Are Locavores a Threat to Feeding the Planet Efficiently?

Yves here. This article mentions subsidies to food production and omits energy subsidies. Readers may be able to add others that were missed.

By Anita Dancs, an associate professor of economics at Western New England University, and Helen Scharber an assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College. Excerpted from excerpt from “Do Locavores Have a Dilemma? Economists debate the local food movement” (Dollars & Sense, July/August 2015)

Food produced on small farms close to where it is consumed—or “local food” for short—accounts for only about 2% of all the food produced in the United States today, but demand for it is growing rapidly. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sales of food going directly from farmers’ fields to consumer’s kitchens have more than tripled in the past twenty years. During the same period, the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has quintupled, and it’s increasingly easy to talk about “CSAs”—community-supported agriculture operations where consumers pay up front for a share in the season’s output—without explaining the acronym.

But as local food has grown, so have the number of critics who claim that locavores have a dilemma. The dilemma, prominently argued by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu in their 2012 book The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, is that local food conflicts with the goal of feeding more people better food in an ecologically sustainable way. In other words, well-meaning locavores are inadvertently promoting a future characterized by less food security and greater environmental destruction. The critics are typically academics, and while not all of them are economists, they rely on economic arguments to support their claims that the globalized food chain has improved our lives.

Why are critics pessimistic about the trend toward local food? Their arguments hinge on what we call the CASTE paradigm—the idea that Comparative Advantage and economies of Scale justify global Trade and lead to greater Efficiency.

The CASTE Paradigm

Efficiency, or maximizing benefits relative to costs, is the guiding principle in most economic analysis. For the critics, local food simply cannot be efficient because it does not take advantage of CASTE.

The theory of comparative advantage, developed by economist David Ricardo in the 19th century, says that because regions have different relative advantages in production, they should produce the goods and services that can be produced at the lowest “opportunity cost.” Even the best use of a resource—land, capital, time, labor—has an opportunity cost, which is the benefit that would have been gained from the next best use. Land devoted to growing food, for example, has a lower opportunity cost in Iowa than in New York City, since land in New York City is highly valued for office space or housing. So Iowa grows corn, this line of argument goes, because the alternatives are simply not as profitable to the owners of the land. As a rule, CASTE critics assert that food should be grown where it has the lowest opportunity cost, which will tend not to be close to most potential consumers.

The concept of economies of scale suggests that larger farms can make more efficient use of modern-day farming methods than smaller ones. Someone cultivating an acre or two of rooftop garden in New York City, for example, cannot take advantage of the large tractors, harvesters, and irrigation systems that can quickly plow, sow, fertilize and harvest a thousand acres of crops. Economies of scale help explain why the price of a bushel of corn is currently around $4, a price that might not be achievable by small farms producing diversified crops.

Taken together, the assumptions of comparative advantage and economies of scale lead to the conclusion that regions should specialize and trade. If Iowa’s comparative advantage in corn production along with economies of scale in farm size allow it to produce corn more cheaply than other regions, economists say, it should specialize in corn and trade for other goods and services. New York City residents benefit from the inexpensively produced corn, and resources are freed up to use their land, labor, and capital to produce other goods.

The idea that comparative advantage, economies of scale, and trade leads to the greatest efficiency—which we call the “CASTE” paradigm—is the foundation upon which modern economic thought has been built, and the critique of local food is just one recent example of how it has been applied.

Do We Need More CASTE?

While critics argue that a sustainable and food-secure future requires a more thorough application of the CASTE paradigm, actual evidence that a sustainable food system requires increasing reliance on comparative advantage and economies of scale seems to be lacking. Economies of scale undeniably exist with respect to various inputs to agricultural production, but the concept is not synonymous with “bigger is better.” A 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture report praising the trend toward industrial farming and long-distance trade nonetheless noted that “most economists are skeptical that scale economies usefully explain increased farm sizes” partly because “crop production still covers a wide range of viable farm sizes.”

