Eco-Fads: The High Environmental Cost of the Local Food Movement
One of the key tenets of environmental dogma is that buying locally produced food helps the environment. The fewer miles the food travels, they argue, the less energy used and the better it is for the environment. The King County "Ecoconsumer," a taxpayer-funded county employee, argued the case in the Seattle Times:
"Food miles" — how far food travels from the producer to your home — have become the latest preoccupation for folks concerned about their ecological footprint. Transportation of food requires copious amounts of fossil fuels and other resources that contribute to global warming and pollution, so the lower the food mileage we rack up, the better.
Simple enough, right?
Actually, no. Such a simplistic approach would actually increase energy and resource use in many cases.
Food production is much more complicated than that, and the amount of energy used depends on more variables than government can track. A free market price system, that incorporates the cost of energy and other resource inputs at every step of the process, is a much more accurate way to calculate the true impact – and provide incentives to reduce that impact. Focusing solely on the distance the final product travels to market ignores most of the energy and resources used in the growing process.
Over at the Freakonomics blog, Steve Sexton notes that buying locally can be extremely damaging to the environment. He notes that promoting small, local farms has some serious environmental costs:
...the smallholder farming future envisioned by the local farming movement could jeopardize natural habitat and climate change mitigation efforts, while also endangering a tenuous and temporary victory in the battle against human hunger.
He cites Idaho's famous potatoes to explain why.
In 2008, according to the USDA, Idaho averaged 383 hundredweight of potatoes per acre. Alabama, in contrast, averaged only 170 hundredweight per acre. Is it any wonder Idaho planted more acres of potatoes than Alabama? Forsaking comparative advantage in agriculture by localizing means it will take more inputs to grow a given quantity of food, including more land and more chemicals—all of which come at a cost of carbon emissions.
What does all of this add up to? Sexton offers an estimate.
A locavore-like production system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals
The whole thing is worth a read. The bottom line is that putting a price on energy and resources through the free market is, quite simply, a better way to reduce resource use even for something as seemingly "simple" as growing food.
To be sure, there are other reasons people cite for buying food locally, but some of them are simply feel-good justifications about buying from your neighbors. I still don't understand why buying from someone who happens to live 20 miles from me is morally superior to buying from someone in Idaho or Iowa. In fact, I find that attitude based in a creepy "us versus them" concept that is morally dubious.
Ultimately, people are free to buy food from whomever they choose. They should, however, understand that the simplistic notion that buying locally is better for the environment isn't true and that such an approach is likely to do more harm than good.