact. There is a massive and robust empirical literature on environmental accounting that the authors do not access. This glaring omission makes this article an enormous waste of time to anyone who is even remotely informed on this issue. Quite frankly, it’s lazy scholarship that would be rejected by almost any peer-reviewed journal.

Put the search terms “ecological footprint” and “agriculture” in google scholar and you will get 14k hits. Replace “ecological footprint” with “environmental accounting” and there are 5.9K hits. Granted, most of these are false positives (in other words not directly relevant to the current discussion) but there are probably at least several hundred articles that the authors should have looked at and at least a few dozen that should have been used to inform their analysis.

The author’s are not wrong to say that food miles are a poor instrument to measure environmental impact and that food miles may be used in a misleading fashion in advertising. My point is that this finding is not interesting or innovative. Any undergraduate in an environmental/ecological/ natural resources economics, environmental sociology or environmental studies program could tell you the same thing. Its not innovative or interesting and ultimately it makes this article rather pointless.

This is one of the the major reasons why I generally avoid scholarship that comes from think tanks. The scholarship typically 1) engages in shadowboxing 2) is not innovative because it 3) ignores relevant literature.

The authors suggest that we need “valid indicators” of sustainable development. There are much better indicators than food miles and no one who knows what they are talking about would suggest that food miles are the penultimate indicator of sustainable development. The ecological footprint has existed since the 1990s and is a much better indicator but there are many others.

Okay rant over. Thanks to any and all who have humored me……I won’t reply to any responses as I have run out of my weekly ration of blogtime already…..

52

Cheryl 07.09.12 at 4:11 pm

Another cost that should be linked to food miles is that of food-borne illnesses (E coli, salmonella etc). The bacterial load increases during the transportation. Poorly packed trucks can spread bacteria along the journey. Zoonoses can also spread during road transport. The taxpayer often has to pay for these health costs.

53

Pat 07.09.12 at 4:16 pm

Scott, that’s a function of Germans’ neuroses about Zauberheit more than anything else. They love their <>, though, you’re right about that.

On peanuts, I’m completely perplexed: I found them ridiculously cheap at Lido. Since returning to the States I’ve been unable to find a can/jar of them as affordably as I did there. I don’t know if you need them in significant bulk, or if we simply have different understandings of what counts as quality peanuts (either is possible), but I’m not sure what’s giving you problems.

54

Pat 07.09.12 at 4:18 pm

… that was supposed to read “They love their Bio, though…”. Not sure why it got cut off.

55

Sebastian 07.09.12 at 4:30 pm

“There are probably a few people who fetishize “food miles” but there is no one with an informed opinion who would suggest that food miles are a good proxy for environmental impact.”

There are lots of people without informed opinions on lots of topics, from food miles to economic austerity (see German chancellors!) to vaccines to genetically modified food. Sometimes it is good to debunk stupidity for the sake of the not-so-informed opinion. A sad fact of the tribalism noted in this post is that we often can’t count on the people on ‘our’ side to do the debunking. They often don’t want to do it for various reasons–debunking the other side is ‘more’ important, good debunking of our side will tend to strengthen the ‘bad’ side, the ‘bad’ side will misuse my good debunking, etc etc.

In practical reality if you want to see good critique of actual environmentalist stupidity, you normally have to get it from a more right leaning source because the more left leaning sources are going to feel constrained by tribalism. If you want to see a good critique of actual market failures, you normally have to get it from a more left leaning source because the right leaning sources are going to feel constrained by tribalism.

Now before someone tries to completely sidetrack my point by noticing (correctly) that at the moment the right does it worse, I’m aware of that. But tribal discounting of outside reports is a *human* trait, not a right-wing trait.

If you’re going to relentlessly ignore sources from ‘the wrong side’ a la Josh G (currently at #44 but knowing the numbering system who knows where it will end up) you’re not going to end up as one of the informed opinions.

56

bianca steele 07.09.12 at 4:56 pm

Sebastian,
Unfortunately, at the moment, rather than each side presenting new ideas and critiquing the other group’s ideas more or less sensibly, it seems almost like we’re accepting the idea that the left proposes and the right disposes (and then the left implements no more than the right can accept[1]). Which is clearly not the same thing.

[1] And then the right complains that since the left implemented it, it has to be rolled back, and by the way, the whole system was wrong and let’s roll that back too, but leave it for now.

57

Tom 07.09.12 at 5:17 pm

Livestock emissions (belching, in fact, for biological reasons, in the case of cows) represent 28% of total methane emissions – 80 million tons a year, which is equivalent to 2000 million tons of CO2. That’s significantly more than the total CO2 emissions of the entire nation of Russia.

Citation, please? This sounds like bullshit, frankly, and an opening for someone to make some stupid arguments about climate change. “We shouldn’t have to force factories to regulate emissions as long as there are cow farts.”

58

Barry 07.09.12 at 5:20 pm

Sebastian 07.09.12 at 3:13 pm

” Walt, the way worries about genetically modified food get expressed is almost as bullshit as the food miles thing. I realize that TV interviews with protester’s end up showing loud people, not necessarily smart people (something those on the right should remember about Occupy Wall Street and those on the left should remember about the tea party). “

This is true, but we’ve seen a wave of TP politicians elected to actual office, so we have far more data on what the effects of the Tea Party are.

59

Sebastian 07.09.12 at 5:23 pm

Bianca, I don’t accept that framework, but even if I did it would still be on a case by case basis. (Again see German chancellors and economic austerity plans, surely you don’t count that as a proposal from the left?).

Locavorism doesn’t hold up well on inspection. That information came from some people vaguely on the right but appears to be accurate. We can either accept that information, critique that information, or reject that information.

A fair number of people above seem to want to reject that information out of tribalism.

60

Gary 07.09.12 at 5:30 pm

“Haw haw, look at the dumb liberal, paying twice as much for that organic local tomato! It’s the same thing anyways. They’re not actually doing anything.”
” Haw haw, lookit the dumb liberal. That hybrid/electric car is just as bad for the environment as my SUV! They’re not “saving the earth”, but they’re so smug about it.”
“That high speed train has the same carbon footprint as a highway full of cars! Haw haw, lookit the dumb liberal.”
Etc.

Saying “haw haw, lookit the dumb liberal” is more important than the accuracy of any of those statements (which may even be partly true when looked at with a particular spin, which is of course the spin the libertarian press will apply)

61

Barry 07.09.12 at 5:30 pm

Patrick S. O’Donnell 07.09.12 at 3:27 pm

“Otherwise, you indulge in a classic (informal) fallacy of argumentative reasoning, namely, the circumstantial ad hominem. (Being informal, such arguments are not necessarily fallacious, but in this instance, yours clearly is.)”

Please note that an ad hominem argument is one which relies on an irrelevant characteristic, not a relevant one. To the extent that the Mercatus Center is a junk science brothel, the argument that somebody is from the Mercatus Center is not ad hominem.

62

parsimon 07.09.12 at 5:37 pm

A sidebar: John Quiggin, I wish you’d linked to the original Richardson piece at Alternet, rather to the Salon reprint.

63

Kukai 07.09.12 at 5:47 pm

While Locavorism’s current excuses are a bit twee, there are other, far more interesting arguments to be made for local produce.

Consider a business model such as an existing restaurant and its suppliers. Outfits like Sysco dominate this market in the USA. The truck arrives every morning, offload boxes full of wholesale product, usually on a recurring basis.

Consider an old shopping mall, converted piecemeal to a hydroponic operation. It takes approximately 85 days from planting a beefsteak tomato to fruit maturity. Now the business model becomes a futures market, with options for delivery. If a restaurant can accept four kilos of tomatoes per day, the hydroponic operator can plan accordingly.

I choose the restaurant model because the mark-up percentage will support the admittedly higher cost of production. Yet that tomato will vine ripen to full maturity, producing a better product than Sysco’s tasteless pink musket ball.

64

bianca steele 07.09.12 at 5:52 pm

Sebastian: I don’t accept that framework, but

Okay, if the framework is just there for structuring the way you think. But if it’s structuring the way other people think, or if it (empirically) describes what’s actually happening in 2012 better than another explanation, it’s not really a “framework,” is it? IOW, what difference does it make whether or not you accept it as true?

Suppose people (PPL) propose an idea, say “eat locally.” Is it demolished if two people (2P) write a “convincing” essay that argues against PPL’s idea? Are PPL then required to sit back and give up on the whole thing, lest 2P ridicule them? Are PPL being “tribalistic” if they don’t?

What if PPL writes an essay, in response to 2P’s, arguing in favor of PPL’s idea? What makes this tribalistic? If they use even a single idea 2P haven’t rejected as unusable by 2P themselves? (Why would it be more tribalistic to share ideas with 2P than to refuse to share?) The fact that they take P2 seriously even for the moment it takes to write against them? Writing a new argument instead of merely responding to P2 point by point (why do this if P2 are only reacting to PPL in the first place)?

Maybe you get why the OP is calling PPL, in this case, exactly as tribalistic as P2 is being here, but I don’t. (Is it because “eat local” is really a right-wing idea? That seems too simple. And then we’ve gone full circle, because is “really right-wing” based on a framework, or is it based on a survey of people who believe “eat local”?)

(Probably that could be clearer, but I’m past due for lunch.)

65

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.09.12 at 5:58 pm

“The circumstantial ad hominem argument is the questioning or criticizing of the person circumstances of an arguer, allegedly revealed, for example, in his actions, affiliations, or previous commitments….” This type of argument “is said to occur when the critic questions the sincerity or objectivity of an arguer or suggesting that the arguer has something to gain by supporting the argument he has advocated. The argument has sometimes been called “poisoning the well,” because it suggest that the arguer attacked has a hidden agenda–is supporting his side of the argument for personal gain or for other private and concealed reasons–and therefore cannot be trusted as a fair or reasonable exponent of an argument on this, or indeed, on any, issue.” That comes courtesy of Douglas Walton, one of the foremost authorities on the informal fallicies and indeed informal logic.

The characteristic you cite is not relevant unless you can demonstrate (an argument analysis is required here: e.g., demonstrate the use of ‘junk science’ in their article) precisely in which way it impacts the argument, as I noted above. The argument is found in their book as well, published by PublicAffairs (sic): how is that relevant to their argument? PublicAffairs does not have a reputation for publishing “junk science,” in fact, they have a nice track record for publishing worthwhile books. Again, the argument is presumptively innocent unless you can explain precisely what parts of it demonstrate a fealty to the Mercatus Center that acc0unt for the specifics of an argument that cannot stand by its own merits. If the selfsame argument can stand alone or apart from affiliation with the Center, what does that tell you?

In short, it remains an abusive ad hominem to dismiss their argument merely on the basis of their affiliation here, or because of its origins (oh, perhaps we could raise the genetic fallacy as well!), which is exactly what Josh G. did above.

66

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.09.12 at 5:59 pm

erratum “personal circumstances of an arguer….”

67

Marc 07.09.12 at 6:00 pm

@40: The supply of local fruit is limited, but in season it can be very good. The regional differences are much more cultural than a matter of commercial farming. In New England you can get very good seafood (expected), but because there is a lot of demand for Italian food we could also get cheap artichokes. In Texas and the southwest, Mexican food is popular and things like red bell peppers are cheaper. In the midwest you can get these things but they are costly.

@57: I know a lot of people who buy food from farmers markets or who are members of a farmshare. I’ve never heard any of them talk about lower greenhouse gas emissions; it’s about getting fresh food, supporting family farms, or getting organic produce. It is important to criticize people for things that they actually believe or value.

68

bianca steele 07.09.12 at 6:21 pm

I suppose it’s possible that around here there’s a market for large quantities of California nectarines that taste like cardboard, and that the higher price for the large quantities of supposedly tree-ripened fruit doesn’t mean anything. (I suppose eventually it ripens into at least mushiness, but you try leaving a pile of fruit on the countertop and telling a three year old she can’t eat it yet.)

In circles I’ve been in where carbon footprints and such are discussed, local food and farm coops are brought up as solutions, yes. Where I live, it is a bit of a drive, but it is also “closely settled” around here so it might be less than in other places. (On the other hand, there’s lots of farmland 20-30 miles away that was abandoned 150-200 years ago and that might benefit from a modern backhoe, short growing season or not.)

Where does the fruit come from in Ohio? By river? I seem to remember reading that most food is shipped within the US by truck. (It’s not coming from SoCal to Boston by boat, I’m pretty sure.)

Maybe there are Massachusetts regulations that are preventing much better and cheaper fruit and produce for reasons I don’t know about. That’s one problem with discussing details on this Internet thingie. Everyone knows there are cultural reasons for more regulation here. OTOH maybe there aren’t.