Comparative advantage based on climatic and soil conditions also exists, but the anti-locavore literature presents little evidence that cost reductions are mainly brought about through natural sources of comparative advantage. Carden’s claim that spinach is better grown in California than in Memphis should come with a footnote, since California’s supposed comparative advantage in spinach production is made possible by federally subsidized, imported irrigation water. As we witness the unfolding drought crisis in California, it is hard to maintain that society benefits from growing so much spinach (or other water-intensive crops, like almonds) in the state.

Other important reasons for lower costs of food production may appear to be the result of comparative advantage, but instead highlight inequities in the food system. Florida’s access to low-wage tomato pickers, for example, results in lower prices at American supermarkets—but these sources of comparative advantage are conspicuously absent from the critics’ examples.

Locavores may also fault the CASTE paradigm for excessive “tradeoff thinking,” which assumes any cost can be offset by any benefit. The assumption that all benefits (food, good soil, happiness) and all costs (inputs, pollution, psychological distress) might be measured and weighed against one another to make efficient decisions betrays the utilitarian philosophical basis of economics. It may seem like a reasonable way to make many decisions, but it is only one approach to making value judgments. Many ecological economists, for example, believe that ecosystem limits cannot be ignored and are not simply costs that can be traded off against monetary benefits. For instance, we may decide that four degrees of warming would lead to an unacceptable amount of climate disruption, whether or not economists believed that the benefits of the associated fossil fuel use outweigh its costs.

Even for those who agree that weighing benefits against costs is a reasonable way to make decisions, in practice, and in the local food critiques in particular, benefits and costs that do not have market values are often ignored. In particular, the critics fail to take many external costs—those that producers and consumers impose on third parties, and are therefore not reflected in market prices—into account. These authors observe that the bulk of the environmental impacts from agriculture come from the production phase but only use this observation in discussing the merits of comparative advantage. They do not critically examine production practices that routinely poison farmworkers, deplete soil nutrients, destroy rural communities, breed herbicide-resistant weeds, impoverish farmers, and contaminate waterways destroying marine life and biodiversity.

Finally, the role of power in the food system is conspicuously absent from the CASTE analysis. Its absence is not surprising; power is a concept that does not fit easily into a framework focusing on the freedom of autonomous and equal individuals to make utility-maximizing decisions. In that framework, the market is simply an institution that coordinates production and distribution decisions through its near-magical capacity to gather information about consumers’ preferences and producers’ costs. Yet, looking through the conceptual lens of power relations—between agribusiness and contract farmers, farm owners and farmworkers, food corporations and low-income consumers, the government and immigrant workers—gives us a clearer picture of who determines what costs and benefits are created in the food system and how these costs and benefits are distributed. Paying attention to power allows for the possibility that the falling food prices attributed to comparative advantage and economies of scale may be related, instead, to the ability of the powerful to offload social and environmental costs onto the relatively powerless.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Doug

    Excellent post! The authors do a good job of laying waste to the all-too-bullshit neoliberal economic orthodoxy as applied to food. You gotta love the acronym “CASTE” — a well chosen label for what happens to the 99% when they are demoted to an “efficient” high fructose corn syrup diet that is ‘barely’ affordable on (rapidly diminishing) wages from the similarly ‘efficient’ labor markets that operate at ‘scale’.

    1. tegnost

      yes we’re supposed to be happy {should i say economically happy) that corn is 4 bucks a bushel when there’s a scourge of diabetes. neo lib answer, don’t worry, you have the Affordable Care Act. Really excited to read the comments on this one at lunch!

  2. vidimi

    for me, the most basic flawed assumption is that the products of a small, local organic farmer and that of a massive agroconglomerate are equal. to me, a pesticide/gmo/antibiotic-free, vine-ripened tomato (for example) is worth a lot more than a toxic, roundup-ready, early harvested one from cargill. the two are just not fungible, and the only thing they have in common is that you can shit both out (but one is already shit on the way in).

