Green eating bleg

by on February 1, 2011 at 12:23 pm in Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

I just received a copy of Tim Worstall's new Chasing Rainbows: How the Green Agenda Defeats its Aims.  I am wondering: what are the best serious, economically-informed accounts on how to "eat green" in an informed way?  I am looking for suggestions which take economic reasoning and the idea of secondary consequences into account.

1 Brad February 1, 2011 at 8:27 am


2 Bill February 1, 2011 at 8:37 am
3 Noah Yetter February 1, 2011 at 9:13 am

"…what are the best serious, economically-informed accounts on how to "eat green" in an informed way? I am looking for suggestions which take economic reasoning and the idea of secondary consequences into account."

You just contradicted yourself. Ignoring economic reasoning lies at the very core of everything "green".

4 dirk February 1, 2011 at 9:27 am

Here is Andrew Potter in praise of hydrobeef:

5 Caitlin February 1, 2011 at 9:28 am

Buying the whole week's worth of groceries in one trip without forgetting anything?

6 Andrew February 1, 2011 at 9:33 am

The problem with most locavores is that they are doing it wrong. But the heart of the matter is the belief, or even just the vague concern that economics doesn't properly account for some things such as under-recognized threats to sustainability. The flip side of the criticism of those folks is a critique of economics. Where you are right on is if start with the assumption of the leftish definition of what 'green' food production (e.g. worrying about anything other than food production) means you probably don't get past fuzzy economic thinking. For example, economics might tend to view redundancy as inefficiency.

7 dirk February 1, 2011 at 10:02 am

@Erik, very interesting comments. I have a question on this one, though:

"If I can learn to eat, in a more healthy way, that involves less transportation and distribution miles than flying fruit in from Argentina, then that is a bonus."

I agree that Argentina is a long way from New York, but from an environmental point of view isn't the question how much fuel is used per unit of fruit? Is it much? Is fruit really "flying" from Argentina, or is it rather transported on a large cargo ship? My understanding is that if you are trying to reduce your carbon footprint eating local doesn't have much effect. The main thing you can do is simply drive less.

Consider that when you buy imported fruit the cost of the transportation is included in the price of the fruit. So if the fruit doesn't cost much, it didn't take much fuel to get it to market.

8 Erik February 1, 2011 at 10:31 am


You are totally correct that my comment was a bit flippant. However, some food IS flown and not shipped via cargo boat. For instance, we (my girlfriend and I) have no problem buying bananas from the tropics or clementines form Spain, because both are hearty and therefore shipped by cargo boat, which has an extremely low carbon footprint.

However, some items, such as fresh strawberries, are very perishable and can only be shipped by air when being flow from say, California to NYC in the dead of winter. We don't eat those because there is a strawberry season in NYC and that's when we get our fill (and my girlfriend loves canning and preserving).

Bananas and citrus are not native, so we make some exceptions to be able to enjoy them. For items that are native, we try to eat seasonally/locally. It has been an interesting year learning how to cook that way, especially the winter.

Also, about the cost being baked into the price, you are correct about that. However it is usually offset by growing practices that we don't agree with (pesticides for health reasons, underpaid labor for ethical reasons). Our local growers aren't all exactly communes, but we talk personally to the farmers each and every Saturday. Their other costs are higher, which offsets the savings on transport.

I don't know the statistics of reducing one's driving vs. eating locally and the related impact on the environment. As a New Yorker, I don't have a car to begin with, so that's not a choice I had to make. At the same time, though, they are not mutually exclusive. You can drive less AND eat more locally.

But, as I said, the carbon footprint, to me, is a bonus externality. I really eat this way because I like to have personal control over my food and its quality in a way that is impossible with larger-scale agribusiness, and local farmers are really the only alternative.

As an aside, and not related to anything that you said, I also like to support them because I think of them as the Irish Monks of our time, in possession of a knowledge that is being lost and that may become important again. Don't label me as crazy; I don't think the US "Fall of Rome" scenario is imminent in any way, but I can't deny the fragility of our current national food system.

One day the knowledge of how to naturally provide food from the soil and maintain a fertile soil may become important again. Most of our farm soil in the US today is all but unusable if not for the agribusiness and petrochemical industries.