69

adam.smith (was Sebastian(1)) 07.09.12 at 6:43 pm

I can only second, third etc. the people who wonder about this bizarre strawman that locavores get turned into. I’ve lived in Berkeley, Boulder, and the North Side of Chicago, so I’ve seen and talked to my share of hardcore locavores: When you talk to them, they’ll mention concerns about the local agricultural landscape, supporting local business, knowing your food producer, quality of food, diversity of crops, general distrust of large agribusiness… etc. Food miles is something that rarely comes up, and even more rarely does it come up as a direct proxy for CO2 emissions.

70

gman 07.09.12 at 6:47 pm

“If you’re going to relentlessly ignore sources from ‘the wrong side’ a la Josh G (currently at #44 but knowing the numbering system who knows where it will end up) you’re not going to end up as one of the informed opinions.”

Mercatus, Heritage, AEI and there ilk should never have the funders agenda or track record pointed out.

It is they who saved us from Iraqs WMD threat. Saved us from wasting money on phantom global menace of global warming. Reassured us that the banking system was over regulated and was very safe in 2007. The “experts” cloistered there bravely made the DOW 36k call in 1999 followed by the dire warning of hyperinflation in 2009.

Ignore the brilliant, intellectually honest and objective work at your own peril!

71

Bloix 07.09.12 at 6:48 pm

PS- John, you say that “Although they briefly mention the hypothetical possibility of legislation, Desroches and Shimuzu are not primarily concerned with opposing government intervention.”

You are clearly not familiar with the standard structure of phony think-tank policy documents. These are designed to look and feel like real public policy papers so that they will pass muster under all but the most suspicious scrutiny. Then this paper can be quoted, footnoted, used to support talking points, ad infinitem, by lobbyists, columnists, and others who do the actual PR work.

So, when a lobbyist is talking to a legislative aide about country of origin labelling, he can now say, “you know, this whole locavore thing is a load of crap, there’s scientific proof that inefficient localized food production actually increases energy use. It creates less CO2 to ship a tomato from California to Maine than to grow that same tomato in Maine. I’ll send you a paper.” The aide will never read the paper, but the lobbyist has his talking point.

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Patrick from Iowa 07.09.12 at 6:50 pm

So, Anarchissie, when you said, “But what people use guns as a necessary tool in their daily lives? Rural people,” what you mean was that some rural people keep guns around because they–sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly–believe that there are circumstances in which they might need guns.

Based on what I see in Iowa, I’m pretty sure that. empirically speaking, very, very few people–rural or urban–need a gun in their daily lives.

Do not get me wrong: I believe people in rural areas, and other people for whom hunting is a cultural imperative should be able to do so freely, as long as they don’t behave like this guy: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_lAvoWe81Wts/TDJ7qXObUMI/AAAAAAAAAF8/jeMQjg7I4oM/s1600/GW-WipedOut763.jpg.

73

Theophylact 07.09.12 at 7:07 pm

Tom @ #55:

<Livestock emissions (belching, in fact, for biological reasons, in the case of cows) represent 28% of total methane emissions – 80 million tons a year, which is equivalent to 2000 million tons of CO2. That’s significantly more than the total CO2 emissions of the entire nation of Russia.

Citation, please? This sounds like bullshit, frankly, and an opening for someone to make some stupid arguments about climate change. “We shouldn’t have to force factories to regulate emissions as long as there are cow farts.”

I can’t verify off the top of my head the exact numbers for the volume of cow farts, but the 20-year global-warming potential of methane is 72 times that of carbon dioxide.

74

donquijoterocket 07.09.12 at 7:20 pm

Sebastian- event hough I agree with your general point that the genetic modification done to food crops does not alter the basic nature of the plant in question. That said I think there’s a significant difference between the sort of genetic modification done by Monsanto or any of the large agribusiness corporations and the selective breeding done by indigenous farmers to turn teosinte into what we call corn in all its variety today. They messed with the external expression of genetic differences but not with the genetic material itself. As far as I’m concerned the biggest difference in taste lies in the varieties cultivated.Heirloom tomatoes for instance were never intended to be machine harvested nor transported long distances so they did not have to be crossed with baseballs. taste and texture could become more primary concerns and targets for breeders. Self-reliance and personal responsibility are large portions of locally or individually grown food. I’ve heard lots of stories of how kitchen gardens,often large ones, made all the difference to families and whole communities in the depression days up to and including how my father and his brothers maintained a pack of whippets for the purpose of hunting jackrabbits and cottontails.

75

GiT 07.09.12 at 7:57 pm

@57

“Locavorism doesn’t hold up well on inspection. That information came from some people vaguely on the right but appears to be accurate. We can either accept that information, critique that information, or reject that information.”

No, “food miles” don’t hold up well on inspection. That doesn’t tell us much of anything about “locavorism”. This is just abuse of metonymy. “The information” is beside the point. What needs to be rejected is the representation of the opposing argument.

The argument is ignoratio elenchi.

Contra Patrick @ 46 & 62, from an inexpert position, one often has to trust that the arguments offered are relevant. That means one has to depend upon the sincerity of one’s interlocutor. And “sincerity” is an ad-hominem concept, often put to good use in navigating policy debate.

76

Harold 07.09.12 at 8:04 pm

“Sincerity” has to do with whether a person’s arguments match up with the facts.

77

MPAVictoria 07.09.12 at 8:05 pm

“In short, it remains an abusive ad hominem to dismiss their argument merely on the basis of their affiliation here, or because of its origins (oh, perhaps we could raise the genetic fallacy as well!), which is exactly what Josh G. did above.”

Don’t piss on my head and tell me its raining Patrick. These people are professional hacks. They lie every day, all day for a living. Look I have a romantic partner, a dog, a cat, friends, social commitments, laundry, a gym I should be working out at and more. I don’t have time to spend my life proving what has been proven many times before. Namely, that right wing think-tanks are full of unscrupulous liars. If you haven’t realized that by now you never will.

78

nick s 07.09.12 at 8:19 pm

Again, what Bloix said: the original paper was commissioned to suit the large food importers who like having academic doxies available at Mercatus. That it appeals to current partisan tribalism is just a happy side-effect.

79

Pascal Leduc 07.09.12 at 9:25 pm

Dont forget though that cows are carbon neutral as the methane they generate comes from the plants they eat and the carbon of those plants come from the atmosphere. Methane is a stronger greenhouse gas but it has a atmospheric half life of 12 +-3 years meaning that overtime it converts either into plain old co2 or simple carbon dust that becomes the seed point for a water droplet.

Technically if the cows eat plants fed with hydrocarbon based fertilizers then thats going to constitute a net greenhouse gas production, but id blame the oil. Also lots of feedlot, non-organic cows are fed grain that wasn’t grown with super intensive agricultural methods.

North Americans definitely need to eat less meat but don’t forget that pasturage is in fact the ideal use for some agricultural lands such as the Midwest for example.

80

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.09.12 at 9:42 pm

This is getting tedious: one has presumptive reason to trust the sincerity of the researchers given their academic and research backgrounds, which go outside of the Center. I’m a lifelong (over 35 years) Marxist and socialist (in economics at least) and am hardly fond of right-wing think tanks. Nonetheless, one needs to assess an argument on its merits (or lack thereof): if one is too intellectually lazy, ideologically blind, and politically insecure to engage in such an undertaking, so be it. Quiggin took the argument seriously (and came up with some interesting insights at that), and so might we. Or, we can indulge in self-righteous backslapping and revel in toilet metaphors. Some people sincerely hold beliefs we detest, think wrong, are in fact wrong, and so forth: to label them all “unscrupuolous liars” is to prematurely close off efforts at rational argument and persuasion, to hold oneself above the fray, to breathe the utterly refined air of innocent purity, while remaining smugly satisfied with a Manichean moral and political dualism in which one can never appreciate that one might not be quite so knowledgeable or correct as one fancies oneself to be…. Good luck with that.

81

Walt 07.09.12 at 9:46 pm

I can believe the Mercatus paper was funded by industry. But it still remains true that “locavorism” is an aesthetic position masquerading as a political one. This is important because it means that potentially perfectly plausible arguments are discredited by being associated with a non-credible one, that it’s important to “eat locally.” It’s not important to eat locally. Maybe you like locally grown food better (I liked the locally grown heirloom tomatoes you used to be able to get in New Jersey, personally), but that’s an aesthetic choice, not a moral imperative. The important arguments are in favor of organics, and against industrial agriculture, but they get hidden behind this peripheral issue of “eating locally”. The fact that it’s called “locavorism” and not “organivorism” makes it sound like for the promoters of the idea the important issue is eating locally, and the environmental issues are a side-benefit.

82

Luke 07.09.12 at 10:01 pm

Tom @57: Figures in that range for ruminant livestock emissions can be found in the IPCC AR4 WG1 Report in Section 7.4.1 and in the US EPA report titled “Global Anthropogenic Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gas Emissions: 1990-2010″ page 5-5.

Pascal @ 79: Cows are not ‘ghg emissions neutral’ even before fertilizers or other inputs are considered. The conversion of some consumed feed into methane means that all ruminants are net emitters of greenhouse gases. This is widely accepted within the animal science community and the livestock industry.

83

GiT 07.09.12 at 10:06 pm

@76

Arguments “matching the facts” is a question of truth. Truth and sincerity are not the same thing. In a sincere statement, the assertion matches the internal psychological state.

The only way to determine sincerity is to observe behavior. Sincerity cannot be discursively established – it’s an infinite regress (I swear I’m telling the truth when I swear I’m telling the truth when I swear I’m telling the…)

Note that one can be unintentionally insincere (self-deception) or sincere (the Freudian slip).

84

adam.smith (was Sebastian(1)) 07.09.12 at 10:16 pm

“I’m a lifelong (over 35 years) Marxist and socialist (in economics at least) and am hardly fond of right-wing think tanks. Nonetheless, one needs to assess an argument on its merits (or lack thereof): if one is too intellectually lazy, ideologically blind, and politically insecure to engage in such an undertaking, so be it. “

I think that is a misunderstanding about the nature of academics. The academic enterprise relies heavily on trusting the integrity of researchers. It’s simply not possible to assess many arguments on their merits: In the hard sciences and medicine, the cost of studies mean that it’s often not possible to replicate studies – you need to trust that lab books aren’t cooked, people aren’t secretly removed from the study etc.
In the social sciences, gathering and analyzing the data used for a study is also prohibitively time consuming a lot of the time – you have to believe that the researchers are basically honest.
Since dishonesty is actually relatively hard to detect, you pay a very high price when you’re caught – egregious cases can mean the end of scientific careers of tenured superstars like Marc Hauser. To a slightly lesser extend the same applies to institutions, journals, working paper series etc.
The Mercatus Center has a long history of publishing poor quality, clearly politically biased and motivated research. By normal academic standards, the default attitude towards any Mercatus publication is to suspect its findings. Or to put it a different way: Do you believe there is any chance that a study with the opposite finding would have been published by Mercatus? It you don’t then you shouldn’t trust the study. If you do, I know some people in Nigeria with a business proposition for you.

85

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.09.12 at 10:24 pm

As I said, the trust is presumptive, which means rebuttable, which means one can demonstrate precisely how and why those making an argument are not trustworthy. As I also said, the researchers in questions are not soley affiliated with Mercatus, it is not equivalent to their professional or academic identity, and the argument appears to me sufficiently strong to be at least plausible, however persuasive or unpersuasive I might find it. Again, their research is published in book form, so set aside Mercatus and look at the book and its publisher. OK, I’ve sufficiently repeated myself, sometimes one’s efforts fall on deaf ears for one reason or another. So be it.

86

bianca steele 07.09.12 at 10:36 pm

Okay, I’ve read the Alternet/Salon article, and skimmed the Mercatus piece, and I don’t see where they’ve crossed sides. Mercatus says the only thing that matters is market considerations, Adam Smith, comparative advantage, work should go where it’s best suited, food should be grown in the countries where comparative advantage leads to its making most sense. Richardson says economics isn’t the only thing that matters (yeah, she says this is because only economics is “rational,” but here she doesn’t really have a choice because that is the consensus among educated people nowadays[1]).

[1] Still believe the consensus among educated people is driven from the left?

I’m not seeing “in intellectual terms both parties are on the opposite side to the the one they imagine.

87

gman 07.09.12 at 11:10 pm

All think tanks deliver what their patrons want in the same way ad agencies, pr firms and law firms do.