  3. James Levy

    Diesel fumes from trains and trucks spring instantly to mind as I read this. The other thing that is missing is that long supply chains are notoriously vulnerable. War, plague, earthquake, typhoon, political crises, and dwindling oil reserves all threaten long supply chains with interruption and/or severance. And you can’t do without food. Separating where all the food comes from from where all the people live is a recipe for disaster. Goldsworthy has argued convincingly that the proximate cause of the fall of the Western Roman Empire was the loss of the grain and taxes of the North African provinces to the Vandals. Without that food and money (and to some extent after Diocletian payments of grain were money) the Roman state could not survive.

    Economists love to pretend that the world is some steady state system frozen in amber. In the real world bad things happen. In finance they are in love with the notion of hedging, but they seem to miss that critical concept when it comes to things like food, water, and medicine (you know, things that actually matter much more than money). In a plague the first thing you shut down is movement. If a meteor hit or Yellowstone started to erupt the first thing that would go would be the transportation and electricity distribution systems. The same would be true for a limited nuclear exchange. China would only have to land a few H-bombs on this continent for most or all of the power grid to be knocked out for weeks or months. If all the food is in California and Kansas, how are we going to feed Atlanta, Chicago, and Boston, let alone New York? The more acreage available for planting, in the most dispersed sites, the better.

    1. DJG

      Whenever I see garlic imported from China at a grocery store, I’m reminded of your supply-chain argument. We’re importing garlic?

      Further, in an economy with a declining number of jobs, it may be time to think about getting more people on the land. Yes, I recently had a rather bizarre experience with an “artisanal” cheese maker at a farmers market (the problems I have), but at least that person has a small business and is distributing cheese made viably by a bunch of small farms here in the Great Lakes region.

      1. different clue

        And if its from China in particular, you have to wonder if it has lead paint or melamine in it . . . so to speak.

          1. different clue

            China’s quest for a Blue Water Navy may be a very expensive performance-art decoy designed to take America’s eye off the real ball.

            1. Blue Guy Red State

              different clue is right on. Eldest son has a BA in Mandarin and works as a translator at small but mighty software shop. While studying Chinese history in college, he struggled because… “they have twice as much history as we do!” Indeed; they appear to have learned something from all that history as well. We need to not get suckered by their latest South China Sea moves or any others.

    2. David

      How much deforrestation would be required to clear acreage in the Northeast US to feed the Boston-New York area?

      Would we be able to grow equivalent sized forests in California and Kansas? Forests need water too.

      1. James Levy

        Well, luckily the Northeast has water if managed properly, and you don’t have to cut down forest–if we repurposed failing malls and golf courses and provided dual-use zoning so we can revitalize towns and small cities with businesses, stores, and apartments while declaring a moratorium on suburban sprawl, we’d have plenty of land. And we don’t need to generate enough to feed everyone. Bulk grain can be moved great distances cheaply by water, and we still have rivers, canals, and ports in this part of the world. What we need is the will to say “NO” to more McMansions and the foresight to plan for inevitable disruptions in supply. Waiting for the time when oil is $300 a barrel if you can get it or California’s infrastructure is wrecked by a massive earthquake or the electric grid goes down is not the time to act.

      2. Ned Ludd

        The suburb where I work intermixes blocks of new, dense housing with huge strip mall parking lots, big box stores, and extraordinarily wide roads with almost no sidewalks. People who live in this newly-built housing share walls with their neighbors and have no yards to speak of; but they are still enveloped by highways, air pollution, and loud traffic. I have never seen a single public bus there.

        Working class families can no longer afford the suburban house with a big yard; so they live in localized density, surrounded by hot, barren landscapes instead of neighborhoods. Suburbs would take up less space if they were developed like old-fashioned urban areas or inner-ring suburbs. People could enjoy a pleasant neighborhood with less sprawl and less land use.

