I drove 78 miles to the 100-mile store

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.


I drove 78 miles to the 100-mile store — 8 Comments

  1. Your concluding paragraph is bang on. If I was the global CEO of MegaDeath Petroleum Inc., I’d be quite tickled to find so many potentially annoying activists preoccupied with gluten instead of, say, exploding oil trains.

    But I wouldn’t just pick on “the Left”.

    All cultures and many subcultures have a rich differentiation of customs and taboos about food. While it’s easy and often quite a lot of fun to ridicule some of their details, that’s just part of overall cultural diversity, and it’s mostly pretty harmless. And on the positive side, Canada is now a much more cosmopolitan and interesting place in which to be an eater than it was when I was kid in London, Ontario, fifty years ago.

    So while the practices that you discuss certainly have important elements of underlying irrationality, isn’t there something bigger behind food fashions in an individualistic, secular culture? (Perhaps you address this in your book, which I haven’t read yet.) When we see so much preoccupation with food-related fads, cults, and anxieties – which find audiences that can cut across conventional ideological lines – isn’t some of this serving as a surrogate or substitute for individual agency in the things that really do matter? And perhaps food is such an especially touchy subject because of the physical intimacy of eating. Maybe it’s also the desire to have some final say – however illusory – over one little part of life, when all around us in other domains we’re being told that There Is No Alternative.

  2. As always, the answer is A CARBON TAX!

    Fun post. Reminds that me I should really get to reading your book!

    The problem with food is that there aren’t many good studies on what foods are actually good for you. They’re basically impossible to do over long periods of time because of our inability to control for the bajillion variables that also affect health. (See the many studies that suggest increased consumption of food x is correlated with increased risk of cancer, and then the many studies that say just the opposite.) Hence, people are more or less free to believe what they want about food. And that leads to the organic fetish.

  3. Ok, but you would need all jurisdictions to impose a Carbon tax for the price mechanism to really work. In the absence of this utopia, what about a label stating the total estimated carbon footprint?

    • Let’s try nested comments for a bit and see how people like them. I believe the standard policy view for dealing with jurisdictions that don’t have any sort of carbon pricing (in the fullness of time) is to put import tariffs on their goods that reflect the carbon content.

      • That could work. A total carbon footprint label would then seem redundant, but it might be necessary in the interim, necessary for calculating the tariff, or necessary given that because the price would then (in theory) capture everything, including carbon taxes, it wouldn’t actually tell you very much about any one thing in particular, such as the carbon footprint.

  4. Paul, Joe isn’t just picking on the left. Had this been included in Enlightenment 2.0, it would be one of the rare passages that didn’t attack the right-wing version of anti-rationalism, which Joe argues is a more serious political concern than left anti-rationalism. So if you want to see Joe pick on the right, you can get plenty of that in the book.

    Joe, one thing I’d add is that it’s not just via dietary taboo that the locavore movement has shaped the way we eat. At least in a modest way, the locavore’s preferences also crept into public policy via Ontario’s Local Food Act, passed into law in 2013. It’s weak sauce as far as policy goes—it involves defining what local food is, establishing a “local food” week, and allowing ministers to set aspirational targets for the proportion of food a public sector organization such as a hospital would source locally—but still, given that local food has none of the social benefits its proponents believe it does, it’s still a step in the wrong direction, and comes with costs besides.

    • The strongest case for supporting local food production – which hasn’t been mentioned yet in this discussion – would be as a hard-nosed, unsentimental way to diversify supply as a hedge against climate risk. As we watch California wilting, with orchards being cut down for water conservation, Canadians need to be less complacent about the supply chains that we’ve taken for granted. And where I live, that supply chain was already pretty long even before Chilean grapes became a common item.

      So I don’t mind paying something extra to support local producers so that it’s worth their while to stay in business. Agriculture isn’t just a widget factory than can be scaled up overnight if alternate supplies disappear. Land and farmers have to be there, with functioning enterprises and all of the necessary infrastructure for storage, processing and marketing. During the post-WWII expansion of industrial agriculture, with regional specialization in bulk commodities, North American consumers have enjoyed the benefit of generally low prices, and have taken for granted the availability of out-of-season items. As Joe correctly points out, long-distance bulk transport isn’t the thing to worry about. I’m more concerned that we prudently keep options open so that we’re able to meet more of our needs domestically if imports become too expensive or just unavailable because of climate hazards.

      So, yes, those symbolic measures taken in Ontario are just that. I think it will take some serious supply shocks, and higher import prices, to make Canadians think more clearly about our options. Surely there’s a sensible way to continue taking advantage of international trade in food products – after all, our local producers aren’t immune to natural disasters – while still keeping productive capacity closer to home.

  5. Great piece, Joseph. You firmly established local-eating as an arbitrary rule from an environmental perspective, but I think you missed a few key arguments in favour of local-eating. Perhaps I’m grasping at straws, but here’s what I was thinking…

    (1) Local food is more likely to be ethically produced, in the sense that local workers are probably paid higher wages.
    (2) Local food production promotes economic diversification and therefore security/stability in the face of global supply/price fluctuations.
    (3) Food production processes are a potential source of well-paying low-skill jobs, which, as a general rule, I think we need more of.