Eating local

by on August 28, 2008 at 11:31 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

Will Wilkinson serves up his wisdom:

How far your food travels matters a lot less than what kind of food it is, or how it was produced. According to a recent study out of Carnegie Mellon University, the distance traveled by the average American’s dinner rose about 25 percent from 1997 to 2004, due to increasing global trade. But carbon emissions from food transport saw only a 5 percent bump, thanks to the efficiencies of vast cargo container ships.  [TC: do note that precedes the rapid run-up of oil prices.]

A tomato raised in a heated greenhouse next door can be more carbon-intensive than one shipped halfway across the globe. And cows spew a lot more greenhouse gas than hens, or kumquats, so eating just a bit less beef can do more carbon-wise than going completely local. It’s complicated.

Addressing the cool folks, Will adds:

Should we minimize our “music miles” and boycott bands on tour? Thankfully, our next-door neighbors have a band, Dead Larry. We don’t have to go anywhere to hear them.

Here is the full CMU study cited by Will on food miles.  In my view we do have duties to behave more responsibly at the dinner table but the simple admonition "eat less meat" will do.  Maybe you don’t like tofu but sardines are delicious, or use Goya small red beans with shredded Mexican cheese (even the Kraft package is decent) and ground chile on a corn tortilla.  Don’t forget the lime on top.

Bob Murphy August 28, 2008 at 11:54 am

In my view we do have duties to behave more responsibly at the dinner table but the simple admonition “eat less meat” will do.

Tyler (or anyone), can you give us a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the PDV of global warming damages we avert by, say, eating beef one fewer time per week? I’m guessing in a Nordhaus framework, it might avert 0.001 cents of damage in present dollars.

So is this a symbolic act of solidarity, or do you think my guess is way way off?

Alger August 28, 2008 at 12:04 pm

Just a whiny point: There is a substantial misrepresentation of the Eat Local argument in the premise that a “tomato raised in a heated greenhouse next door can be more carbon-intensive than one shipped halfway across the globe.”

To the true eat local advocate the point is not to replicate the global food economy locally. One eats foods adapted to one’s region, and seasonally as well. The better question is if canning a garden raised local tomato uses more energy/imposes a larger carbon load.

I can answer for the fact that it tastes better anyway.
Cheers.

odograph August 28, 2008 at 12:13 pm

I’ve long argued that miles-to-farmers-market trump miles to farm.

Food shipped to your local super is at optimum fuel/ton, and your commute is only a couple miles. If you drive 10 (or 20?) to get “local” food you’ve blown it. You just burned the advantage.

(and the farmers going to local markets seem to be driving dodgy old pickup and vans …)

ivan August 28, 2008 at 12:30 pm

Eating less meat? But that’s unhealthy. See Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories. Should we all get sick to avert a little bit of global warming?

Joshua Holmes August 28, 2008 at 12:40 pm

Cows fed their natural diet – grass – emit few greenhouse gases. It’s because cows are fed grain and corn that they emit so much. If you’re concerned about it, keep eating beef but switch to grass-fed.

Jake August 28, 2008 at 1:45 pm

I echo Bob Murphy’s comments … what exactly is the expected magnitude of the decision to eat less beef? I’m guessing Bob’s PV $.001 figure is high.

vanderleun August 28, 2008 at 2:18 pm

” In my view we do have duties to behave more responsibly at the dinner table …”

Could you please post a list of all our current post-modern “duties?” I have such trouble keeping up with the burgeoning list of “requirements” these days. I would value your outline of what currently represents a “dutiful” and obedient human being.

Alger August 28, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Another whiny point.

Many of the comments are discussing the CSA/Farmer’s Market system as it stands now. I will agree that there are many dis-economies of scale involved as it is configured now.
How many of those objections would be mitigated by a system that uses markets smaller and more dispersed than the giant supermarkets, and actually shorten the travel to market distance of both the food and the consumer?