Most people do not have means to asses the type of garbage put out by Mercatus and its ilk. When they trot out Veronique de Rugy or Amity Schlaes who are english majors who recite one “zombie” economic idea after another and are never short of airtime or ink w/o meaningful push back it is easy to get cynical.

Rather than “take the argument serious”, I ask why do the patrons want this position advocated? What is their angle to make money off it? What is the think tank trying to do do epistemologically to the electorate or to the average market participant.

As an asset manager w/ 20 yrs experience (rather than a marxist of 35yrs) this borderline reflexive skepticism has served me well.

How seriously should the industry funded agnotology surrounding climate change be taken? That is about where I’m at w/ most rightwing think tanks.

I apologize if pointing this out is “tedious”.

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MPAVictoria 07.09.12 at 11:11 pm

“This is getting tedious: one has presumptive reason to trust the sincerity of the researchers given their academic and research backgrounds, which go outside of the Center. I’m a lifelong (over 35 years) Marxist and socialist (in economics at least) and am hardly fond of right-wing think tanks. Nonetheless, one needs to assess an argument on its merits (or lack thereof): if one is too intellectually lazy, ideologically blind, and politically insecure to engage in such an undertaking, so be it. Quiggin took the argument seriously (and came up with some interesting insights at that), and so might we. Or, we can indulge in self-righteous backslapping and revel in toilet metaphors. Some people sincerely hold beliefs we detest, think wrong, are in fact wrong, and so forth: to label them all “unscrupuolous liars” is to prematurely close off efforts at rational argument and persuasion, to hold oneself above the fray, to breathe the utterly refined air of innocent purity, while remaining smugly satisfied with a Manichean moral and political dualism in which one can never appreciate that one might not be quite so knowledgeable or correct as one fancies oneself to be…. Good luck with that.”

Oh come off it you pompous twit. Maybe your time is infinite but mine is not. I think unscrupulousness of these people has been proven conclusively enough for any reasonable person and I refuse to waste my time disproving every right wing scum bag who publishes a poorly written “research” paper.

89

GiT 07.09.12 at 11:24 pm

“one has presumptive reason to trust the sincerity of the researchers given their academic and research backgrounds, which go outside of the Center”

I see your informal fallacy and counter it with… an informal fallacy?

Simply put, my position is that the best first question to ask is sometimes not, “is this claim false” but rather, “is this claim deceptive.” If someone is being deceptive you don’t dutifully check their premises, you dutifully check what they don’t say – which is to say you go elsewhere, unless you yourself are already an expert and can tell yourself what has been left out of the picture.

If one were to take that advice, one would quickly find out that ‘locavores’ do not center their position around the issue of food miles, and hence debunking food miles is not to the point of debunking locavorism.

As one review of the book puts it: “Not recommended for readers looking to become more informed about this issue; suitable for those who already align with the authors’ viewpoint.”

90

Pascal Leduc 07.09.12 at 11:26 pm

Luke, only for as long as the methane survives in the atmosphere which is about 12 years as i have stated above. methane is 72 times as strong a greenhouse gas over a period 20 years. its 25 times as powerful if you look at a century long window and 7.6 times as powerful over three centuries. The lifetime of carbon dioxide is very hard to measure due to the massive amount of carbon sinks (the whole plant ecosystem).

Since I care for the ecosystem for a sustainability standpoint, the longer windows are much more relevant to me. As I mentioned before, we (north americans) do in fact eat to much beef but it bears reminding that the optimal consumption is a some smaller amount, not zero.

Furthermore, compared to the amount present in the atmosphere methane contributes 4 to 9% of the greenhouse effect while carbon dioxide is thrice that. And Agricultural byproducts which include farts, burbs of all animals plus the burning of unused crop portions, heavy fertilizer uses and all that jazz constitutes a mere 12% of all greenhouse emissions and in fact is only a plurality of the methane emissions. 12% puts it fourth in global emissions by category, but since eating is a fundamental obligation for all humans, I mostly just treat it as the cost of doing business.

Depending on what form of carbon reimbursement system a nation adopts (fees, taxes, credits) it could certainly be sensible to include a per head cost, sufficiently discounted by any carbon sequestration that the farmer does also (growing crops). I however would concentrate on power and transportation fuel first which together constitutes one third of all greenhouse gases. This alone may make a nation carbon neutral compared to its sinks, which would fix the immediate problem and allow time for the creation of a system that assigns the cost of environmental maintenance more evenly.

91

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.09.12 at 11:29 pm

…and now a CT thread begins to resemble those commonly found at Volokh Conspiracy.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.09.12 at 11:42 pm

@ 88 re: “you pompous twit”

Having spent most of my adult life in working class jobs: truck driver (the first time, delivering office furniture, and later for a recycling center back in the days when recycling was a far more labor-intensive operation than it is today: we used to run down the streets picking up bags of newspapers and throwing them on the run into the back of trucks, only to later strap them onto pallets stacked eight feet high), sign shop laborer, dishwasher, security guard, amusement park food service and ride operator, forest service worker (trail construction and maintenance), including time on a fire crew (where I met my future wife over 33 years ago), firefighter (contract fire crew), resident apartment manager (for a little money off the rent), landscape laborer, medical lab services driver, construction laborer, and finish carpenter (among other jobs), before coming back to the academic world in my mid-40s, and only then as a part-time instructor at a community college (where I am today), I’ve been called any number of things, some of them not-so-nice. So, I take perverse pleasure in being called a “pompous twit.”

93

merian 07.09.12 at 11:56 pm

If you needed further evidence that this sort of topic is infested by tribalism, this thread would provide it. Or at least the first half, as in the second Silly Wabbit, Katherine, bianca.steele and a few others inject some balance to the cries of Stick it to the environmentalist! Even the very first commenter supports locally or small-farm or even occasionally organically grown food for pretty much the same core reasons I and the vast majority of my acquaintances would, but still considers it necessary to stress how cynical he is about the concepts of organic or locally grown food — and then is surprised that the Germans around him recoil. Maybe it’s because I’m German, but I certainly would think, too, that it’s intellectually dishonest to disparage those who profess the very tenets I base my actions on, even if I consider their adherence naive and occasionally mistaken. I, too, am annoyed by self-important middle-class (liberal or conservative) hipster self-confessed locavores who are a ready market for upscale cooking implements and haven’t spent a brain cell on understanding agriculture and food production. From there to put down everyone who comes to the conclusion that supporting local and/or organic food production is a good thing — talk about a strawman! These are hard and fiddly problems with many twists and turns and unforeseen consequences, so cynicism and put-downs are inappropriate.

It is clear that it makes a lot of sense to produce a number of food staples and even non-perishables (such as canned vegetables) in locations where the ingredients grow plentifully, and distribute them widely if shipping can be done with little energy use. When I lived in London, until 1.5 years ago, my local Waitrose (in an affluent neighbourhood — Richmond — full of organic-buying Tory or LibDem voting middle class peoples, often with gardens) beautiful pre-season organic purple-sprouting broccoli. From Zimbabwe. This surprising discovery seems wrong to me if I’m concerned about food production and the environment. (I’m not completely dogmatic about this — a friend of mine defends agriculture in Africa for export purposes to further economic development — but in the long run I just don’t think this is right.) When Eyjafjallajokull erupted, the local supermarkets suddenly had no cheap cut flowers. We discovered they come from Kenya. Oops: we should have. We’re all involved in economic choices regarding our food, and at the very least we should be familiarizing ourselves with the major trade-offs our particular situation and options entail. GM and country/region-of-origin labels don’t all on their own suggest any particular kind of action, but are merely a first step towards providing data about the food we buy (or as it were, don’t).

Now I live in sub-arctic North America, 20 miles outside a (small) city, where I work. We are on the road system — many communities round here are not — and have two major grocery stores and a Walmart, where the quasi totality of the produce is trucked in from many hundreds of miles away. The growing season is short — and freezing can happen any time (some neighboring weather stations for example registered sub-freezing temperatures last night, even though we’ve just had a very hot June) — but at least it’s intense, and some vegetables grow very well here. If I buy locally grown food, I pay substantially more than the cheapest option at the chain grocery store, but a little less than if I bought the trucked-in organic options. We have a garden, as do a large number of my acquaintances. Keeping chickens is common, too — we buy eggs from small hobby producers — and between the local university’s cooperative extension service and other gardener / small-holding farmer clubs a substantial variety and depth of instruction is available. Also, while you may scoff at the idea of berry-picking, those of us who get through the winter with two gallons of frozen lowbush cranberries (lingonberries) won’t. The garden will only pay off over a few years, and the local CSA we subscribe to is also not a money saver, but both clearly add to the quality of food available to us. The reasons for preferring the local products are pretty much the same unobtrusively reasonable ones that others name: I’d like there to be farms around and can see myself how they treat the soil, their animals and the local community (such as, running school gardens in all the elementary schools, which I think is great), so I buy from them; I think a minimum of local production is a wise thing in case the three or so transport routes down to the lower latitudes get interrupted; I believe artisanal skills of living frugally off the earth should be cultivated and not lost; reducing the amount of diesel used transporting mass-produced vegetables is a good thing, as is reducing food waste. This doesn’t make me a hipster locavore. Some things are easier to make locally, some a lot easier to make remotely. And I couldn’t get through the winter, even if I could pick up a quarter of a moose or so, plus a chest freezer to store it in. (I don’t hunt, and that won’t change, but of course I’ve eaten moose and caribou, which can’t be bought, at dinner parties and potlucks.)

This is at topic for thoughtfulness and carefully teasing apart causes, effects and ulterior motives. Not for put-downs and cynicism.

94

John Quiggin 07.10.12 at 12:40 am

To various commenters, please stop abusing each other. This kind of slanging match is one of the reasons, I think, why we have trouble attracting and retaining female commenters (not making presumptions about the gender of all participants here, just referring to a general blog problem).

And, given the complex interactions between food and gender, I’d certainly be interested to hear from more women on this thread.

95

Kasper 07.10.12 at 12:44 am

That’s quite a strange post, Mr. Quiggin.

“What’s interesting about this debate is that in intellectual terms both parties are on the opposite side to the the one they imagine.”

What is there to suggest that Mr. Desroches and Mr. Shimizu are on any other side of this issue than the one they think they are?

“If Mercatus won’t support free commercial speech, who will?”

Claiming that someone is saying something stupid and/or dangerous doesnt mean that youre against their right to say it. Que that Voltaire/Tallentyre quote.

“To sum up, true believers in the free market should be entirely indifferent as to the reality or otherwise of ‘food miles’ just as they are to the vast numbers of meaningless marketing claims with which we are bombarded. If ‘buy local’ is a successful sales strategy, why should the Mercatus Centre care whether it is actually saving the planet.”

This is all wrong. True believers in a free market can certainly recognize that we dont live in such a world. They can certainly also believe some consumer choices are better than others. You dont have to believe that humans are perfectly rational to be a free market advocate.

96

Alex 07.10.12 at 2:04 am

How can we be sure that the current way of sourcing food is the most “efficient” given that almost nowhere in the world currently taxes land value, and few places have any kind of carbon tax that would affect agricultural imports?

Far from using economic arguments of any kind, Desroches and Shimuzu present an engineering-based (and entirely convincing) debunking of the concept of food miles – the key point is that long distance sea transport uses less energy per unit of food than even a short car trip.

1. Doesn’t this argument ignore the possibility that increased efficiency can increase the amount demanded, a sort of gastronomy version of the Jevons paradox if you will?

I mean, it’s hard to argue that the increased efficiencies from the various agricultural revolutions of the last 250 years have had no effect on population growth, obesity rates and amount of food waste.

Now obviously this doesn’t mean that we should accept locavorism. But it does suggest that Desroches and Shimuzu’s empirical claim about the food miles argument for locavorism being incorrect is itself incorrect.

2. Desroches and Shimuzu’s argument is highly misleading. Quoting:

In other words, moving New Zealand apples to the United Kingdom using highly efficient, diesel- powered container ships consumes very little energy per apple when compared to moving them by car from a supermarket to a relatively nearby residence

and

In short, according to the DEFRA report, food miles (or “vehicle kilometers”) and environmental burden (in terms of CO2 emissions) are not directly correlated. While air freight is typically singled out by activists as both the most environmentally damaging and most energy-intensive mode of transport, it is actually a minor contributor (10 percent) to total CO2 emissions.