      3. JTMcPhee

        Hey, David — maybe NO deforestation is required. A false choice? There’s a growing number of people who see the horror coming and are trying to develop or recapture growing practices that are getting herded into the area of “urban agriculture.”, and I invite folks to search on that term for all the stuff that is going on. Rooftops, whole “green” buildings that incorporate food production into the architecture, lots more. “We” don’t know if it’s possible to feed ourselves and what kinds of labor and other inputs would be needed to do that. But continued extraction factory farming and the present parts of food growth and distribution for ridiculous profit that somehow does not go to the actual farmers (see recent exposes on how the “chicken feeding” system screws the “farmer’ part of it all, socialized risk and loss and privatized gain —, and

        1. different clue

          And ultradense methods like BioDynamic French Intensive. A version of what might come to be called ” HiHo Horticulture . . . ( High input High output Horticulture).” A way to grow a fair amount of food in a small semiburban yard-space.

      4. subgenius


        Biointensive farming/gardening has a higher yield per square foot than agrobusiness.

        See “One Straw Revolution”

        Forest gardening results in a multilayer plant base, trees down.

        Why not more common?

        …because you can’t do it with machines!

        1. JTMcPhee

          …more important than the “machines,” there’s no opportunities for wholesale ripoff and destruction and rents and serfdom and all that.

          Large Scale Food Forests

          The tree crop agricultures described by Russell Smith (Smith, J. Russell Tree Crops and Permanent Agriculture Devin-Adair. New York 1950) especially those of the Mediterranean region provided evidence of productive broad acre land uses on marginal lands. A question which arises from the work of Russell Smith, as well as permaculture is; if forest based agricultures are so productive why are there so few examples?

          Archeological evidence that forest farming was much more widespread in the Middle East, Mediterranean and European regions before the rise of civilisation with cities, standing armies and extensive grain agriculture is gradually accumulating but why have so few examples persisted into and through the historical period. I have developed a hypothesis which explains the demise of forest farming in these regions over the last few thousand years which is compatible with the evidence that such systems are productive as well as sustainable.

          Forest farming is here defined as the management and culture of forests to provide a large proportion of peoples needs. Traditional forms of forest farming generally provided fruit, nuts, honey and animal products in abundance along with wood products. These systems along with intensive garden agriculture provided for peoples needs. The sorts of natural forests from which cultivated systems could have evolved in temperate and Mediterranean climates tend to be soft leaved, mostly deciduous forests with high mineral fertility and “mull” humus soils rather than coniferous forests with acidic “moor” humus soils or sclerophyll systems with skeletal fired soils (typical of Australia).

          The favourable forests have a high proportion of nut bearing species (oaks, chestnuts, walnuts, beech, hazels) which provide protein, oil and starch rich foods which can be stored as well as providing concentrated forage for forest ranging animals and birds used for food.(pigs, turkeys etc). While these forests are very resistant to burning, they do not recover well if destroyed by crown fire.

          Prior to the development of standing armies, tribal conflicts rarely made much impact on the economy and environment. The New Guinea highlands at the time of contact provides a good model of this type of warfare. The development of city states, standing armies and warfare in the Middle East about 4,000 years ago (Mumford, L. The City In History Penguin 1961) would have had profound implications for peoples dependent for forest farming. Standing armies provided the resources for conquest and appropriation. Fire became an important strategic weapon in conquest. Food forests could not be easily burnt but the determined efforts of well organised armies with the right weather conditions could have destroyed almost any forest. Recovery from such an attack could have take several generations.

          After centuries of warfare with armies moving back and forth across the Middle East it is not surprising that grain agriculture would have developed a distinct strategic advantage. The burning of grain crops and destruction of silos devastated local communities and economies but recovery was possible over a few seasons.

          There are many documented examples of the burning of managed forests in more recent times by which dominant peoples subjugated forest dwelling and dependent peoples. The Clearances (firing) of the Scottish highland forests in the seventeenth century is a good example. This devastated the economy and culture of the Highlanders who ran highland cattle in the diverse and productive forests. The ecological effects were catastrophic and the pastoral farming of wool for the British textile industry which replaced the forests ensured no regeneration.

          The current destruction of the Amazonian food forests and dispossession of the indigenous peoples by beef cattle ranchers is one of the final stages of a historical process which has spread from the Middle East over the last 4,000 years.