On the plus side, it has allowed us to feed the world. The Green Revolution made starvation irrelevant for many people of the world. But I worry (from an economics perspective) about whether it's a permanently sustainable concept. Even if we moved away from oil to fuel our electricity and our transportation, there is no alternative to oil for producing synthetic fertilizer. I am not even talking about oil "running out", just a geo-political oil shock that sends prices soaring, potentially on a permanent basis.

But, like I said, mostly it's a selfish thing. I want to be healthy. I want control over my food. As a bonus, changing my eating habits has altered my metabolism. Moving away from processed food has had some sort of impact on my various food cravings and appetite. I can't speak to the science, and I do exercise, but I have lost 45 pounds. I actually want to learn more about the science of metabolism, because I used to think that a calorie is just a calorie and calories in vs. calories out determines weight gain or loss, but recent personal experience has shifted me away from that view.

9 Erik February 1, 2011 at 10:43 am

@ ars,

Very well said. However, GMOs worry me both because of the science (unintended consequences) and the economic-politics. If GMO could be walled off and isolated and people given a choice, I'd be all for it. However GMO genomes tend to spread (see this week's GMO Alfalfa news). 3rd world farmers should be given a choice about whether to save their own seed or buy corporate seed, and GMO seeds are one lever that the businesses like to use to take that choice away from the farmers, since the businesses own the seed genome.

10 Fred Bush February 1, 2011 at 11:24 am

Quick and dirty answer is to get as close to vegan as possible. Farmed tilapia and honey are not a problem either; Maybe goat?

11 ars February 1, 2011 at 11:30 am

@Erik —

I'm definitely not an expert on GMO. Some thoughts in response to your points:

Thinking GMOs have potential as a technology is compatible with also thinking that agribusiness concerns are malign. Still, restricting access to a technology is a pretty crude way to check the power of an industry, and one that seems as likely to hurt consumers as help them. Maybe this is wrong — maybe it really is better to stop this form of market concentration before it has a chance to take hold — but it's a tough argument to make.

I used to work in molecular bio labs, and I've just never been able to work up the concerns others seem to have about genetic contamination. This might seem glib (probably is glib), but all technology carries some risk, and this one just doesn't keep me up at night.

Again, not an area of any particular expertise for me, but my belief is that the future holds much more genetic manipulation, not less, for better or for worse.

12 Erik February 1, 2011 at 11:40 am

@ back40,

Your comments are very insightful.

I think your more recent comment, though, misses part of the argument. You are correct about animals raised naturally on marginal land, that they represent "free meat". However, the amount of meat currently raised in this manner does not match the US demand for meat. That is why we then have CAFOs, which feed the ruminants corn (which they cannot naturally digest) and makes them less healthy to predators (us).

It also adds "cost" to the equation since the corn is most likely coming from land that could be used for other agricultural purposes. The cost per calorie of that cow then becomes non-negligent, and in fact far higher than the cost per calorie of eating, say, corn (although the corn fed to cows is not fit for human consumption).

There is an equilibrium somewhere (which I would love for someone to explore). I at least *feel* that I have satisfied some sort of equilibrium personally by eating far less meat than I used to (the original argument). What I do eat is pasture-raised beef that is closer in profile to your example. It is also far more expensive than standard US beef. That's a second reason why I eat less meat.

13 Erik February 1, 2011 at 11:44 am

@ ars,

In most matters, I am with you in terms of being a techno-optimist. GMO is one of two exceptions. The illustrative issue with Monsanto's GMO alfalfa is that it is the first perennial GMO product that is being allowed. It lives for 5 years. It's also bee-pollinated, which means that cross pollination will occur with plants up to 5 miles away for those 5 years. Finally, it's a cover crop that many natural farmers use to replenish their soil, which now they need to worry about becoming cross-fertilized by GMO plants. My issue it not the product itself, its the lack of control over where it goes and the effective crowding out of choice that results.

14 Dan Weber February 1, 2011 at 12:03 pm

I found "The Omnivore's Dilemma" a decent read, but it wasn't very heavy on economics. The author seemed pretty familiar with econ, though.