There’s a number of flaws here:

a. Both locavorism and it’s alternative (globavorism?) will have vehicle journeys by consumers to the shops (or vehicle journeys to deliver to their front door). Including the greenhouse gas emissions of these journeys is irrelevant to whether or not locavorism will reduce emissions by eliminating many international journeys.

b. Some of those emissions due to journeys within countries is surely because of the transportation of food that arrived from outside the country, and has to be transported to whichever supermarket it needs to go to deeper within the country.

c. The data comes from a DEFRA study on UK food miles but the authors of this paper are arguing against locavorism in America – which is a much bigger country and thus the food miles data may point in a different direction.

More quotes:

In short, according to the available data, the most energy-intensive segments (and therefore those providing the best target for reducing energy use) of the agricultural production chain were not related to transportation.

Again, irrelevant to the issue. If we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then sure, the most important thing is to focus on those sectors that emit the most emissions, but this does not show that locavorism would have a perverse impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, I would say most of the “evidence” lined up in that paper is a fat lot of whataboutery. I’m pretty sure the DFHs want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions all over, not just due to international food miles, but thanks for Desroches and Shimuzu’s concern.

The DEFRA (2005) study compared emissions from energy used for UK and Spanish tomatoes and factored in the production stage and post-production transfer from Spain to the United Kingdom by land transportation. In this context, UK tomato production emits 2,394 kg of CO2/ton compared to 630 kg/ton for Spanish tomatoes, with the significant difference being accounted for by the energy requirements of UK greenhouse production (about 90 percent of the energy used in this production), while Spanish production takes place in unheated, plastic-sheeted greenhouses.

a. One product does not prove anything.

b. Especially when there’s nothing inherent in locavorism which says that people must not only buy locally, but must have exactly the same diet as before. If growing tomatoes locally is too energy intensive, locavores can simply switch to alternative produce.

Now I am not a locavore (in fact, as I still live at home dependent on family, I couldn’t be even if I wanted to be). However, Desroches and Shimuzu have not, IMHO, produced an “entirely convincing . . . debunking” of the concept of food miles based on the fact that “long distance sea transport uses less energy per unit of food than even a short car trip”. There are lots of arguments for and against locavorism, and lots of arguments for and against the food miles perspective on locavorism, but arguing against the latter based on greenhouse gas emissions does not look like a productive avenue of inquiry, and smells suspiciously like free market contrarianism.

On the issue of locavorism more generally, I’m not sure of my opinion exactly. I’m willing to be convinced that eating more produced locally is a good idea overall, but I’m not too sure. However, as someone “on the Left” so-to-speak, I am interested in people having much more democratic control over their economy, and am in that sense opposed to globalization. I’d be interested if someone like Henry Farrell were to chime in here, bringing in James Scott.

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MPAVictoria 07.10.12 at 2:39 am

“Having spent most of my adult life in working class jobs: truck driver (the first time, delivering office furniture, and later for a recycling center back in the days when recycling was a far more labor-intensive operation than it is today: we used to run down the streets picking up bags of newspapers and throwing them on the run into the back of trucks, only to later strap them onto pallets stacked eight feet high), sign shop laborer, dishwasher, security guard, amusement park food service and ride operator, forest service worker (trail construction and maintenance), including time on a fire crew (where I met my future wife over 33 years ago), firefighter (contract fire crew), resident apartment manager (for a little money off the rent), landscape laborer, medical lab services driver, construction laborer, and finish carpenter (among other jobs)”

Luxury. Sheer Luxury. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.

And you try and tell the young people of today that ….. they won’t believe you.

You are unlikely to impress me with your working class credentials Patrick. I do however apologize for calling you a “pompous twit”. It was uncalled for. I do however stand by my position that if someone lies to me hundreds of times in a row it is reasonable to doubt their claims. That is not called an ad hominem, that is called learning from experience.

98

bianca steele 07.10.12 at 2:48 am

moving New Zealand apples to the United Kingdom using highly efficient, diesel- powered container ships consumes very little energy per apple when compared to moving them by car from a supermarket to a relatively nearby residence

I remember reading somewhere that under UK rules, “New Zealand” is “local” to England. That can’t be right, though. (Maybe only w/r/t lamb?)

99

Sebastian H 07.10.12 at 2:55 am

Mpavictoria: you knew the names Desroches and Shimizu before today? You were exposed to them in hundreds of papers and found that those two were liars in all of them? Can you narrow it down to the top two other egregious lying papers and tell us about them without consulting google?

What ‘learning from experience’ should we take away if it turns out you had no idea who they were and know nothing about their other papers?

100

John Quiggin 07.10.12 at 3:00 am

I’d like to call a halt to the debate over “ad hom” etc, and return to the OP

101

Alex 07.10.12 at 3:05 am

Mpavictoria: you knew the names Desroches and Shimizu before today? You were exposed to them in hundreds of papers and found that those two were liars in all of them? Can you narrow it down to the top two other egregious lying papers and tell us about them without consulting google?

Sebastian H, the same argument applies to you. Since Desroches and Shimizu are arguing against locavorism, how can you be sure that they have provided a fair reflection of all the arguments on behalf of locavorism? You were exposed to them in hundreds of papers and found that they were wrong in all of them?

102

Alex 07.10.12 at 3:06 am

John Quiggin, my last comment was posted before I saw your #100.

103

Sebastian H 07.10.12 at 3:09 am

The comments have certainly shown that tribalism is alive, well, and happy to interfere with rational thought.

104

MPAVictoria 07.10.12 at 3:23 am

“I’d like to call a halt to the debate over “ad hom” etc, and return to the OP”

Understood. Sorry for the digression.

As to the main topic of the thread I buy both local and non-local produce as the mood fit strikes. “Food miles” does not enter into my reasoning for purchasing either. Instead it is price, taste and supporting local businesses that factor in to my choices.

105

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 07.10.12 at 3:53 am

I live less than 200 metres from Davies Park, a rugby league club in West End, Brisbane. (I have no doubt that John Quiggin knows the place.) On Saturday mornings and early afternoons, they hold outdoor markets [*]. Because of my location, I know a lot of people who shop there, including my wife. There’s a mix of people that goes there. It’s especially popular with Asian overseas students; I guess the environment reminds them of home, where open air markets are common. A lot of local food is sold there, but then Brisbane is a sub-tropical city where snow is unheard of, and frost is rare; a lot of food can be sourced locally. It’s actually a nice day out wandering along, running into people you know, talking with friends busking.

That’s why I’m finding this thread a little surreal. Reifying the phenomenon as “locavorism” seems to be missing the point. People visit the markets for many reasons, some ideological – there’s less preservatives than your average supermarket, for instance, and a few do like buying locally. Mostly, it’s because they like shopping there and like the food they purchase. At least you get more sunshine than under the fluoros at Coles. If you told people that they were locavores, most would either not understand or look at you as if you were mad.

As for marking the phenomena under the “DFH” label: I pity people like Mercatus who do. In a sane world, visiting the local markets should not mark one as part of a subgroup or a tribe.

[Or markets for short. The term "farmer's market" is not used in Australia.]

106

Mk 07.10.12 at 4:10 am

“The comments have certainly shown that tribalism is alive, well, and happy to interfere with rational thought.”

Resorting to baiting now, are we?

107

Belle Waring 07.10.12 at 4:15 am

I’m going to gently, ever so slightly abuse my host’s kindness by saying that think tanks serve a purpose and have a function. They provide something which has a family resemblance to scientific research. I think it likely this paper is addressed to the COOL (countries of origin labeling?) legislation; much more so than that is addressed to smug locavores. Because, where’s their nickel in that? Somebody paid for this. It’s not the case that no think tank has ever produced any good work. It is the case that as legislators come in exhausted from fund-raising, wearily starting to fund-raise for the next two-year (or six-year) term, they have to rely on their staff. And the staff, likewise weary, with no Congressional non-partisan research office to rely on, must go and ask the companies proposing the laws (or opposing them as may be) for talking points and ex post facto ‘reasons’ to support (or denounce) the legislation. And then someone hands them a Mercatus paper, or something from the Heritage Foundation, and Bob’s your uncle. Yes, the one who wants to nuke the Gulf of Florida. Sucks to be you, l’il niece chile.

So, certainly it is fair to consider carefully arguments made in good faith. But it cannot always be wrong to say: “life is short, and I need not read this Cato Institute paper on whether to raise the top marginal tax rate in order to grapple with their serious arguments, which have never been made before in such detail or with such care, and also I want to read it to the end to find out what happens–do they support raising taxes or not??!

Having said that, let me turn around and say three cheers for this: “To various commenters, please stop abusing each other. This kind of slanging match is one of the reasons, I think, why we have trouble attracting and retaining female commenters (not making presumptions about the gender of all participants here, just referring to a general blog problem).”

God yes this type of thread is so tedious. Bianca Steele is, as ever, wading in admirably, while I look at the thread nibbling my bottom lip and saying, “if I get in there I am going to end up talking smack about Patrick S. O’Donnell’s mom, and there ain’t no call for that.”

I will pour oil on the waters by relating some humourous anecdotes. When I was little I lived on an organic farm, that was modestly communal–we had more land so our friends living nearby put in labor to share in the crops. We had some serious problems. We could kill chickens just fine, and home-grown free-range chicken really is the best. And the eggs were great. We couldn’t kill the rabbits. We had to have another friend do it and then they came back dismantled and my brother and I devoured them happily while my mom and dad, really quite amazingly stoned, pushed the rabbit around on the plates sadly. Speaking of which, we grew lots of good things: corn, peanuts, crowder peas, pigeon peas, okra, tomatoes, strawberries, peaches, sunchokes, lettuce, mint, thyme, basil, etc. but our best crop was certified organic, locally grown, deliciously green…well, purple at the ends actually. My dad is the master. He will make you fall out your chair. We cleared out a big patch in the woods, invisible from the house, accessible only by a narrow path, they didn’t used to have helicopters flyover in those days. And I learned to sex plants when I was just a girl; it’s my secret skill. Then there were arguments about proceeds. You see, we seceded from the communal part when we realized we might become profitable rather than just feed all, I don’t know, 11 or 12 adults and a bunch of kids. So we got even more guns and even more pit bulls and we all lived happily ever after. Except my parents got divorced mid-way through, but my step-moms is the best. (N.B. This was all a long time ago. No one in my family is doing anything illegal now at all. Well, I haven’t texted them in 12 hours but how much trouble could they get into? God, don’t answer that.)

108

Belle Waring 07.10.12 at 4:18 am

KNOCKS WOOD SUPERSTITIOUSLY

109

GiT 07.10.12 at 4:47 am

From Alex’s quotes:

“While air freight is typically singled out by activists as both the most environmentally damaging and most energy-intensive mode of transport, it is actually a minor contributor (10 percent) to total CO2 emissions.”

If 10% is minor, every factor in CO2 emissions except HGV UK emissions is minor.
There is no tension between being most damaging+intensive, and also being minor. As it stands, air freight makes a relatively gigantic contribution to CO2 emissions from food transit (1% of kilometer tons, 10% of emissions).

To put the argument the right way round, one should have said something like, ‘even though air freight is the most damaging and intensive form of transportation, its use is already effectively minimized among transit sources of CO2 emissions, and transit sources of CO2 emissions are already effectively minimized among all sources of CO2 emissions in agriculture.’

That the authors put the argument a very wrong way around perhaps speaks to the ad-hom debate, but that the argument does, at least, speak to the issue of directing policy in order to best minimize costs perhaps speaks to the original post’s point.

At the same time though, the central concern does not strike me as especially anti-free-marketeer. Minimizing costs is all well and good among free-marketeers. In fact, part of their argument here has to be that prices are doing their jobs – non-local food is cheaper because it is more energy efficient. No need to think about social cost, really, the price signal is doing that work for you. Don’t be silly and try to second guess the market, kiddies.

This perhaps speaks to a general form of anti-fadism a free-marketeer has no problem supporting – any fad which ‘fetishizes’ higher production costs. It seems a little forceful to try to press the free marketeer to declare every choice sacred. Some choices are clearly not sacred: inefficient ones!

In fact there’s a whole array of consumer choices we can reliably predict the free marketeer to oppose: “buy union,” “buy fair-trade,” “buy American,” “boycott sweatshops,” and now, “buy local.”

In all those cases, for the free marketeer, people are not listening to prices, which should be telling them all they need to know – that non-union, non-sweatshop, foreign, free trade goods are inherently more ethical because they are cheaper and hence more efficient. The leftist is trying to obscure the power of the price system, which can do all our thinking and judging for us.

110

GiT 07.10.12 at 4:50 am

Sorry, that should be “sweatshop … goods,” not “non-sweatshop … goods.” I would never accuse libertarians of discouraging people from buying from sweatshops.

111

Pontechango 07.10.12 at 4:56 am

What’s happening here, I think is a manifestation of the fact that, in the US context, tribalism generally trumps ideological consistency. 