          An important aspect in the destruction of forest farming is that in almost all cases the forests, if not the livestock in the forest were part of the commonwealth of the communities which husbanded them. Ownership in the western sense was rare. The invaders often used the legal excuse that these forests were not owned by anyone.

          Fire destruction by hostile foreigners was a major cause of the demise of indigenous forest farming. However an equally important contribution to their demise was ironically the very success of cultures based on forests. Naturally rich forests which became progressively modified by indigenous peoples to increase their productivity provided the wealth which allowed civilisation and urban culture to develop.

          Little is known about the mysterious Etruscans who predated Roman civilisation in central Italy but it is known that they developed a highly productive tree crop agriculture and that the central Italian landscape which the Romans inherited was the resource base from which the Empire sprang. Once Rome established domination over colonies the inflow of external resource reduced the importance of local systems. Affluence led to land amalgamation and degradation, loss of agricultural skills and dependence on foreign food. When the navy could no longer ensure the arrival of the grain ships from N. Africa attempts to redevelop local production were largely a failure. The natural and cultural resource base had been destroyed. Amongst other impacts, deforestion of the uplands led to hydrological changes which gave rise to the Pontine marshes. These marshes were a source of malaria affecting the people of the area for the next 2,000 years until they were drained and maintained dry by the planting of Blue gums early this century.

          We humans seem to be too effing stupid, individually and collectively, no matter how “successful” we are at looting each other at the retail and wholesale level, to persist much longer…

          1. different clue

            ” We humans” . . . ? What about the humans who invented all these methods to begin with?

            It may be that we are all radiated and marinated 24/7 in a Stupidism Inducement field . . . in a real-world manner analogous to the perception-blocking field in that movie They Live. Some self-smartenizable humans may be able to fight the effect of the SI field and do the smart things you suggest. Some already are.

            The question is, can the smart humans destroy the Stupidism Inducement field broadcasting antennas in time to allow the field-susceptible humans to re-smarten in the absence of the field?

  4. Foppe

    As we witness the unfolding drought crisis in California, it is hard to maintain that society benefits from growing so much spinach (or other water-intensive crops, like almonds) in the state.

    Alfalfa and pasture use many times more water (see the bar diagram halfway down the article) than almonds do, and the only reason it is planted is to supply the — nutritionally unnecessary, and therefore extremely wasteful — meat and dairy industries. It makes no sense to address “the problems with local food” until animal agriculture is off the table. Please watch this documentary, which visualizes two World Bank and FAO reports on animal agriculture sustainability. Summary of the findings can be found here.

    1. Ned Ludd

      From the Gizmodo article:

      By far, the most water used for a single agricultural product in the state of California is used to grow alfalfa.

      When I was younger, my family planted alfalfa and did not water it at all. Of course, we didn’t live in California.

      There are plenty of places to grow alfalfa in the U.S. Land in arid regions – in California and elsewhere – should not be cultivated for crops that require a lot of water.

      1. JTMcPhee

        But of course the Rational Actors who have applied their efforts and skills to acquire “legal title” to all that arid land that with lots of chemical inputs and the “prior appropriated right” to grab Holy Water from where it runs, it would only be “fair,” as with the TPP and other worldwide screw jobs that are polymerizing the planet, to pay the “owners” the “vanished value” of industrial crops that should not, from an honest ecologist’s perspective, ever have been introduced into marginal and unsustainable-without-huge-subsidies-and-externalities-eaten-by-powerless-but-productive-mopes areas.

        “Fee simple absolute” actually in common law is not really so absolute, if there is a functioning legal system that actually adjusts for competing interests on some basis other than “Big Money Wins.” A property owner actually “owns” just a “bundle of rights.” Here’s a California-sourced Official Explanation of the concept as applied: Law students spend an entire class year trying to figure out “incorporeal hereditaments” and the Rule in Shelley’s Case and what constitutes a “taking” and such esoterica. Our political economy’s legal function seems to have just leaped right over the silliness about limitations on the total exclusive ownership of “property” and of course of sorting out other “rights” that extend from excluding others from a parcel and “enjoying” the “right” to sell the minerals and the access to the air. There’s a whole lot of people who have their fingers in the “shoulds” and “should nots” decision-making, that even Hollywood got into in the old cowboy movies about cattle barons versus simple homesteaders.