15 Yancey Ward February 1, 2011 at 1:03 pm

I will put my noggin to work on it while I wait for the Meat Lovers pizza to be delivered.

16 back40 February 1, 2011 at 1:05 pm

"the amount of meat currently raised in this manner does not match the US demand for meat."

My comments apply to ruminants. Other meat animals such as chickens, hogs, and even farmed fishes are competitors for human food and can fairly be said to be "inefficient" in the sense that the calories that they produce do not equal what they consume. This fails to account for the variety of calories and the needs of human nutrition, but it is worth considering in the context of a discussion of "green" eating.

Ruminants, in contrast, are currently mainly produced consuming non-human foods. Brood cows live their whole lives on pasture, and their calves get most of their bulk the same way. It is only for the finishing (fattening) period that they are fed human foods in industrial systems, and that it the only part of the system that can be argued to be inefficient or that would benefit from green agronomic and economic thinking. The problem is smaller than you think.

"That is why we then have CAFOs, which feed the ruminants corn (which they cannot naturally digest) and makes them less healthy to predators (us)."

Corns of all cereals (in the old sense that a corn is the swelling of a seed head) are very, very digestible and are a natural part of ruminant diets. The problem isn't that they get some grain, it is that they get too much. I call it the twinky diet, after the common sugar snack food. They can in time adapt to such a diet as the relative population sizes of their digestive flora adjust, but it takes longer than they are typically fed such diets. For example, if fed such a diet for nearly a year they can almost fully adjust and thrive, and their meat is nutritious.

But, that makes little economic sense, especially when a third of all potential grain is currently consumed by agro-fuel producers, and might not make sense if subsidies of all sorts were eliminated. Short feeding is currently an economic best practice, and the industry is rapidly shifting that way. A consequence is that heavier animals that have been on grass longer have more value, and ranchers are adjusting their breeding programs to favor "grass genetics", meaning animals that flesh more easily on rough forage. Semen from proven bulls (such as some lines of pre-potent Red Devon from New Zealand) are extremely valuable right now.

When the environmental benefits are added to the health benefits of such agronomic systems the sum can fairly be said to be more green than field and row cropping systems. Peripheral green concerns such as biodiversity, atmospheric and soil health (which affects environmental services such as water management) are also improved.

It isn't that we can stop field and row cropping, or would want to, it is that green dogma has been comprehensively wrong in the past and is ever so slowly improving. There is a lag since old and discredited views are quoted and believed long after their sell-by dates have expired. Popularizers that others have mentioned (Salatin, Pollan, etc.) have helped somewhat, though they lack sophisticated understandings of the issues and their writings are simplified versions of their unsophisticated understandings. They are inadvertently creating a new set of myths which we will need to debunk in future, but on balance the myths are less pernicious than we have now.

17 Thought_Food February 1, 2011 at 4:41 pm

"Just Food" by James E. McWilliams makes the journey from confirmed locavore, trying to live green to wondering how it adds up for the planet as a whole. Interesting and balanced,:as the author himself notes, the food domain is often bitterly polarising, to be at the center is often a radical position, so one appreciates his nuanced analysis.

18 Duracomm February 1, 2011 at 5:53 pm

If you are interested in status signaling by all means keep posting on and working towards "eating green"

On the other hand if you want to do something that would actually make a meaningful contribution to helping the environment put your position as an opinion influencer to good use.

Use your position to publicize the environmental destruction ag subsidies (biofuel mandates in particular)cause.

Publishing some influential and well cited papers illustrating the economically and environmentally destructive impact of ag subsidies would do far more to advance environmental preservation than trying to "eat green" would.

19 back40 February 1, 2011 at 6:51 pm

I'd say complex rather than complicated, but agree with the spirit of the idea that it's hard to know just what to do.

Re prairie: an interesting Soil Science Society of America paper does some new experiments and a lit survey to conclude that moderate density grazing of Conservation Reserve Program lands is better for them than just leaving them alone. The CRP is also a subsidy of sorts which takes land out of production and in doing so raises the farming value of what is left, and yet it isn't sensible conservation.

20 Frank February 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm

If you like animals so much, why do you eat their food?

