Eat Global

by Russ Roberts on August 31, 2007

in Environment

A lot of environmentalists want people to eat local to reduce transportation costs. But James McWilliams in this New York Times piece, points out that transportation isn’t the only cost (HT Jim Morse and Coyote Blog):

But is reducing food miles necessarily good for the environment?
Researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand, no doubt responding
to Europe’s push for “food miles labeling,” recently published a study
challenging the premise that more food miles automatically mean greater
fossil fuel consumption. Other scientific studies have undertaken
similar investigations. According to this peer-reviewed research,
compelling evidence suggests that there is more — or less — to food
miles than meets the eye.

It all depends on how you wield the
carbon calculator. Instead of measuring a product’s carbon footprint
through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded
their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production
— what economists call “factor inputs and externalities” — like water
use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy
applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the
amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of
packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached
surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on
New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat
to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton
while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in
part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In
other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to
buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from
a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy
products and fruit.

These life-cycle measurements are causing
environmentalists worldwide to rethink the logic of food miles. New
Zealand’s most prominent environmental research organization, Landcare
Research-Manaaki Whenua, explains that localism “is not always the most
environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other
stages of the product life cycle than during transport.” The British
government’s 2006 Food Industry Sustainability Strategy similarly seeks
to consider the environmental costs “across the life cycle of the
produce,” not just in transportation.

I suspect those New Zealand researchers might be a tad eager to find in favor of Kiwi mutton over the British variety. But the fundamental economics is right.

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Simon Clark August 31, 2007 at 12:20 pm

I think Adam Smith nailed this back when he talked about growing grapes in Scotland as opposed to France!

mk August 31, 2007 at 12:43 pm

I suspect those New Zealand researchers might be a tad eager to find in favor of Kiwi mutton over the British variety.

Yeah, as far as I know there is some supply of pasture-raised lamb in Britain. So that would be the best option. Of course, I am not certain whether it scales.

lowcountryjoe August 31, 2007 at 1:33 pm

Not if but when the environmentalist/alarmist crowd get even nuttier than they are now, I will go into business producing and marketing 'green', easy-to-use self-flogging products and make tons of money. I may even market carbon offset certificates so as t diversify my product line.

The Dirty Mac August 31, 2007 at 2:26 pm

This is essentially a continuation of a comment I made earlier today, but there is no economic indicator that can quite match the composition of ones diet. During the Carter Administration, my family downgraded from veal to chicken to pork cutlets. Today, I can walk into Trader Joe's and at very reasonable prices purchase food that was once simply not available to middle class Americans. Shittake mushrooms, ahi tuna, ready-to-eat Indian food? The greens are showing their true colors by acting to restrict the access to food.

Adam Malone August 31, 2007 at 3:26 pm

I find it odd that Environmentalists often run in the same crowds that cry out of out for the need to solve poverty. Even though the US and other industrialized nations produce numerous agricultural products, agriculture is the easiest way for poor nations to enter the world markets.

By limiting the market for foodstuffs based on "food miles" the ability for developing nations to enter the global market is greatly diminished.

lowcountryjoe August 31, 2007 at 4:09 pm

I find it odd that Environmentalists often run in the same crowds that cry out of out for the need to solve poverty.

This used to surprise me but it doesn't really surprise me any longer. Many people that go to great lengths to publicly profess their altruism do their best to avoid the very people who would be beneficiaries of that altruism (altruism in the form of the lobbying for OPM to 'solve' inequalities, generally). Nor is this behavior anything new: you can find it in some of the oldest literature available. Read the behavior of Judas in John 12…it's a classic example.

Jason August 31, 2007 at 9:12 pm

I hope people remember examples like this, "it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard" when they propose becoming energy independent (aka energy inefficient) and providing all their food and energy needs in their backyard. Self-sufficiency is an expensive luxury.

Ray G August 31, 2007 at 9:34 pm

Everything about the overall environmental movement eventually leads in the direction from open markets to isolated, planned markets.

SaulOhio September 1, 2007 at 10:15 am

If you are going to go against the most economical thing to do, you will neccessarily be doing that which wastes the most resources. I've known this even before Penn & Teller did their episode on recycling.

Per Kurowski September 1, 2007 at 10:32 am

Re Russell Roberts: You write “In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners…”

You mean “environment-efficient” don’t you? I say so because I have seen too many cases where environment-efficient is equated to energy-efficient without a single clue as to how the results were being transposed.

MT September 1, 2007 at 10:50 am

If the greenies' only concern were the environment, the best signals would be to buy products based on price, quality, and convenience. The best priced, highest quality, and most convenient products are also, coincidentally, going to have the least environmental impact.

The problem is that mixed in are other agendas, such as a desire to tell others how to live and a desire to reverse the trend of capitalism.

Per Kurowski September 1, 2007 at 11:09 am

Re MT: “The best priced, highest quality, and most convenient products are also, coincidentally, going to have the least environmental impact.”

This sounds as much religion as green-is frequently-religion to me. Would this mean that we should take away all the regulations on for instance the emissions of the cars and then we would automatically get what has the lowest environmental impact?

Mark September 1, 2007 at 1:12 pm

These are just some of the intellectual foibles of this Luddite crowd. The entire picture is linked together, however.

The entire "enviromental" movement is an anti-suburb and affluence movement. These people are jealous of the independence that property rights gives people to choose where to live and how to spend their money. Since they choose lifestyles that the Luddites would not choose and the Luddites cannot tolerate anyone deciding contrary to their choices it creates this conflict.

Therefore, they are constantly inventing "problems" and designing "policy" that will place limits on the free choices others make that they do not agree with. And, they are not above essentially lying and stretching the truth to create their issues.

The statement that I invented long ago for this is that "one person's urban sprawl is part of another person's American Dream".

Our freedom and prosperity creates the American Dream. We cannot allow other people's inherent jealous, narrow mindedness, and control fetishes to take that away from us.

David P. Graf September 2, 2007 at 8:29 am

Stepping back for a moment – it's a sign of how far we've come that we're even discussing this. Not all that long ago, people wouldn't have been arguing over eating food grown locally or overseas. Instead, they would've been wondering if there was going to be anything to eat at all. Surrounded by supermarkets, delis, produce stores and so forth, we forget that starvation was once the norm, not the exception.

The Dirty Mac September 2, 2007 at 8:39 am

…and the discussion would be taking place through letters to the editor.

SaulOhio September 2, 2007 at 8:42 am

David: And according to some, it was our future. Then the future arrived and we are eating better than ever. Ever hear of Paul Ehrlich?

MT September 3, 2007 at 1:47 pm


I'm not sure I understand your comment about auto emissions, but let me elaborate on my point.

Food prices have many costs embedded into them, including the quality of the acreage, fertilizers, pesticides, farm labor, transportation, warehousing, refrigeration, spoilage, etc.

Food producers have to optimize these factors in order to have markets for their products. This is in addition to producing food that has other qualities, like good taset, appearance, and packaging.

Food producers continually find ways to make their product more attractive to their customers, and they also have to continually seek ways to reduce the costs of transportation, warehousing, spoilage, etc.

The companies that are successful at this end up providing food that customers want at attractive prices. This process over time has led to huge gains in food quality, availability, shelf life, fuel required to bring to market, acreage needed, and other factors.

The evidence is abundant. It's not religion. You can see it everywhere.

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