        This is all about a framework of myths and preferences and demands and assortment of wealth and common benefits that get codified and are, or are not, enforceable simply and ultimately as a result of the power that comes out of the barrel of a gun, in the last analysis. The Sheriff nails up the foreclosure notice, carries out the eviction. The f___ers with “water rights” tell you you can’t set up rain barrels to collect the droplets that fall on “YOUR” home-is-your-castle’s roof because “the law.” The “Code Enforcers” assess “civil penalties” for divergence from “legal standards” that may have nothing to do with health and safety whatsoever (but may, if you “maintain a nuisance” like a pig farm or chicken feeding operation, or set up a dingo breeding operation next to a day care center, or may not, if the “owner” has the right clout).

        Seems to me, what is missing is an ethos that is anything like what us Lesser Breeds were taught to believe in — that Golden Rule thing, that notion that God and the Law are “no respecters of persons.” But of course the Biblical subtext is that there’s the 144,000 Elect, who deserve it all, and of course we mopes should be content that we will “inherit the earth (or what’s left of it) after the Elect have eaten and drunk their fill. And there’s damn little incentive to work toward that ethos, and an enforceable structure to rein in the Galtians, because of the seduction of the idiot notion that maybe one day it will be OUR little mope-y turn to become one of the Elect…

        So the “interests” and “preferences” of a very few, who organize and work diligently to make what floats their boats “legal,” to the point that the rest of us, believing in the “legal system” as a protector against the Arbitrary and blind to the fact that it only applies to enforce limits and pains on us mopes, will just shrug and say, ‘well, it’s legal, so it must be okay… those interests and preferences then “rule,” and effing greedheads get what they have TAKEN, consequence-free,and leave us to choke on the “unforutnate externalities” and hurry up and die…

        Is Soylent Green a “locavore” foodstock?

      2. Mel

        Per books like Pleasant Valley (Louis Bromfield) and Ploughman’s Folly (Edward H. Faulkner), keeping a cover crop constantly on the land actually conserves water. The crop shades the ground and protects it from wind, both reducing evaporation, and the root system keeps the soil porous and able to absorb and hold water. The alternative is to have ground water baked out and blown away from bare ground, and to have most of the remainder surge straight into the nearest creek, taking soil with it.
        The water accounting conflict here seems to be that water under an alfalfa crop is counted as “used” by alfalfa, whereas straight evaporation and runoff aren’t counted as “used” at all. The water is gone, but at least it wasn’t “used”.

        1. hunkerdown

          +1. +1 more for “Gone, but (thank gods) not used” — the rentier’s hosanna.

        2. different clue

          Quite so. The water has re-evaporated and gone back into the water cycle. Man Made Global Warming is changing that cycle around so that less water falls reliably on California reliably in the right times, places and forms. Therefor, watering alfalfa which could be sustained in pre-warming water-cycle functioning periods now cannot be sustained in water-cycle re-arranging and re-functioning regimes of the present and future.

          But the water doesn’t “disappear” from existence.

          1. tegnost

            i’ve been pondering a comment from the recent past about how much water and compost are exported from cali, i think not a permaculture environment, where are the needed replacement nutritional inputs coming from?…

            1. different clue

              The talk of “exporting” the water is a misapprehension, I think. I asked someone what a gallon of water weighs. They found on the web that it weighs 8.3 pounds or something like that. So when someone tells me that a pound of beef “contains” a hundred gallons of water, I ask them why a pound of beef doesn’t weigh 830 pounds then. And the reason why it doesn’t is because . . . the water to grow every stage of the grain to beef chain was not consumed . . . it was used and then passed through the organisms concerned back into the water cycle. To be used again and again. If California can shrink its agriculture to fit its new global-warming smaller-water-budget, California agriculture can stay sustainable within that smaller budget.