21 Ronald Brak February 1, 2011 at 10:46 pm

The most environmentally friendly diet I can think of is to eat as cheaply as possible and use the money saved to protect the environment.

22 Erik February 2, 2011 at 4:24 am

@ Rahul

You're right about the population increase, but it's not just the size of the US population but the makeup of its diet that has changed. We can get by on grazed beef. I would argue towards eating of all meats per capita (since that is the biggest shift we have made). Back40's point is also that we can get by on grazed beef, although he is saying we need to move to eating more ruminants (e.g., cows) and less other meat and keep the ruminants on a grazed diet (as someone who raised cattle, he knows more than me on this particular topic). As for organic produce, from what I have read it IS possible to feed the masses.

Contrarians looks at food output and yield from 100 years ago and conclude that it cannot be done. But the argument is not a binary choice of industrial agriculture vs. Victorian practices. We have learned a LOT in that time about how to combat pests naturally, plant crops together in strategic ways that increases the yield of each of them, etc. This is a subject that I personally want to read more about. It's the issue I was talking about regrading what Cuba was forced to discover post-USSR, and it's the reason I brought that piece up out of the blue because the "we can't feed everyone" argument is a very common one. As I said, I am no expert on this matter, so if anyone can suggest further reading, it would be welcome.

I also agree that a doomsday oil shock would be felt in every aspect of our lives, not just food. I also don't see that as an argument to ignore the issue. Among the list of things, food is pretty fundamental. I also don't think that a sudden doomsday scenario is likely. I think it's more likely that oil and energy prices simply increase over time until various technologies are forced to change or crowded out. For example, electric cars will become more economical (although they are really powered by coal, for the most part). It will be more economical for individuals to install solar or wind power at their home (will have a positive ROI, which it does not today). Food will have similar shifts to go through as the economics of cheap oil change over the next 20+ years. We might as well start learning.

And the locavore correlation with love of travel is apt because the causation is the same: affluence. I cannot deny the facts there. You don't have to have a lot of money to "eat green" (in fact, our total food bill has gone down), but in general the middle and working class don't think about the topic. The reason we started our site was response to demand. Friends and family in the suburbs who would never read Michael Pollan nonetheless noticed what we were doing and wanted to "see" what we were doing and learn more about it. It's a topic that is slowly working it's way out from Brooklyn, Portland, San Francisco, and Cambridge.

The 12oz box of strawberries don't add up to much. But collective, all the food decisions you make do add up. Travel is travel. Try to get somewhere without going there. I generally get on a plane once or twice per year. It is what it is. I'm a pragmatist, not a fundamentalist. That doesn't mean I can't try to improve my food choices. It's really about conscious eating and being informed about where your food comes from, what has or has not been done to it, realizing how many times it has changed hands, and knowing if and when you can get it form other sources. Each of those facts has an impact on your health and the "greenness" of the food. There's no need for anyone to be absolutist and perfect about their choices, but we strive to be 80% thoughtful about our food choices 80% of the time. Part of that is we choose to eat strawberries when they are in season here and not ones that are flown in. If there is someone who cannot live without a daily dose of strawberries then they might make a different choice, but I hope that they would then find something else in their diet. This is just an example, but I think it helps to make my point.

False equivalency arguments in all spheres just drive me bonkers. I can't control other people's behavior and have no desire to. I can't always control how I need to travel. I can control what I eat, for the most part, so I made it a choice to do so. I consider it a small form of voting with my wallet again the agricultural subsidies and cornification of US agriculture, as well as the insanely unhealthy salt and sugar based processed food system.

I've lived if for almost a year now, and I thought I would be rather miserable with it. It's a long story about how we got started with this. But in the end, I have enjoyed it tremendously. Also, I have been taken off of all my blood-pressure medications and have become a much better cook. And it's something "green" that I can personally do and control, unlike so many policy discussions, ideas about end ag subsidies, etc. All these are the reasons why I have chosen to do this.

23 jason February 2, 2011 at 6:11 am

It seems almost cliche at this point, but Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is one of the best books I've read about food or anything else. While financial economics are largely absent from the book, concepts like incentives, trade-offs, regulation, and globalization all play significant supporting roles.