Also, it is explicitly a more costly system in some terms, but Local Food is not supposed to compete on the same terms with the agribusiness/superstore system. The value is elsewhere.

Mercutio.Mont August 28, 2008 at 3:21 pm

I nominate “a student of economics” for post of the month.

Rex Rhino August 28, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Local Food Movement = Conspicuous Consumption for fashionable modern Bourgeoisie

Since just about every consumable is mass produced, and easily affordable by most people – and things like jewels and opulent clothing are no longer acceptable to distinguish social class (even rich people wear blue jeans)… There has to be a new way to demonstrate your class status.

Since the farmed land that is local to an urban area is very limited (an urban area can’t possible produce enough food within a 50 or 100 mile radius to feed everyone), local food has built in scarcity. Local food will never be plentifully available to the masses city dwellers. Since it is scarce by design, it makes a perfect item for conspicuous consumption.

And not only does it act as a social status signal to buy local food, it gives the higher status person a socially acceptable reason to look down and morally judge the vast majority of people who inevitably won’t be able to share that lifestyle choice.

Of course “eating local” tastes “better”, because local products are a luxury item (or at least a ‘premium’ item). When you are catering to the privileged classes (or their bohemian hippie children), you are naturally going to produce a high quality product.

And of course your local farmer carrying a couple crates of veggies produces more carbon emissions that cargo-ships and trains which have economies of scale, but that is not the point… it isn’t really about reducing carbon emissions.

liberalarts August 28, 2008 at 8:34 pm

Rex Rhino is right that the local food movement is a luxury trend. But, I would add the further refinement that restaurants that advertise local ingredient cooking are a clear signal of both high quality ingredients and gourmet cooking (at least where I live). Chains and “ordinary” restaurants can’t be bothered with cooking from scratch, so their dumpsters are loaded with restaurant supply pre-fab food boxes. The best restaurants now signal their non-use of the restaurant supply food by using local ingredients.

rluser August 28, 2008 at 10:10 pm

Current definitions of obesity are damage?

mravery August 29, 2008 at 1:03 am

Just to pile on against the notion that “grain is what people at for milenia, so it’s what we should eat now”, most of those people were also field laborers working 10+ hours a day, 6 days a week. If we ate the type of diet they did (which included TONS of calories from grains), we’d get insanely fat. Calorie per dollar used to be the main consideration when it came to buying food, since your primary worry was having enough energy to do all of the crazy physical labor you had to do. Now… not so much.

Tracy W August 29, 2008 at 9:48 am

How many of those objections would be mitigated by a system that uses markets smaller and more dispersed than the giant supermarkets, and actually shorten the travel to market distance of both the food and the consumer?

How efficient are multiple small trucks, transporting goods, relative to large trucks, or trains, or ships, transporting to centralised locations?

If the transport costs of small dispersed markets were lower than those of giant supermarkets, wouldn’t we already be seeing that formation? (I’m having a hard time thinking of a reason for giant supermarkets apart from economies of scale).

dave September 2, 2008 at 11:09 pm

We do have socio-economic responsibility even if we don’t like to be told so. Our actions affect both current and future prices. What we buy and expect to buy helps determine what we will pay next time and what goods will be available. Support of a local farmers market strengthens the viability of that enterprise regardless of our view of its worth.

Our expectations about nutritional products have historically been driven by social norms. As our beliefs change, so too will the availability and price of food products fluctuate.

“Energy-friendly” products are only a niche good at this point. They are purchased despite their high cost as a result of perceived value. We can make many assumptions about the best foods to eat. I haven’t done the research, so I don’t claim to know the facts, but I can theorize that there are much smarter ways of meeting our daily needs for sustenance than what we are used to.

It’s important to remember that the market is a product of many influences. Our buying decisions are only a part of the equation, and we cannot assume that we know what is best without studying supply and demand over time.

Sword of the New World money January 1, 2009 at 11:43 pm

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anna May 15, 2009 at 1:13 am

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