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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