24 Erik February 2, 2011 at 7:10 am

Your point is well-taken. My girlfriend does the canning as a hobby mostly because she enjoys it, not because it's a focal point of our eating habits. It's not something I expect everybody – or anybody for that matter – to do.

Your points about the infrastructure and distribution systems of local food are also excellent. I am lucky that in NYC there are over 50 greenmarkets where farmers can co-located centrally to minimize distribution resource needs while maximizing availability. Half of them are open year-round, and many have compost dropoff and textile and battery recyling drop-offs as well. It's very well designed. There's no question that nationwide, we can do better.

In the interim, there are options such as joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), where you sign up in advance, and pay in advance for a share in a farm's output for the season. It's a risk mitigation tool on their part because if there is a poor harvest, you get your percentage of that smaller harvest; likewise you would share in a great harvest. Their income, however remains predictable. To your point about distribution, most CSAs will deliver the weekly boxes to a smaller number of distribution points that are located closer to their subscribers, from which individuals pick up their boxes. It's like meeting you half-way, but on their side they are combining the trips of all of their subscribers into a single load.

CSAs do present another challenge, though. One week you may get a a number of eggplants, and another week squash. Beyond the normal seasonal availability questions, you lose control over the food because it becomes whatever the farmer has harvested that week (although they usually try to rotate it to put a variety in the box). It's a new way of cooking to most people to have to find 4 ways to cook eggplant over a two-week period.

Another reading resource is Mark Bittman, who is not an economist but who is very knowledgeable. He just shifted away from writing about food and recipes to writing about the food system. I don't agree with everything he says, but his column is going to be very visible. I would love to see an economist team up with him to help analyze his statements.

25 Rahul February 2, 2011 at 7:47 am

Erik, I definitely respect your choices on a personal level. It is just that I am still skeptical that there is much societal-benefit in them. A lot of the central-themes in the eat local movement seem to go against division of labor, geographical comparative advantages, economies of scale etc. All theories that have stood the test of time.

Eating potatoes shipped from Idaho and lobsters from Maine makes sense to me; those regions have a comparative geographical advantage. Maybe this higher productivity offsets the transportation costs? I don't know but, often the eat-local arguments don't give them enough thought.

Then there's division of labor. Canning as a hobby is great. But there's no denying the fact that an industrialized canner can do it more efficiently. Specialization is a cornerstone of modern life.

There are also help-the-local-business or help-the-small-farmer overtones that make me uncomfortable. Very parochial. Does my living in Wisconsin make my local farmer more deserving of my dollars than, say, a farmer in Florida?

26 ugh February 2, 2011 at 11:00 am

Erik starts out making a lot of sense, but then really loses me with:

"accumulation of biomass by the wealthy at the expense of the poor and landless"


"in the over-developed countries"

Exactly which countries are "over-developed" and what exactly does that mean?

27 back40 February 2, 2011 at 3:48 pm

"they mostly seem to inject a ton of complexity into the topic without altering the fundamental equation: eating less meat is the most effective way to reduce the resource-intensiveness of one's diet."

It's the opposite: eating less field and row crops reduces resource-intensiveness, as well as improving the environment including the atmosphere. It's also often better for your health.

It's not that you can eliminate field and row crops, or would want to do so, it is that they are expensive and harmful in a variety of ways. The fewer that are grown the less harm done.

You could argue that just plain eating less of everything would help, but if you must choose then reduce the crops. There's simply no way that gouging up the earth can ever be considered benign. That's why careful thinkers are trying to develop radical alternatives such as perennial cereal crops to break the destructive cycles.

28 Rahul February 2, 2011 at 6:27 pm

>>>It also bears pointing out that a comprehensive carbon price would cut through a lot (but not all) of these arid discussions about the environmental "sinfulness" of various activities.<<<

Agreed. Pricing is the best solution to get the most efficient options. Otherwise it's just a lot of your arguments against mine or the many ( undependable ) cost-benefit studies churned out by academics.

29 Erik February 3, 2011 at 5:22 am


Those quotes are from a book that I have not yet read, so I cannot particularly explain them. It was the general premise that intrigues me enough to want to pick it up.