Meh. I can point to multiple threads on Dailykos in which Richardson is hounded for her reflexive anti-GMO stance. I found this conclusion uncompelling at best. It reads like an uninspired Malcolm Gladwell “turns out” essay. Mercatur is disingenuously fighting against country of origin labeling and Jill Richardson is responding from her niche as a naively naturalistic enviro advocate. What’s really so interesting about that? And it’s a stretch to conflate the scalabilty of backyard chicken health with Libertarian ideology, to say the least.

112

Alex 07.10.12 at 5:06 am

The comments have certainly shown that tribalism is alive, well, and happy to interfere with rational thought.

This is an interesting, ahem, assertion.

113

Dairy Queen 07.10.12 at 5:15 am

On the general topic of motivations for buying produce from the farmer at the local market, my family’s reasons include:

- Driving through the Central Coast of California and seeing the large skull and cross bones warning placards posted at the edges of fields warning of the toxicity of the various agrochemicals being applied, and the workers in the fields wearing protective gear (including some sort of covering for the eyes, nose and mouth). I have various reactions to these sights: relief that there is some sort of requirement that at least some farms/operators are heeding requiring the postings and protective gear; (perhaps unwarranted) suspicion that not all farms are in compliance with such requirements; concern that the protective gear is not as effective as it ought to be; concern that not all humans and other creatures who are exposed to airborne drift/surface water runoff/contaminated groundwater are protected as are the workers actually in the fields during application and/or some time following application. Thus, a large motivation for our purchase of produce farmed with fewer agrochemical inputs is not driven by concerns re: our own consumption of residual pesticides/herbicides, but rather a desire to buy produce from farms where the workers and local communities do not have the same exposure to as wide a range and intense amounts of agrochemicals.

- We pay more to buy from farmers with decent labor practices. Living in California, it is hard for me to conceive of how one could be unaware of the tremendous contribution of immigrant labor to the US food supply, and how poorly these folks are generally treated. We can pay more to buy food from farmers who treat their workers fairly, and to the extent we are able to do so we make this a priority.

- The range of produce and quality from the market are better than we could get in even the best local supermarkets. We pay a premium for this, but I have a background in the food business and we have a strong family tradition focused on buying good food from people we know, taking care in preparing it and enjoying it together and with our friends. Yes, we spend more in time and dollars on our food budget than many other families in equally comfortable circumstances. This is pure choice, and we are incredibly fortunate to be able to make this choice. That said, when we were significantly less comfortable, we still spent what would seem to many a disproportionate amount of time on food (buying, preparing and enjoying), although back in the day remarkably little money. More wine and fewer beans these days, as near as I can tell ;).

For the perspective of an actual farmer, I highly recommend reading the writing of Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farm. He provides a very practical and experienced perspective on the challenges of running a small farm, informed by a long experience in many aspects of agriculture.

Andy on the sorry history of mesclun: http://www.ladybugletter.com/?p=24

On where your tomatoes come from: http://www.ladybugletter.com/?p=51

Encounter with East Coast media establishment: http://www.ladybugletter.com/?p=55

On paying a premium to eat like a campesino: http://www.ladybugletter.com/?p=63

And on the huge blind spot for most “food progressives” that is farm labor: http://www.ladybugletter.com/?p=64

Enjoy . . .

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merian 07.10.12 at 5:43 am

@GiT, #109:

In fact there’s a whole array of consumer choices we can reliably predict the free marketeer to oppose: “buy union,” “buy fair-trade,” “buy American,” “boycott sweatshops,” and now, “buy local.”

I dunno. On theoretical grounds, yeah, though I don’t usually contemplate what free market libertarians would hypothetically think of one-thing-or-another, and consider it one of the most straightforwardly objectionable elements of their ideology that they tend to judge on theoretical grounds, without any regard to what real people actually do (ie, data and evidence). So turning that around, I find that the free market types with tea party leanings that are very common ’round here (Alaska) have no problem whatsoever advocating to use your economic liberties to “vote with your wallet” in favour of local businesses and farms. Possibly because no one is only a free marketeer — everyone has other affiliations as well, and why would libertarianism preclude favouring whatever you happen to favour? In my corner of the world, loyalty to the few people whose farms and businesses make a marked difference in quality of life are one of the factors that unite lefty hippies and gun-toting libertoonians (the other being the need to keep your car running and your pipes open when the temperature drops below -40, and to survive when you can’t). [1]

To return to the OP, I first encountered the interview with Desrochers at grist.org, and just couldn’t take him very seriously. “We wrote the book because my wife was annoyed with some obnoxious nitwit at a conference who considered local food TEH RAD.” Their argument sounded trivial and self-serving.

As for Richardson’s rebuttal, while on the one hand some of her points echo my (less developed) thoughts (in particular points 1 and 2), I agree with John Quiggin that she very much stays within the framework of liberal economics and doesn’t offer anything that could be called an alternative ideological approach.

[1] Seriously, in my village the voting majority considers fire service an example of government overreach, but at the same time my partner and I, knock on wood, have encountered no problem whatsoever as an obviously lesbian couple. We make sure to eat at the local inn and leave a tip, show up at local events, catch and return the neighbour’s dogs when they get loose and are happy to trade a head of bok choy for a load of good humus or a Copper River red, so that’s good enough.

115

adam.smith (was Sebastian(1)) 07.10.12 at 5:43 am

“But it still remains true that “locavorism” is an aesthetic position masquerading as a political one. “

That’s simply not true. Locavorism is, like many successful political movements, both political and aesthetic. It’s important to understand what “locavorism” – as practiced by anyone who even knows that label – means. It does not mean: “buy from the closest factory farm”. A typical farmers market, the hub of the “buy local” movement, is populated by small farmers, most (in many farmers markets all) of them practicing sustainable agriculture, though only some of them find it feasible and or worthwhile to be certified organic. That means by buying local I
- support local, small business and stay away from large agribusiness
- support sustainable agriculture, including less pesticides, less mono-culture, if animal products are involved less animal cruelty.
- have a direct connection to my food supplier. As this also means I can talk food and food policy with the people producing this, that’s politically quite relevant.
- support a more diverse local agricultural landscape – especially in the midwest that’s a pretty major issue.

As anyone who has spend a little time on the topic knows, “organic,” while on balance usually still a good thing, has become a rather problematic label, diluted by the influx of big business players who push the envelope of what’s still “organic,” and increasingly dominated by big food manufacturers: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/business/organic-food-purists-worry-about-big-companies-influence.html?pagewanted=all if you haven’t seen it. It’s increasingly hard to know what you get when you buy “organic.” Afaik the condition of farmworkers on the big organic farms like Earthbound are also quite problematic etc.
On the other hand, with a CSA – the mark of the true locavore – I know exactly where my food comes from, I see photos from the farm, can go visit if I want to, talk to the farmer when I pick up the box , I have a better sense of the working conditions on the farm etc.
While it’s possible to achieve some of these things without buying local, given information issues that’s actually quite hard.
That’s why people who care about the politics of food often start with “buy local”. If you stop right there it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. But few “locavores” do.

116

GiT 07.10.12 at 6:24 am

@112

Well, I wasn’t being especially careful with my language, but as sort of a post-hoc defense there’s a reason I didn’t use libertarian in my longish post. In the correction I was thinking, specifically, of Zwolinski @ BHL’s defenses of sweatshop labor.

I meant something somewhat specific with ‘free-marketeer’ – probably more along the lines of ‘neo-liberal’ than libertarian. I was thinking of those who are committed to free market globalization as an ethical project. I don’t disagree that many libertarians could care less about that aspect of markets, and are much more concerned with controlling what does and doesn’t intervene in their own lives.

But I’d draw a divide, perhaps, between more parochial and more cosmopolitan varieties of libertarians. Cowen and Zwolinski (and many of the other BHLs) are likely of this cosmopolitan variety, I suspect. A large part of libertarianism as social justice is libertarianism as globalization.

117

ajay 07.10.12 at 8:27 am

I’m deleting a bunch of back-and-forth abuse – JQ.

Ruminants: http://www.epa.gov/rlep/faq.html
“Globally, ruminant livestock produce about 80 million metric tons of methane annually”

Methane as an equivalent to CO2: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_equivalent
“the GWP for methane over 100 years is 25″.

CO2 emissions by country: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions

118

Katherine 07.10.12 at 9:29 am

moving New Zealand apples to the United Kingdom using highly efficient, diesel- powered container ships consumes very little energy per apple when compared to moving them by car from a supermarket to a relatively nearby residence

Yes, but those apples shipped on highly efficient diesel powered ships still then get driven from the supermarket to home, unless there’s a diesel shipping delivery system going direct to people’s doors that I’m not aware of. Also presumably they have to get driven from a dock to a supermarket too, since not all supermarkets are situated at docks.

Even if shipping by diesel ship is highly efficient, it’s still not nothing, and therefore should be counted.

119

John Quiggin 07.10.12 at 9:46 am

I think the relevant question is whether the supermarket is closer (by car) than the farmers market or other source of local food.

A different way of putting it is that, as far as carbon footprint is concerned, living local is more important than eating local.

120

Katherine 07.10.12 at 11:05 am

Indeed. And delivery systems can be extremely relevant also. It’s more efficient to order online and have the supermarket deliver, for example. Ditto vegetable box deliveries vs driving out to your greengrocer, I imagine.

For a time, I had a monthly delivery of a small organic meat box, from a local farm that raised (free range) and butchered all its own meat. I started doing it because of animal welfare concerns, but I’m pretty sure it probably ticks environmental boxes too.

121

Katherine 07.10.12 at 11:08 am

The problem for me, and for people like me, is there is no agreed and consistent way of measuring “impact”. It’s simply not feasible to expect every person to know how to balance food miles with diesel efficiency with cultivation efficiency in different countries etc etc down an enormous list of variables.

That’s why we have to rely on marks and accreditations and the like by people who do have the information and the knowledge and experience to interpret and present it. Any volunteers?

122

chris 07.10.12 at 12:03 pm

I think the relevant question is whether the supermarket is closer (by car) than the farmers market or other source of local food.

Almost always — if your town has any farmers market at all, it probably has 4-5 supermarkets, so one of them is very likely to be closer. In a town small enough to have only one supermarket (or none), all the local farmers are probably driving their produce to a town big enough to support a farmer’s market, even if that’s in the next county. So if you want to buy it, you have to drive there too… that’s some local eating.

123

LFC 07.10.12 at 12:15 pm

BWaring 107
Agree that think tanks sometimes serve a purpose but re “no Congressional non-partisan research office”: there is the Congressional Research Service, though I’m pretty sure it does not have the resources to churn out lots of short-turn-around papers on particular items in bills. Does more long-term analysis, I think.

124

Walt 07.10.12 at 12:25 pm

Katherine, I think the key point is that most of the energy and emissions cost will be incurred near the end of the trip, which will be there for local food as well as imported food. So unless you plan on biking to the farm to pick up your produce, there isn’t much you can do about it.

125

Data Tutashkhia 07.10.12 at 12:32 pm

Um, public transportation? There are places where few people drive personal cars to either supermarket or farmers market.

126

Katherine 07.10.12 at 12:34 pm

Individually, maybe there isn’t much I can do. But collectively? Isn’t that the point of a movement? Or regulatory intervention?

“Most” is not the same as “all” and little things add up.

127

Barry 07.10.12 at 12:42 pm

John Quiggin @119:

” I think the relevant question is whether the supermarket is closer (by car) than the farmers market or other source of local food.”

If you’re replying to Katherine @ 188, I believe that the point she was making could be expressed as the fact that there are three majors steps here: local production/bulking, distance shipping/mass processing and finally local break-in-bulk/take to the house.

Localvorism removes step 2.

128

Derek 07.10.12 at 1:36 pm

@John Quiggin

“I think the relevant question is whether the supermarket is closer (by car) than the farmers market or other source of local food.”

But making that the question takes too much of the status quo for granted. For one, advocating for more locally sourced foods need not involve rejecting supermarkets, since they too can (and, at least in some places, do) stock local foods. For another, farmer’s markets can be arranged within communities without the need for a permanent retail space. It would be interesting to see an analysis of the relative environmental costs of farmer’s transporting produce to such community markers, while the customers need to drive less, or not at all, to get there. (See http://www.farmfreshri.com to see an example of how this is done in Southern New England).

129

gman 07.10.12 at 2:47 pm

@John Quiggin

Few organisation do more repeating of what you would call “Zombie Economic Ideas” than the Mercatus center. Organisations like Mercatus ARE the reason why these economic ideas won’t die! In your opinion is the organisation acting in good faith with the economic ideas they promote (Krugman does not think they are) or are they cynically promoting ideas the underwriters want promoted.