              The alfalfa drinks the water in through the roots, breathes it right back out again through the leaves, and back into the water cycle the water goes. The only water “retained” is that water combined with carbon dioxide and turned into sugar ( and then more complex chemicals) driven by solar power. And when the sugar or more complex chemicals are ingested and metabolized, they are eventually oxidised right back down to water again and breather out into the water cycle. So Zero water is consumed, certainly not in the sense that coal or oil is consumed . . . . once and done.

    2. Paul Spring

      You’ll notice that no one here wants to face the issue of the devastation caused by animal agriculture – its more fun to theorize about less threatening made-up issues.

      1. HotFlash

        Cute straw man you have there. Got any real points to be discussed.? Please do share.

      2. different clue

        WesterModern industrial feedlot animal agriculture is as devastating as you say. Classical animals on pasture or range or humanly inedible plant-matter or waste is ecologically-correct and has been part of ancient-to-modern indegenous agricultures for millenia.

        New discoveries and understandings seem to indicate that livestock correctly deployed on pasture and/or range may trigger said pasture and/or range to suck down and biosequester net skycarbon.
        Hopefully more science will get done. Certainly the system of self-managing buffalo on plains and prairie and hunted and killed and eaten by Plains Indians built up a deep high-carbon-reserve soil wherever it was practices. In places like Iowa and Kansas for instance.

        1. Foppe

          Classical animals on pasture or range or humanly inedible plant-matter or waste is ecologically-correct

          bs. it happened, that’s all you can say about it. buffalo’s weren’t pastured or ranged, they just were; all farm animals in the Americas today were selectively bred from Eurasian animals.

          has been part of ancient-to-modern indegenous agricultures for millenia

          Only thing that follows: “It’s been traditional”. Many things are traditional, fairly few of those things are justifiable. Animal agriculture is not; it’s just a huge case of might making right.

          Certainly the system of self-managing buffalo on plains and prairie and hunted and killed and eaten by Plains Indians built up a deep high-carbon-reserve soil wherever it was practices. In places like Iowa and Kansas for instance.

          The “system … was practiced”? What “system”? Those buffalo would’ve shit on plains without “Plains indians” just fine; no being hunted to death and eaten was required. So this too is little more than post hoc ergo propter hoc arguing towards the desired conclusion — that (certain forms of) animal agriculture is (are) “environmentally beneficial”, and to imply that therefore other forms must also be. This is completely fallacious. The earth was able to grow great amounts of plants long before large herbivores were around to shit on them, and it will be today, provided we adapt our farming techniques.

  5. russell1200

    Sustainability is not synonymous with efficiency.

    If you want to feed as many of the projected 10 billion folks soon to be here on the planet with us, you want to be efficient. To maximize your outputs versus your inputs.

    If you want to feed the most number of people indefinitely, without the risk of sky rocketing fuel costs, soil erosion, and risk of disease, than locavorism might be part of your strategy. Sustainable systems typically have a certain amount of redundancy built into them. This redundancy is very rarely “efficient”.

    1. Chmee

      I’m not sure what you mean about redundancy. However, If you mean duplicating efforts and resources sometimes efficiency isn’t necessarily a good goal to shoot for. As an unrelated example, space craft use more than one computer on board (I think there might have been four on the space shuttle?) in case one or two fail. There certainly is no efficiency in that since there are cost factors involved, the purchase of more than one expensive machine, and the weight that needs to be carried into orbit means that more fuel is required to take them there. But when you’re out there with no way to get back if your sole computer to guide you in fails that efficiency no longer would seem a priority to you.

      I will relate that back to local farming. What happens to the food chain if widespread drought or pestilence occurs? Look what’s happening in CA right now; if the water supply continues to diminish all that efficiency in concentrated farming will matter little. What’s the back up plan now? Maybe I could do without peaches, almonds and lettuce, but if all of the crops are affected then what will I eat? I’m fortunate enough to have 2 acres to utilize to grow my own food if necessary, and I could easily make the types of food I grow diverse enough to have a diet that doesn’t become overly concentrated on a limited variety, which actually causes health problems of its own.

