Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Locavore is a Good Political Statement, But a Bad Economic, Environmental, and Health Model.

In the past, I have questioned the depth of the thinking and commitment behind the term locavore.

Now, from the Freakonomics blog comes this note on the inefficiencies of local food:

[I]mplicit 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.

Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. 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. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.

In 2008, according to the USDA, Idaho averaged 383 hundredweight of potatoes per acre. Alabama, in contrast, averaged only 170 hundredweight per acre. Is it any wonder Idaho planted more acres of potatoes than Alabama?..

...My conservative estimates are that under the pseudo-locavore system, corn acreage increases 27 percent or 22 million acres, and soybean acres increase 18 percent or 14 million acres. Fertilizer use would increase at least 35 percent for corn, and 54 percent for soybeans, while fuel use would climb 23 percent and 34 percent, for corn and soybeans, respectively. Chemical demand would grow 23 percent and 20 percent for the two crops, respectively.

In order to maintain current output levels for 40 major field crops and vegetables, a locavore-like production system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals. The land-use changes and increases in demand for carbon-intensive inputs would have profound impacts on the carbon footprint of our food, destroy habitat and worsen environmental pollution.

It’s not even clear local production reduces carbon emissions from transportation. The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser estimates that carbon emissions from transportation don’t decline in a locavore future because local farms reduce population density as potential homes are displaced by community gardens. Less-dense cities mean more driving and more carbon emissions. Transportation only accounts for 11 percent of the carbon embodied in food anyway, according to a 2008 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon; 83 percent comes from production....

....A local food system would raise the cost of food by constraining the efficient allocation of resources. The monetary costs of increased input demands from forsaken gains from trade and scale economies will directly bear on consumer welfare by increasing the costs of food. And, as we try to tackle obesity, locavorism is likely to raise the cost of precisely the wrong foods. Grains can be grown cheaply across much of the country, but the costs of growing produce outside specific, limited regions increase quickly. Thus, nutrient-dense calories like fruits and vegetables become more expensive, while high fructose corn syrup becomes relatively cheaper.


PipedreamFarm said...

I see analyses for crops that are treated as commodities; and I agree with this analysis (efficiencies of scale). What I don't see are analyses for the small farm vs large farm production of produce (sweet corn, bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes, peas, green beans, etc).

PBurns said...

Fruits and vegetables are so extremely labor-intensive that they do not do well except on very small farms. That is true everywhere. It's almost impossible for a small farmer to pick an acre of sweet corn, an acre of peppers, and an acres of apples, cherries, and strawberries. The spraying, weeding, and repeat harvesting is simply too much. Big producers can afford the mechanical devices that small farms cannot -- big sprayers, shakers, tillers, and field-pack conveyor belts. You, literally, cannot turn these pieces of equipment around in a 1 or 2-acre field, much less afford to run them.

Even with big-scale mechanization, you need a lot of farm labor (legal or illegal), which requires a recruiting system, housing, stability and a payment system. I have not even talked about to-store distribution!

See >> http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2010-december/labor-intensive-us-fruit-and-vegetable-industry-competes-in-a-global-market.aspx#.VkI9vNKrTcs for some window into the problems.

The folks who talk about "small farm" produce are a big like the folks who talk about "thinning" our big western forests; they simply do not understand the scale of what is needed to get the job done. You can pick a 1-acre backyard garden and provide (some) seasonal fruits and vegetables for 10 of your neighbors, same as you can "thin" a two-acre woodlot to provide yourself with firewood for the winter. But scale it up, and it all falls apart very quickly. The one area where year-round local vegetable production is possible is with lettuce and sprouts, and that is being done.

PipedreamFarm said...

In the buy local movement, do you think most are talking about commodity crops or produce which you seem to be saying is best grown on small farms?

I see the buy local movement being comprised of two groups; yuppies and millennials who are buying into various movements and inner city folks who do not have easy access to fresh produce except for from local farms delivering to the inner city (or grown locally on vacant lots like in Detroit).

PBurns said...

I think if you read my comments to the end, you'll see that what I'm really saying is that outside of the arena of what should properly be called a large garden, most fruits and vegetables are going to come from large farms where mechanization and large labor force management problems can be accommodated. I think most of the local food movement is coming from people who are romantic consumers rather than knowledgeable agriculturalists. A lot of the locally grown food, is spotted, wilted, bruised. This is the fruit and vegetable stream we used to get in the 1950s. Now, on big farms, this stuff is canned, or sold off to be used in Casseroles and pies. Even the worst looking fruits and vegetables in Detroit are better than a lot of the produce you actually see coming out of people's gardens.