If you don’t trust or believe them in your area of expertise why should anyone who is not an expert in environmental issues allow themselves to be influenced by work they fund in there? Most people are not sophisticated enough to identify “zombie ideas” in areas outside of their area of expertise..or for most of the electorate/mkt participants..ANY plausible sounding zombie ideas!

I apologize if this is considered off topic or ad hominem.

130

Sebastian H 07.10.12 at 3:25 pm

I suspect the federal reserve banks and the ECB do quite a bit more to promote zombie economics than Mercatus. Or actually ‘groups like Mercatus’, it isnt even clear you are actually accusing them directly.

Again if you only trust your own side for its own critique, you miss out on a lot of useful critique. Now if you are a person who is always right on first reflection that is great. But mere mortals have to be careful to avoid groupthink. There is reason why governments, corporations and other social entities do worse with yes men than they do if they listen to some dissent. Refusing to listen to what you don’t want to hear is a great way to stay stuck with bad ideas.

I’m as guilty of it as many. But just because a failing is common doesn’t mean we should embrace it as if it were a virtue.

131

Roger 07.10.12 at 3:48 pm

The food miles concept is just the most recent influx of environmental mercantilism. The point is that humans are naturally inclined to see the world in oversimplified and wholly incorrect mercantilist terms. Economists do us a favor by pointing out these cognitive biases before they gain political or social momentum.

Mercatus is providing illumination to counter our ignorance. Since when is telling the truth and educating people on important but counterintuitive concepts an example of “tribalism?”

132

Walt 07.10.12 at 3:50 pm

Katherine, it’s not clear which way they add up. A total switch to locavorism could lead to a net increase in energy use, since it involves eliminating large-scale shipping by sea in favor of many small-scale trips over land. So collectively you could make the global warming problem worse.

133

merian 07.10.12 at 3:57 pm

J.Q., #119:

I think the relevant question is whether the supermarket is closer (by car) than the farmers market or other source of local food.

Yes and no. As with so many things about food production and distribution, there is a strong local component to this. So decisions should be made based on knowing the full range of options available at one point in space and time, and their consequences, locally and remotely. Some relevant thoughts:

1. From a text quoted by Desrochers, I get a number of approx. 1500 g CO2/km and ton of produce for transport in a refrigerated truck. The AlCan highway is 2500 km long, and that only gets me to the middle of British Columbia. Let’s say we double the distance. That gets me to about 1500 g CO2 per apple or 15000 g for 2 kg of produce (a realistic amount I may buy at one sitting). I drive a car with a terrible fuel economy, pretty typical for around here, let’s say 300 g CO2 per km. Going to the supermarket (or the farmers market) may add anything between 2 and 10 km to that day’s drive: 600-3000 g CO2. (Yes, that’s what we call, sexistically, a milk maid’s calculation in German.)

2. When I lived in the UK and France, none of this would have mattered because I pretty much never drove to either the supermarket or the farmer’s market (or the other open-air food market which only partially consisted of farmers selling their own harvest). I walked or biked. Also, the distances were small enough that pretty much anything produced in the country, and even the EU, could for practical purposes considered “local”. Other factors were much more important.

(2a. To the commenter who said that the farmer’s market is on the average nearly always farther away than the supermarket, that’s only true if you strictly buy at the closest supermarket. In my experience people have preferences.)

3. There’s stewardship for the local environment. And there’s reaching a minimum level of independence of not-always-reliable transport routes. Earlier this year, a simple wash-out due to flooding closed down the AlCan for a few days. Trucks got backed up somewhere in the Yukon. The produce departments developed visible gaps within days.

4. There’s no either-or between farmer’s and supermarket, at least not realistically for the mass consumer. We are also completely neglecting transformed/processed food, where transport of the ingredients to the processing plant, and the transformation process itself have to be taken into account. (The very first example I remember being confronted with about travel distances of foodstuffs was, as a child in the 80s, a diagram that showed how strawberry yogurt involved shipping berries from Spain and milk from Poland to some other country to be processed. So much for the anecdote.)

5. I agree with those who point out that the Desrochers paper and your argument are relying too much on everything else staying equal. Once we’ve figured out what reorganisations of the food production and distribution system would be beneficial, pressures can emerge to implement changes. That very much includes reducing energy consumption at the end consumer.

6. If it needs stressing, I agree that it is vital to consider the type of data that Desrochers points to, if only to eradicate any remaining prejudices one might hold. I _like_ our local tomatoes, but am aware that most hothouse production methods will be vastly more energy wasteful than if they were shipped efficiently from Mexico. (Parallel to his Holland/Spain example.) However again, local changes can make huge differences. What if the Alaskan or Canadian hothouse is fed by a geothermal source? (This is not hypothetical – I have actual hothouse vegetable available to me that are grown in a resort down the road that is off the electric grid and *nearly* has managed to survive without the diesel generator.)

134

LizardBreath 07.10.12 at 4:02 pm

It’s possible. But there’s no a priori reason to think that it would lead to such a net increase — as Barry said above in 127, for both local and non-local food, you have to do processing and short-distance transport at the place of production, and you have to do short-distance transport at the point of sale. For non-local food, you also have to do the intermediate long-distance transport. While the long-distance transport may be fairly small in relation to the rest of the energy usage, it’s still a factor that’s systematically present in the energy footprint of non-local food, and absent in the footprint of local food.

Now, it’s possible that local food systematically uses more energy than non-local food in production and short distance transport, and that it even uses enough more energy that it swamps the energy cost of long-distance transport. But to make an argument that local food is generally worse in terms of energy footprint, you need to actually demonstrate that it does, generally rather than in a particular cherry-picked instance, use that much more energy than non-local food, rather than merely that it’s possible that it might.

135

gman 07.10.12 at 4:13 pm

http://mercatus.org/veronique-de-rugy. You have heard of Tyler Cowen also?

Small sample. I will say it explicitly… Mecatus promotes economic ideas John considers “zombie” relentlessly and successfully and maybe …cynically?

As market participant I try not to “have a side”. I try to question my actions and epistemology as well as that of other participants.

Upon first glance the work the John cites reminds me of industry funded climate change agnotology..just done for global agribusiness in this case. I admit I am much more knowledgeable in economic/finance than environmental issues so I was reflexively skeptical. On Wallstreet if paid research says buy..it make me more tempted to get bearish. Paid advertising and PR are not always completely corrupt, deceptive and misleading though.

Where I am in the prop trading/hedgefund world, the groupthink pitfall locations are in much different places than the world of academia which is where I assume you are . In 2007 the group think in my world was very much centered in Mercatus world. I was lucky enough to be to take the work of Quiggen and Krugman and their world view seriously and I prospered as a result of their descriptions and prescriptions of the nature of the crisis. I come to this site for fresh perspective and to help get me out of my world of groupthink. As a result of this I could not agree with you points about the perils of groupthink.

Maybe the last 20 years wallstreet/think tank/pr based research have made me too cynical regarding any hired research.

136

cmk 07.10.12 at 4:19 pm

Forgive me if I don’t read all the comments, but if no one else has pointed it out–we don’t yet have matter transmitters to get the food from the ship to the market. There will be road miles added to the ship miles.

137

Walt 07.10.12 at 4:31 pm

Right, it would require a careful calculation to determine which way the effect would go. Which means that it’s incredibly unpromising grounds to make public policy on, or to make individual choices by.

138

Walt 07.10.12 at 4:35 pm

Veronique de Rugy is at Mercatus? The person who said that regression is a tool by which we uncover causation? A statement that is literally mathematically equivalent to the statement “Correlation is Causation”? Wow.

139

Neville Morley 07.10.12 at 4:57 pm

Having spent an hour this afternoon potting up chilli plants instead of working on a paper, I wonder what Desroches & Shimizu would make of the whole grow-your-own thing (if anything, in the absence of any forthcoming legislation to lobby about). Costed in terms of my own time, these will probably be the most ridiculously expensive chillis ever, and the absence of a Caribbean climate in the West Country means that I’d probably get more Scoville units for my buck from an import, but how to reckon up the carbon footprint of a bag of peat-free compost delivered by the local hardware store versus flying the chillis in from Kenya or wherever?

140

adam.smith (was Sebastian(1)) 07.10.12 at 4:58 pm

“Right, it would require a careful calculation to determine which way the effect would go. Which means that it’s incredibly unpromising grounds to make public policy on, or to make individual choices by.”

For public policy yes – a mandate for local food would almost certainly be a bad idea. As taxes/subsidies go, they’d also be a bad idea if their goal is to reduce greenhouse emissions (though they may have other justifications – cf. above).

For individual choice not so much, since you can mostly do the calculations yourself: If you bike, walk, or take public tansport to your local food supplier or if your car commute is equal or lesser distance, seasonal(!) local produce almost certainly has a lower carbon footprint than stuff shipped from overseas. If you literally drive “the extra mile” to get local food or you buy local food out of season it’s almost certainly counter productive in terms of greenhouse emissions.
I think that’s actually a useful thing to convey to environmentalist and I agree that many people aren’t sufficiently aware of these factors. But making blanket statements like the Desroches/Shimizu paper is not a helpful way of doing that. (Because, as many here have pointed out, that’s not what they’re interested nor paid to do).

141

bianca steele 07.10.12 at 5:48 pm

chris @ 122
Here there are “farmer’s markets,” usually every week in summer, at the town common or the parking lot Walmart’s now taken over for RV’s, and which probably wouldn’t exist without the interest in local food (and which are partly things like jam and crafts and fish (25 mi inland), and “farm stands,” at the farms, which might sell stuff from outside, and which might be out of the way, or might be on the state highway between towns, so you’d pass them anyway.

Sebastian H @ 130
On the other side I suppose, there’s a positive definition for “tribalism,” which means something like, “we can get things done if everybody pretty much agrees already, so it’s efficient to sort people out so everybody on one side is doing the same thing.” There’s certainly something to be said for paying closer attention to arguments against your of your own position, to make it stronger, than to those of the other side, whether for or against. That’s not at all the same thing as only listening to people who share your position, but it’s also not the same thing as only listening to people who oppose your position while only being nice to people who never oppose you.

And that’s a different definition of “tribalism” from the one that I assumed JQ was using, which assumes there’s an accepted, bipartisan truth that’s only opposed by the less educated among us.

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AAMCommons 07.10.12 at 6:47 pm

Your analysis ignores the environmental and human externalities associated industrial farming. Amazon forest destruction to farm your McDonald’s burger, destruction of Indonesian forests to grow Palm Kernel which is almost as many products as high fructose corn syrup. Algal blooms and dead zones in the Golf of Mexico from from fertilizer run off. 250,000 farmer suicides in India because of debt to Monsanto and entrapment by their sterile seed that requires enormous amounts of their poison to grow. Bee colony collapse where bees are now trucked around America with which to fertilize monocultures because there isn’t enough biodiversity to keep them alive outside the blossoming of the monoculture.

And this and much more before we even touch on food sovereignty and justice.

There is much more to the food debate and the benefits of Organic and Bio-dynamic farming than a marketing gimmick.

Watching this could help a little with your understanding..

143

Katherine 07.10.12 at 7:44 pm

Katherine, it’s not clear which way they add up. A total switch to locavorism could lead to a net increase in energy use, since it involves eliminating large-scale shipping by sea in favor of many small-scale trips over land. So collectively you could make the global warming problem worse.

Yes, thank you, please read comment 121, wherein I in fact make this very point. That any single individual is very unlikely to have the resources and knowledge to find out, and wouldn’t it be nice if someone with the knowledge and resources did so.

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Katherine 07.10.12 at 7:44 pm

Katherine, it’s not clear which way they add up. A total switch to locavorism could lead to a net increase in energy use, since it involves eliminating large-scale shipping by sea in favor of many small-scale trips over land. So collectively you could make the global warming problem worse.

Yes, thank you, please read comment 121, wherein I in fact make this very point. That any single individual is very unlikely to have the resources and knowledge to find out, and wouldn’t it be nice if someone with the knowledge and resources did so.

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Katherine 07.10.12 at 7:46 pm

Oops, don’t know how that happened.

