This could be the title of a country song. I have lots of friends who love to shop at The Hundred Mile Store in Creemore, which is kind of a locavore paradise. I love to bug them about it, just because, you see, they’re all from Toronto. So they drive to The Hundred Mile Store — which is 78 miles from downtown Toronto. Okay, that’s not entirely true, they’re usually up in the country anyhow, skiing or whatever, and they pop in — so they drive more like 10 or 20 miles to get there. The point is that in doing so they violate the most important rule of socially-conscious food consumption, which is the “last mile” principle. If you look at carbon impact in particular, what matters most is the last mile — how the food gets from the store to your home, because that’s the inefficient link in the chain, where the big environmental impact is felt (mainly because the food is no longer being bulk delivered, it is disaggregated, so the social cost of transportation skyrockets). Furthermore, global trade is the least important link in the chain, because container ships produce only a tiny fraction of the emissions of any other transportation modality.
Anyhow, no one that I’ve ever made fun of cares about these facts at all. They all like the concept of the Hundred-Mile store, or the locavore diet. They like how it makes them feel. In other words, it seems to me that what they really like is just having the dietary taboo. Trying to calculate the actual environmental footprint just turns you into a killjoy.
This is something that I wrote about in Enlightenment 2.0, in a section that didn’t make the final cut. I’ve been promising to post some of this stuff on the blog here, so today we have the first installment. It came from the chapter on the anti-rationalism of the Left, and it tries to grapple with the weird and intense preoccupation with food (starting with organic, followed by locavorism), which I have to admit has always left me somewhat baffled:
It is of course completely reasonable to worry about residual pesticides and herbicides in our vegetables, not to mention hormones and antibiotics in meat. This is why their levels are regulated by the government in all food, both conventional and organic. One might nevertheless want to buy produce that is completely free of pesticides and herbicides. Yet contrary to popular belief, the organic food movement does not prohibit the use of pesticides and herbicides, it only prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. On one level this makes sense. After all, salt is an extremely powerful herbicide, and yet people add it to their food all the time. So you wouldn’t want to ban salt, since it’s perfectly harmless when consumed in moderation. Unfortunately, the distinction between “natural” and “synthetic” does not correspond to the distinction between “healthy” and “unhealthy” (nor does it map onto “good for the environment” and “bad for the environment”). There isn’t even a sensible way of distinguishing “chemical” pesticides and herbicides from “natural” ones, since all of the ingredients in a “chemical” will, of necessity, be natural. The only thing that “natural” corresponds to is a certain gut feeling people have, that “natural” is somehow safer, or healthier, than the alternative. This has no basis in fact, but it feels intensely true to many people.
Consider, for example, arsenic and copper. Both of these metals are entirely natural, and indeed, are ubiquitous in the natural environment. They also have useful fungicidal and insecticidal properties, which is why they are the two major ingredients in pressure-treated (or “chemically-treated”) lumber (the copper is what makes it green). But because copper is natural, certification agencies generally permit the use of a variety of copper-based pesticides in organic agriculture (all of which have chemical-sounding names, like copper oxychloride, copper ammonium carbonate, and copper oxtanoate). At the same time, arsenic-based pesticides and fungicides, despite being equally “natural,” are being phased out by environmental agencies in most developed countries – in both regular and organic agriculture – because they are considered too dangerous to human health, not to mention bad for the environment. Thus the “natural/synthetic” distinction simply cuts across the “health/unhealthy” distinction, and fails to capture what it is that we should be concerned about in our food, from either the perspective of health or concern for the environment. The only thing that it does capture is a diffuse hostility to science, combined with an unwillingness to accept the assurances of researchers that certain synthetic compounds pose no risk to either people or natural ecosystems. (Incidentally, to the extent that the “organic” label encourages people to wash their produce less carefully — because they mistakenly believe that it must be pesticide and herbicide-free — it can actually makes things worse from a health standpoint.)
And yet, organic food has an incredible gut-level appeal to many people. Perhaps because it is so visceral, food tends to bring out a lot of strange attitudes and encourage unusual taboos. The organic food movement may be confused, but it at least makes some sense. The same cannot be said for the “locavore” movement, and fads such as the “100-mile diet,” which amount to arbitrary dietary restrictions that have somehow become invested with incredible emotional significance for many people. (Indeed, it would be hard to come up with a better example of the “emotional tail” wagging the “rational dog.”) Local agriculture is, of course, already massively subsidized in most rich countries, through domestic farm subsidy programs. These subsidies are rightly controversial, because of the negative impact they have on farmers in underdeveloped countries who are denied export opportunities. Sensible leftists with a concern for global justice are generally opposed to them for precisely this reason. Nevertheless, if one wanted to show increased support for local farmers, one easy and powerful way of doing this would be to push for increased subsidies and import tariffs. And yet this is not on the locavore agenda. There seems to be a peculiar fascination with the idea of pursuing the policy agenda via a dietary taboo. Indeed, people find the dietary rules so compelling, while the arguments in support of them are so weak, that one senses that the arguments must be just rationalizations (in the same way that the explanations for the rules governing kosher food are so implausible that no one takes them seriously).
