Can Local Food Be As Efficient as Industrial Agriculture?

strawberriesVanished America/Public Domain

As Rachel recently noted, local food is becoming big business and very popular among environmentalist leftie types, so that means that it's time for the Freaknomics boys to challenge it. So they go after local food movement, again and again. Now Steve Sexton (do you have to be named Steve to work for these guys?) writes:

Amid heightened concern about global climate change, it has become almost conventional wisdom that we must return to our agricultural roots in order to contain the carbon footprint of our food by shortening the distance it travels from farm to fork, and by reducing the quantity of carbon-intensive chemicals applied to our mono-cropped fields.

But implicit in the argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a “relocalized” food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong. Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.

Sexton then claims that relocalization would take more land, more fuel and more chemicals than the current system. He refers to an article he wrote where he explains in greater detail. He is probably right about the great efficiency of the current state of American agriculture, where it is so efficient that it can use half of what it produces to feed cars instead of people. But then he makes the California strawberry argument, beloved of Pierre Desrochers and other critics of local food:

Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes.

Ignoring the fact that they have no flavour and are barely worth transporting, Sexton neglects to point out that they have no water. As Local Foods Plus founder Lori Stahlbrand noted:

I was just in Watsonville, California, where they grow all those strawberries. If you go to a restaurant you can't get a glass of water because of the shortages, but they are pumping it out of the aquifer to grow those strawberries. And he thinks that's sustainable.

Finally, Sexton misses the point that you can't use the word "local" without the word "seasonal."

Taken literally, locavorism would block access to fresh produce for millions of Americans who live in climates that cannot, for many months per year, grow fruits and vegetables outside climate-controlled greenhouses. Greenhouse production is clearly energy-intensive and would impede environmental objectives. Blocking access to fresh produce would impede health objectives.

I am sorry, that is clearly not true. People have known for thousands of years how to eat seasonally; it is only in the last couple of decades that we have been trucking and flying fruit and vegetables around the world. Northern locavores don't expect to eat strawberries in November, they are just a memory. But I am not suffering from scurvy, there are lots of alternatives.

Sexton is probably right about the current system, there is nothing like if for cranking out the greatest volume of food for the buck. But can it last, in the face of pressure on water supplies and peak oil? Is it resilient in the face of climate change? Aren't we better off having more options? I certainly think so.

Read it all at Freakonomics: The Inefficiency of Local Food

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Can Local Food Be As Efficient as Industrial Agriculture?
The Freakonomics boys say no, and it always comes back to strawberries

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