My interpretation is that in a balanced food system that there are naturally cows and other animals that graze on the marginal land that cannot otherwise be used to grow food for man. However the Western consumption levels of beef are beyond the level at which that can be maintained. Some of this is due to incentives, as subsidies and other forces make it more valuable to try to plant on such marginal land. These same forces make certain grain crops cheaper than they would otherwise be and therefore make it cheaper to feed cattle (on mass) with crops that are grown on non-marginal land.

I need to read the book to see if my interpretation of its thesis is correct or not.

"Accumulation of biomass by the wealthy at the expense of the poor and landless" is a statement that, prior to knowing more, I would probably agree with. When cows are fed corn from otherwise usable land, that really means that to get the nutrition and calories provided by a steak requires an amount of land to support that steak that is greater then that which would be required to simply get the same level of nutrition and calories by eating plants grown directly on the same land. Eating a steak in this scenario therefore consumes more resources, hence "accumulation of biomass", which I guess is another way of saying that. "the poor and landless" brings a judgment into the situation that is not my style, but it's just stating that there is someone on the other side of that deal who is not eating meat because they can't afford it, who is therefore relying on less arable land for their nutrition.

What interests me about the thesis is that there is an equilibrium where this is not the case, but presumably it would require that we in the Western world eat less meat than we do now. Perhaps the current food system could be redesigned so that this was not the case, but it appears to be the way it stands now. That's what I assume is meant by "over-developed", although again that comes with undertones that aren't mine.

Just because someone's attitude and perspective are different than your own, and just because they may come at a situation with some bias, it doesn't mean that they don't have interesting facts that can be incorporated into your own knowledge or arguments that might be right int part. To make a moral judgment about their moral judgment and dismiss their arguments out of hand is a loss.

@ back40,

I really can't follow you most of the time, which is a shame because you seem to have a good deal of specialist knowledge. I tried to invest the time in following your arguments, but your last few statements show that you have some sort of ax to grind.

30 Erik February 3, 2011 at 6:04 am

@ ugh,

Rereading what I wrote I want to apologize. It was written too quickly.

Food, like politics, is a highly partisan and emotional subject, fraught with biases and judgments. Unfortunately, there is very little written "from the center", with data to back it up. So to find anything of interest, you have to usually read from one "side" or the other. It's difficult to find a knowledgeable author who doesn't have an agenda one way or the other (which is really the question that started this post, to interpret Tyler).

So while the vegans are busy shouting that corporations and meat eaters are destroying the planet, and while the other side is busy shouting that the vegans and locavores are moralist jerks who are out to wreck the economy, someone trying to really figure things out for themselves needs to read both sides and sift through a lot of junk.

I would really like someone to write a book or body of work that is balanced. Food is such a complex system that I don't think pure economic efficiency has all the answers, because we have a very efficient system today and it is generally unhealthy for humans. At the same time, I can't stand the moralizing that comes from the vegetarian crowd. The irony is that because of the eating experiment that I have undertaken this past year, *I* get a lot of that directed at me. Sometimes it makes me a bit short.

I apologize for any moralizing, because that's what I am interested in cutting through myself. I hope that even if everything I say is not 100% correct, that people can understand where I am coming from.


31 emptywheel February 4, 2011 at 4:12 am


You concerns about what someone in MN will eat in December are misplaced.

I live in MI, and last year I ate almost no non-local veggies except for bananas and avocados until about April. I bought by CSA's Thanksgiving share (which has mostly storage veggies), I had my own garden's veggies (with the CSA, I always have focused on storage veggies like squash and potatoes), and I belonged to a freezer CSA (locally grown veggies frozen in a local commercial kitchen).

And while I had canned peach jam and preserved cherries and frozen tomatoes and rhubarb, the rest didn't involve preservation beyond sticking them in the appropriate part of the house to make them last as long as they could (though I did make a couple of batches of sauerkraut, mostly bc I like it). I ate my last squash in July, it was still fine.

So it's actually fairly easy for someone in a northern clime to eat locally and seasonally. Not, however, if you live in an apartment. But this was all in a 1000 square foot house with just a small part of the yard dedicated to garden.

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