To the extent that the locavore idea has any surface plausibility, it is usually justified by appeal to the environmental consequences of transport, particularly the carbon footprint. “It is madness to be eating grapes imported from Chile,” people say, “instead of the ones grown in vineyards just down the road.” This is the sort of argument that sounds right, but falls apart as soon as you stop to think about it. First of all, it focuses entirely on the distance that the food has traveled, while paying no attention to how it was transported. From an environmental perspective, it is how the food gets transported that matters the most. Trucks are bad for the environment – they produce 10 times more greenhouses gases, per tonne-kilometer, than trains (180 tonnes of C02/t-km compared to only 18). Trains, in turn, produce about twice as much greenhouse gas as ships (11 for container, 7 for tankers). Ships, in fact, produce very close to nothing by comparison to all other modalities. As a result, the international dimension of the global food trade is the least important, from an environmental perspective, simply because most of it occurs by ship. If you live anywhere near a container port, you can eat food from anywhere in the world with a clean conscience. (Worse than trucks is cars, used to get groceries home. So in the U.K. ships account for 65% of tonne-kilometers, yet generate only 12% of emissions. Cars account for only 1% of tonne-kilometers, but 13% of emissions. Whether you take your car or your bike to the grocery store is far more important than whether your groceries come from nearby, or from South America.)
Second, there is the assumption that transportation is an important component of the environmental impact of food production. This is simply not true. How far your food has traveled is far less important that what kind of food it is and how it was produced. In North America, transportation accounts for only about 11% of emissions associated with food consumption, the other 89% percent arises from the production process. Whether vegetables are grown in heated greenhouses, for instance, has a much more significant environmental impact than where they came from. (Also, not to pile on, but organic food tends to be more emission-intensive, because of the heavy equipment needed to handle compost, instead of more compact synthetic fertilizer.) Furthermore, different kinds of food produce dramatically different levels of CO2 emissions. Red meat and dairy are the worst, they produce about 2.5 kg of C02 per dollar spent, compared to less than 1 kg for all other products (fruit, vegetables, chicken & fish, etc.) It is calculated that if the average American reduced red meat consumption by around 20% (for example, substituting chicken or fish for red meat once or twice per week) this would achieve a reduction in carbon footprint equivalent to adopting a zero-mile diet. (Put in more concrete terms: a steak, brought from a ranch 40 miles away, is probably much worse for the environment than a hand of bananas imported from Guatemala.)
Thus the concept of “local” food just does not map onto any morally significant distinction. It’s not necessarily bad to limit yourself to eating only local food, it just that it’s arbitrary. It’s like choosing to eat only purple food. It’s a dietary rule that people adopt mainly because it makes them feel good. If the objective was to eat food that minimized carbon footprint, then consumers would need much more detailed information than simply a measure of how far it had traveled. Some locavore groups have suggested that there should be mandatory labeling on food, specifying the distance that each item has traveled. But this is clearly inadequate. For any given piece of food, you would want to know the exact social cost associated with its consumption, which would have to include information, not only about how far it was transported, but also how it was transported, what went into producing it, and so on.
But of course, we already have a sticker that gives us this information: the price tag. Every time a farmer runs his tractor, or ships grain, or heats his greenhouse, it costs money. The price is supposed to take all of the inconveniences that everyone suffers, in order to get food on your table, and puts it into a single measure. And if something is too inconvenient, it will cost too much, and no one will buy it. Thus the fact that you can import grapes from Chile, and they don’t cost a fortune, tells you that it is not madness to be importing them from half-way around the world. Fuel is a major cost in transportation. Transport by ship is incredibly cheap, in part because it takes so much less fuel than by truck. Of course, the price that is charged for food in most jurisdictions will be too low, because all of the spending on fuel generates an environmental externality. But the solution to that lies in imposing a carbon tax. Once that’s done, then the price immediately gives the consumer all the knowledge that he or she needs to assess the social cost of a good, including its carbon footprint.
What is striking about these examples is not that they are, in themselves, all that significant. It is how intensely preoccupied people have been by these food issues, how much mental and emotional energy have been invested in them. This is time and energy that could have been spent solving real problems.