146

Cheryl 07.10.12 at 7:56 pm

AAMCommons describes some of the things left out of the analysis. I would add that soya for human use also destroys the Amazon. But there are other things left out. Economists like to pretend that neoclassical economics is not theoretically dominant whether as a buried epistemology or as an active one. The Mercatus center piece in my opinion is given more respect than the locavore piece despite the Koch-funding and the fact that local food system funding is hard to obtain. Even though Prof Quiggin says he wants female bloggers I don’t think Jill Richardson’s piece is treated as respectfully as the Mercatus piece when it is probably less biased. When it comes to tribalism what about Australia’s location? Australia can hardly survive without ocean based trade can it?

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AAMCommons 07.10.12 at 8:16 pm

And how about fertilizers which are made from petro chemicals and shipped around the globe rather than as byproduct of the organic waste on site, water table depletion, soil erosion.

How about local economics? Doesn’t the local community benefit from a farmer driving his produce to the local farmers market, taking all of his income back to his farm which he can spend in his local community, rather than funneling cash as licensing fees and for sterile seed, fertilizer and pesticides & herbicides, sometimes half way around the world to Monsanto?

Seems this debate is futile if it revolves only around food miles and resulting carbon emissions.

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Patrick 07.10.12 at 9:03 pm

@Belle Waring at 107: I love you. Can you introduce me to your father so I can ask for your hand in marriage? I know it’s patriarchal, but I’m old-fashioned.

If you or he are unwilling to engage in this retrograde transaction, I know there are other things we can discuss. For example, he used to be a rural person who needed a gun in his daily life.

Knocks wood in hope of a favorable reply.

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dsquared 07.10.12 at 9:58 pm

Apples are pretty unusual in sea-transportability. A hell of a lot of food is air-freighted, which makes no kind of environmental sense at all, and as has been noted above, in general anyone who knows enough to describe themselves as a “locavore” knows enough to take a fairly nuanced and heuristic view of “food miles”. This is a big difference between left and right think tanks, in terms of the propagation of zombie ideas; food miles is now pretty much brown bread as a concept among left-environmentalist experts and it had a really quite short half-life.

In unrelated news, I do not go out and see every Michael Bay movie when it comes out, on the off chance that this time he might have come up with a modern Casablanca. I am surprised that so many of our commenters apparently do.

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MPAVictoria 07.11.12 at 12:21 am

“In unrelated news, I do not go out and see every Michael Bay movie when it comes out, on the off chance that this time he might have come up with a modern Casablanca. I am surprised that so many of our commenters apparently do.”

There you go with your ad hominems again…

151

Salient 07.11.12 at 1:07 am

Local accountability sounds a lot more promising than energy savings. It would be nice if the producers of my foods lived closely enough to ensure I could go throw pebbles at their livestock if they did something unconscionable. I guess this falls under AAMCommons’ externalities? Anything that makes commercial infrastructure easier to disrupt ought to be welcome, even if its purported energy/carbon savings turn out to be ephemeral…

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nick s 07.11.12 at 4:31 am

There you go with your ad hominems again…

He has past form:

There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world.

The Desroches-Shimizu thing for Mercatus came out in 2008, a couple of years after Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma (hence their subsequent bandwagoneering book) and as dsquared and others have suggested, the conversation has moved on a fair bit since then. Others have covered specifics, but I’ll add another: farmers who, thanks to CSA or market sales, no longer need to find supermarket buyers, and thus avoid having to abide by stipulations based upon quantity and aesthetics. Knobbly carrots will not be wasted.

(That Desroches and Shimizu highlighted the banana in their original piece ought to be considered a tell of sorts, given the history of Dole, Del Monte and particularly Chiquita, and their crappy bananas.)

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merian 07.11.12 at 5:58 am

bianca steele’s mention at #141 of receptiveness towards contrarian views, from your own camp vs. from an opposing ideological position, is relevant to the meta-conversation on debate style going on in several CT threads. I’d like to evaluate anyone’s argument on its own merits but realistically there will be intellectually dishonest people who’re out only for one-upmanship, gotchas and being perceived as the winner. Thus the invaluable character of honest critique from within one’s own “tribe” (to come back to this word, little fitting as it is here). Conversely, I can’t stand those who choose to put down the very position they base their actual attitudes on just because a few of the more mainstream representatives of the position turn somewhat faddish. There is value in loyalty to those who honestly pursue compatible goals (and to be courteous to those who profess such goals even if their position is incoherent).

If Mr Desrochers advances some small and approximately reasonable, if limited points with the ulterior motive to convince us that country-of-origin labeling is harmful (because he really believes it or because he’s paid to advance the notion, no matter), then shame on him. And those benighted consumers should be given access to information to correctly evaluate such labels, not be protected from their noxious influence.

I tried to figure out his data on Kenyan versus Dutch cut roses. First of all, it must date back from the first half of the 2000s, and second, the paper he’s referencing turns out to be a 3-page synopsis that is thin in methodology and detail. Despite having, through my employer, access to a pretty complete set of literature in Natural Resource Management (the researcher’s field), I couldn’t find a peer-reviewed publication (or indeed anything a little more substantial). Not that I precisely doubt their results, but I’d like to evaluate how the findings — approx. a factor 6 more CO2 emissions per 12,000 cut flowers for the Dutch producer than for the Kenyan — would evolve in time and how they are exactly toted up. For example, for the Dutch case, 99% fossil fuel for the energy production is indicated. Now the Netherlands is advancing innovative methods of “zero-emissions” greenhouses, that is, greenhouse units that are integrated with renewable energy sources. This sort of thing is not only a possible contribution to the wider economy in the Netherlands — sustainable engineering etc — but may have the potential to be rolled out in larger scale in, say, Dutch cut flower production. At the same time, I’d guess that Kenya’s revenues from horticulture (which I do not want to disparage at all!) will have the tendency of increasing carbon emissions in this country in the future. Nothing’s easy. Kenya deserves development. (No one really needs cut flowers, though.)

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John Quiggin 07.11.12 at 6:29 am

“Your analysis ignores the environmental and human externalities associated industrial farming.”
It’s not obvious to me that “produced for local market” = “not industrial”. Using greenhouses to produce warm-climate plants in a cold country is an obvious counter-example. More seriously, how about the choice between lot-fed cattle and sheep in US/Europe vs open-range grass fed Oz beef or NZ lamb (as someone suggested above, my own perspective on this is doubtless affected by my location and affiliations)

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John Quiggin 07.11.12 at 6:35 am

“This is a big difference between left and right think tanks, in terms of the propagation of zombie ideas; food miles is now pretty much brown bread as a concept among left-environmentalist experts and it had a really quite short half-life.”

We in the Antipodes still get US/UK TV shows with a lag of several months, and the lag of ideas is probably even longer – ideas that are shambling zombies in their country of origin can be tarted up as new and fresh for us – I’m still seeing food miles and virtual water here.

But the Left-Right difference is important, and is now, I think, deeply entrenched in the structure of the rightwing tanks. The general style on the right is to defend every inch against the left. But once someone is paid to do that, they will also hold their ground against anyone on the right who dares to suggest that some particular point of orthodoxy has outlived its usefulness. Orchestrating a unanimous switch can be done (eg the mandate) but it’s hard to do.

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Kukai 07.11.12 at 6:39 am

If anyone’s worried about Kenya’s CO2 emissions rising, they’ve been steadily burning down their forests for decades. About two percent of their forests are left. It’s turning into another Haiti, utterly corrupt and destitute. Hard to say how a rise in Kenya’s economy would impact CO2. Might actually diminish it: stripping forests to feed inefficient cooking fires both releases CO2 and denudes the vegetation which might hold water on the land. East Africa’s in serious trouble. For all those lovely pictures of the lions of Tsavo, Kenya’s going down the tubes along with Somalia.

Rwanda, by contrast, is doing rather well, albeit governed by the autocratic Kagame.

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merian 07.11.12 at 7:04 am

John Quiggin, #154:

It’s not obvious to me that “produced for local market” = “not industrial”. Using greenhouses to produce warm-climate plants in a cold country is an obvious counter-example.

Could you elaborate? Does the addition of artificial heating make an industrial undertaking out of a small-scale greenhouse operation? Does it make a difference of the heating comes from a local geothermal source? (This is the kind of options that I have in my cold corner of the world — and the local hothouse tomatoes still taste a lot better than those trucked in thousands of miles from Mexico, possibly because they’ve been developed from “heirloom” varieties that have been grown in the region for a while. But what the CO2 impact is I shudder to think, in some cases. My own tomatoes, however, are only beginning to blush and will probably still mostly get me green salsa (with no greenhouse at all).)

Otherwise, I’d agree with your thrust and think that there’s just no way of analysing case-by-case the ecological (including water, CO2/greenhouse emissions, soil, toxic emissions and residues, erosion, euthrophication, impact on heat budgets) and economic/development impact of each production mode, at the source, during transport and transformation, and at the end consumer.

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merian 07.11.12 at 7:08 am

Oops, hit that too early — what I meant to add is that the contrast between industrial and for-local-consumption is indeed somewhat artificial, but might still hold as a matter of style and business model choices: If you put together an industrial-scale agricultural or horticultural undertaking you’re likely to a) not care so much where your customers are, as long as you find some, and increase them and b) produce more than your immediate locality. Industrial pork production in Brittany springs to mind, with its large-scale pollution of drinkwater sources.

This is wrong, of course, if you’re outside a mega-city (as opposed to our towns of a few thousand to 100,000).

Industrial production modes, in many cases, would probably more likely to have negative impacts than energy-efficient long-distance transport of the goods, but again, it depends.

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John Quiggin 07.11.12 at 10:20 am

As you imply, “industrial” is a very imprecise term, especially if it’s being used as a pejorative. My own intuition is, roughly, that production that takes place under a roof is industrial, while production that takes place in the open air is not. So, I’d say, an intensive feedlot with 50 cattle is industrial, while 2000 head running nearly wild on 200 square kilometers (typical in parts of Aust) is not. But YMMV.

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Alex 07.11.12 at 11:24 am

You can tell “food miles” isn’t a serious concept because it’s not “food ton-miles”.

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Belle Waring 07.11.12 at 1:33 pm

Hi Patrick @148. I’m afraid John beat you to the punch on getting married, although he didn’t actually ask my dad for my hand in marriage first, causing much anger and grief in the Waring home. I thought my dad would think that kind of thing “too square” but it turned out he likes being the patriarch and was angry for years. He still has guns useful for country living, and a whole bunch not useful for country living, but that are just awesome and fun to fire at the range, like my stepmom’s chromed Colt .45 revolver. That is a lot of gun. He also has pit bulls and everything else needed to make sitting down on the floating dock on the May river as the sun sets and the stars come out be a beautiful proposition. Also, due to practicing many times every day since 1966(!) he can roll the most perfect…ah…handrolled cigarette containing only tobacco that you can imagine. I would say he’d love to meet you, but you know, he’s incredibly paranoid for some reason.

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Patrick 07.11.12 at 6:20 pm

Oh, I have no doubt he’d love to meet me, because I have no doubt I’d be properly appreciative of a floating dock, sunsets, and emerging stars. And respectful. (You’re right, that’s a lot of gun. Especially if you’re looking at it from the other end.)

However, respectful of people’s paranoia, I won’t exert any pressure. The Buddhists say that when you’re ready for your teacher, he/she will appear. I’ll keep my wits more or less about me at dusk, and hope for a lesson or two from the master.

While I’ve got you: I (unironically) love what you write here and I hope you keep it up.

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novakant 07.11.12 at 7:03 pm

My own intuition is, roughly, that production that takes place under a roof is industrial, while production that takes place in the open air is not.

That’s a very strange assumption. Every farm I’ve ever seen had a barn to house livestock – it gets really cold in Europe. According to your definition farming in Europe is per se industrial and has always been.

I don’t think zeroing in on any one aspect of food production is helpful. I like saffron and olive oil, which would be rather hard to produce locally, but generally agree with the agenda of Slow Food.

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AAMCommons 07.11.12 at 8:03 pm

Farming doesn’t have to be industrial in scale to be dangerous to the environment. My point is that environmental impact extends beyond carbon emissions via food miles and beyond the environment into economics and corporatism. Nobody can convince me monsanto’s corn, creating super weeds, eliminating farming jobs, bankrupting farmers, destroying the soil, depleting the water table, killing bee colonies, shipped around the world to feed cows is good because ships consume less energy than trucks. And how does the corn get to the ship? Hmmm, by truck?

My solution, (which only applies if you have a patch of dirt, although I’ve seen some impressive urban farms on NYC rooftops and in central Vancouver) grow what you can yourself. My vegetables travel aprox 10 mtrs to my kitchen, don’t involve Monsanto and are often gifted to my neighbours. I live on the middle of a small 2 mill people city.

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merian 07.11.12 at 8:54 pm

John Quiggin, #159:

My own intuition is, roughly, that production that takes place under a roof is industrial, while production that takes place in the open air is not.

Yeah, no, that one looks like it’s more useful in your corner of the world than in my cold one, where even small-scale hobby gardening (done by people with full-time non-farming jobs) can benefit from a (cold) greenhouse or a shelter for chickens or rabbits, even if they don’t overwinter. Also, aquaculture, some forms of commercial fisheries, large-scale monoculture staple crop farming of the kind you see in France or the US, don’t work. Even the “industrial” label isn’t all that helpful — I’d expect it to imply mass production (both 2000 and 50 heads of cattle would qualify), standardization (likely the case) and an artificial, usually technogenic work and production environment. It’s not clear where many farm types fall on this industrial/artisanal spectrum and how their location correlates with potential beneficial or noxious ecological effects.

Compare to more mainstream categories for farming practices: intensive vs. extensive; organic soil and livestock management vs. conventional; family/small business sized companies vs. third party owned, which I think are more useful though of course the naive approach that would equate large, corporate-owned and conventional with “bad” is way too coarse. It’s a fascinating research area, though with sometimes surprising results and a lot of space for creativity and innovation. Realistically, we also need the ability to produce large amounts of food and to ensure each locality’s food security (including robustness against disruption of transport), and as another commenter said, even small operations can have terrible impacts.

For the record, of course my hunch would be largely in favour of I eating your free-roaming Australian beef, provided it can be shipped to me efficiently, compared to feedlot farmed Mid-Western meat, but we’re not great meat eaters at home and pretty much all beef I buy for cooking, via a local grocery store, comes from a farm I drive by twice a day and can see the 40 or so heads of black Angus on their 100+ ha pasture. It’s even cheaper than the high-quality range from the big-box grocery store.

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piglet 07.12.12 at 11:28 pm

It is a bit depressing that still, after so much has been written by the likes of Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver, to name just a few voices very accessible to anglophone readers, whenever it comes to the non-mainstream food movement, Quiggin and a lot of other commenters on the centre-left are willing to fall for any old right-wing strawman that comes along.

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piglet 07.12.12 at 11:55 pm

Just a (almost) random pick: “While air freight is typically singled out by activists as both the most environmentally damaging and most energy-intensive mode of transport, it is actually a minor contributor (10 percent) to total CO2 emissions.”

10% is not minor, and the share is likely to increase unless oil prices prevent further expansion of air traffic. And of course, while air freight causes less emissions in absolute terms, per unit it is without doubt the most environmentally damaging and most energy-intensive mode of transport. To call this concoction an “engineering-based (and entirely convincing) debunking of the concept of food miles” – I’m sorry. I’ll put this down to tribalism. Quiggin wouldn’t swallow such a nonsense if it weren’t for a tribal aversion to the alternative food movement.

Thanks Alex 96, merian 93 and others.

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piglet 07.13.12 at 12:01 am

JQ: “It’s not obvious to me that “produced for local market” = “not industrial”.”

No it’s not. But the opposite is pretty obvious. Whatever Walmart imports from the other side of the world is very likely industrial production. The produce I buy from local vendors I know is certainly not industrial. As an aside, Walmart has started a local food initiative. (I don’t remember where I read about it – The Nation?) Locavores aren’t likely to flock to Walmart in response. The initiative may still be a good thing, or it may not. We’ll have to study that very closely.

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john b 07.13.12 at 3:47 am

A hell of a lot of food is air-freighted, which makes no kind of environmental sense at all

It’s not as insane as might be imagined. In general, food is airfreighted between countries where there is a significant mismatch between demand in different directions (and hence, a significant mismatch between price in different directions). Lots of important things are airfreighted to Mombasa, whereas Kenya has few exports that generally require airfreighting to the UK, so planes typically fly back with the hold half-empty.

This means that the (financial and environmental) cost of transporting beans or broccoli by air from Mombasa to London is solely the marginal cost of the extra fuel required to lift said beans, which is a substantial degree lower than would generally be the case for airfreight. If capacity were charged on the basis of average cost, the business wouldn’t be financially viable.

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Charles Peterson 07.13.12 at 4:38 am

It sounds to me that there are sufficient problems with the PD&HS not to take it too seriously. In this arena, as with nuclear power, I feel John is letting the pro-bigs off too easily with something that merely sounds like engineering. I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to avoid local food simply because by some strained and incomplete calculations–and under certain special circumstances–it might involve more CO2 emissions. Under the condition that local and remote energy use were the same, and the in-country transport the same (likely favors local in central USA), the ship travel CO2 is additive, not necessarily large, but still additive. Long distance travel by ship also involves the construction and maintenance of ships, ports, etc.

OTOH, there probably isn’t that big a deal, with regard to the transportation costs, of buying imported food, and I’d love the idea of eating free range hormone and antibiotic free imported meats when and if I could not get them locally (and prepared locally…that’s the hangup for me, I don’t spend time to prepare big meals for myself, so I end up eating only what others prepare at nearby restaurants).

But this is so not the only issue. One of the issues often mentioned is food security. If all my food needs to be imported 5,000 miles from countries that in the future mine may not have good relations with, among other possible scenarios in which long distrance trade can break down, that’s one reason to prefer locality.

Another issue is that of economic development and regress. If we let other countries do all the farming, we lose our ability to do so, which might be useful in the future.

And a third is that, in principle, with more local food you may be able to ensure that what is being advertised is what you are getting. Adam Smith himself talks about this advantage in locality.

And a fourth is the one of injecting money into a local economy rather than a distant one. One argument could be that there is no greater altruism (and perhaps less) in supporting someone locally than distant. But this suffers from the problem #3 that we don’t really know who and what is involved. But here I might as well choose to consider self-interest. Injecting money in a local economy is more likely to be beneficial to me directly, reducing local unemployment, etc.

This is one of those areas where people would best do different things. Some people buy local while others buy distant. We shouldn’t be trying to turn economies into monocultures. That’s risky and unwise.

But that appears to be exactly what PD&HS don’t want. They seem to want you just to go along with what the buyer at your local supermarket chooses–typically on the basis of highest profit for the store. Their increased profit may come from reducing other money available in the local economy.

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merian 07.13.12 at 5:57 am

I’d be skeptical of the proposition of following Michael Pollan’s path down too far. Admittedly, many people I’m in broad agreement with admire him, but I’m afraid there’s just too much about him that’s not going anywhere. His anti-scientific stances, for example, and his quasi-fetishistic noble-savage-like attitude to certain ancestral diets, while waving away contradictions. But all that isn’t really hitting what rubs me the wrong way, so I consulted a friend who’s had a long-standing interest in agriculture. To repeat her point here, Pollan is an advocate of the consumer, and doesn’t seem to care or actually know much anything of the constraints under which producers do their work. It’s all very two-dimensional. There are the good local organic small-scale farmers, and the evil conventional food system. Like, where do these guys fit in? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48H7zOQrX3U . And yeah, gotta feed everybody — I also want to get the industrial mass-production and the corporate profits out of farming. But we DO need to scale up, both globally and regionally/locally, and also scale DOWN to the poorest, both globally and within the societies where we live. So things are connected. A society that allows their poorest to be very much poorer than the median has a harder time feeding everyone quality food.

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Katherine 07.13.12 at 11:15 am

10% is not minor, and the share is likely to increase unless oil prices prevent further expansion of air traffic.

Well, quite. It’s as if people are looking at 1+2+3+4=10 and saying, well, 1 is so small it’s hardly worth thinking about, therefore 10=9.

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piglet 07.13.12 at 8:51 pm

Well merian take from Pollan what you like. It seems however that you’ve read a different book because I don’t remember anything about noble savages. He does have a short chapter on wild foods where he says that it would be good to have some wild food in our diet, while also discussing possible downsides. Or maybe what you are referring to is his discussion that the American culture is perhaps the first in history that doesn’t have a traditional food culture, and the problems that this creates. I thought that discussion was quite insightful. However, there might be people who mistake that as nostalgia. Maybe it just isn’t possible to point out that our present society has certain problems that weren’t present in non-traditional societies without being accused of either having a noble-savage fetishism, being anti-scientific, or wanting to go back to living in caves. I thought we had left those stupid non-sequitur false dichotomy strawman arguments behind us, or at least we had left them to the professional right-wing shills. But apparently, the Noble Strawman is alive and well even in left liberal circles, as this thread amply demonstrates.

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piglet 07.13.12 at 9:00 pm

john b 169: One of Kenya’s airlifted agricultural exports is flowers. In that case, the airlifting part isn’t the most insane – what is even more insane is a country that can’t feed itself using its agricultural productivity to grow flowers for Europe.

Your remark also brought to mind the documentary Darwin’s Nightmare. One of the threads in that documentary was what the planes that were shipping the fish from Tanzania to Europe were actually shipping in, and the suspicion was that it was weapons. Now it turned out that the film had some major problems. Nevertheless it isn’t that obvious to me that “lots of important things are airfreighted to Mombasa, whereas Kenya has few exports that generally require airfreighting to the UK”.

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piglet 07.13.12 at 9:01 pm

173 Just noticed I misspoke. Should read “Maybe it just isn’t possible to point out that our (non-traditional) society has certain problems that weren’t present in traditional societies…”

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Neville Morley 07.13.12 at 9:08 pm

@piglet #174: I’m reminded of an epigram of Martial, lamenting that Italy had once grown wheat to feed the people and was now, with the elevation of Rome to an imperial power, growing flowers for the rich. But the Kenyan case is far more absurd than that.

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John Quiggin 07.13.12 at 9:36 pm

@Charles Peterson I’m puzzled by your reference to nuclear power. Do you think this post
http://crookedtimber.org/2011/03/17/no-nuclear-renaissance/

lets the pro-nuclear guys off too lightly?

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merian 07.13.12 at 9:59 pm

Ok, piglet, “noble savage” wasn’t a particular apt choice of metaphor on my part and I’ll take it back and will refrain from tendentious word choice about Pollan. And I’m really a little dismayed that I seem to be getting into fights with people I otherwise completely agree with (such as you on Kenya) because the guy’s writing just gives me the hives every third paragraph. I really would like this not to be the case.

I was indeed referring to his endorsement of traditional food cultures, which from what I’ve seen (only articles and videos, not his books, sorry) is really quite lacking in critical distance. Many traditional food cultures are rather monotonous, contradicting his assertion that . There are examples of endemic medical conditions caused by deficiencies. And overall he’s extremely condescending about the nutritional and agricultural sciences, which for me are necessarily (and, dammit, it’s part of their responsibility) part of the solution. Much he says is simple good sense explained at a rather basic level — maybe we’re lacking this so it has its place. Fine. But mostly, I can’t see how his approach can either scale all the way through the social class system and especially adequately englobes the food-producing classes and occupations. In other words, I’ve yet to meet a farmer (who lives from farming) who wholeheartedly embraces Pollan (other than “this -fad-movement the Pollan guy started has increased demand among the richest 10% of my community for colorful heirloom tomatoes and locally grown herbs, so I that helps my business”).

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merian 07.13.12 at 10:01 pm

(Editing issues in #178… best simply scrap “contradicting his assertion that”. I was trying to weave in something about his way of talking about “8000″ food items that we used to consume as opposed to the meagre choice now available to us, according to him.)

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piglet 07.13.12 at 10:30 pm

I like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. I also like Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle (she’s a trained biologist btw) and Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. These authors are quite different but complement each others well. I think what I like about Pollan is that he thinks in terms of the food system as a whole (e. g. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=96090118; my only objection is that he probably overestimates the energy intensity of the food system). He is not in fact only concerned with the consumer side and I think he’s quite knowledgeable about farming although it won’t be difficult to find farmers who disagree with him (but then farmers disagree among each other quite a bit). Anyway, there are others worth reading and thinking about. No need to get worked up about this

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Harold 07.13.12 at 11:08 pm

Nostalgia for the grass-fed beef available until about 1960 = romantic primitivism and fetishism of the “noble savage”?

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John Quiggin 07.13.12 at 11:28 pm

@Harold

But it’s more complicated than that. Often (assuming you are in the Northern Hemisphere) the choice is between grain-fed locally produced meat and grass-fed meat from Oz and NZ. It seems to me that the latter is the more environmentally and socially responsible choice, but that’s not surprising given my position and affiliations (for the record, I was President of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society last year).

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merian 07.13.12 at 11:58 pm

Well, Harold, that’s pretty disingenuous given I’ve already identified myself as a member of the locally-eating grassfed-only crowd. In general, though, I do consider nostalgia to be pernicious. A guilty pleasure and means to rally one’s troops at best.

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