      I’m also fortunate enough to be in an area that still has local farmers that can grow fruits and vegetables in a wide variety, so that if something were to happen that interrupts the current food supply chain I can still rely on those farms to produce locally.

      Another efficiency factor that you need to consider is the costs involved with shipping food. It’s certainly a whole lot cheaper for a local farmer to ship his product 100 miles than 3,000. Or 10,000 if I’m relying on having fresh produce in December and the only source is Chile or Argentina. Maybe it does help me have a consistently varied diet all year round, but what are the long-term costs if continuing to burn dead dinosaurs and polluting the planet?

    2. Art Eclectic

      But, we clearly aren’t interested in feeding 10 billion folks. TPTB are interested in profit margins. We have the capacity to feed the world, but not the will get past the politics and profit demands to do so.

      CASTE is the road to all of us living on Soylent Green.

  6. Steve H.

    Lest we forget:

    “Herman and I went to the White House and it was explained to me, that this was the whole idea of tar sands. The aim is to use so much water that it creates a drought in America. The drought was seen as doubling or quadrupling grain prices. In essence, the idea was for America to pay for higher priced oil with higher priced grain. This would support the balance of payments enough to finance U.S. military power throughout the world. In the process, of course, it would starve as much as a quarter of the population of Africa and Latin America.”


  7. Chris H

    The large scale agriculture argument was destroyed years ago. Read Robert McC Netting _Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture_ written in 1993. Our academic economists seem immune to any new ideas, especially when demonstrated by non-economists.

    1. Jabawocky

      I just think this is nonsense. I am a smallholder farmer and an agricultural scientist so I can see both sides. Yes I can grow nice vegetables, with high turnover and many crops each year on the same but of land. I get lots of eggs from chickens free ranging in the orchard. However the so called high yield is mainly water.

      There is no way I can compete On a dry weight basis with cash crops like corn or wheat, and it’s pointless even growing corn for chickens it’s so cheap to buy.

    2. Adam Eran

      Nixon’s ag secretary Earl Butz revised the federal farm subsidies to favor larger farms. “Get big or get out” was the mantra.

  8. Uahsenaa

    Corn in Iowa is also a terrible example of “natural” comparative advantage, since so much corn, the vast preponderance, is turned into something else, largely ethanol, which is subsidized heavily by the state, and high fructose corn syrup, which certainly provides no real benefit to the food supply and may actually make things worse. Very little corn is eaten “as is,” and its large scale production here is justified by a number of derivative products whose elimination would do little harm and a great deal of good overall. For a more in depth treatment of why corn production is terrible, see Kenner’s Food Inc.

  9. Tips

    Missing costs=healthcare.
    Interesting fact I recently read. The national school lunch program was partly created because the #1 reason military recruits were rejected, malnutrition. Today, the #1 reason is obesity. I guess you can add national security to the list too…

  10. dana

    This is an increasingly vital subject / issue, as agribusiness corporations, Monsanto, et co, are plugging the ‘benefits-to-all’ of vast monoculture food production, with its associated modified genes and toxic chemicals; food which is transported thousands of miles across the globe.

    First, a few observations from a purely ecological viewpoint. Pesticides and herbicides used in vast monoculture gradually kill the precious ecosystem [called microbiome] of topsoil, necessary for the distribution of nutrients to plant life. Once the microbiome begins to weaken, the nutritional value of commercially grown food decreases progressively. More importantly, still, persistent use of agri-chemicals will eventually destroy the topsoil ecosystem, which can take multiple centuries to regenerate …

    Agribusiness monopolies buy up huge tracts of land, exhaust them, and then move on to healthy land [see Monsanto’s keen interest in Ukraine].

    Secondly, according to a UN study published in 2010, a full 70% of the world’s food is produced by ‘small’, local farms, which may come as a surprise to many in the industrialized world. A later UN report, from 2013, warns that major food-exporting countries need to work to bring agriculture ‘back home’, to ensure that national food production meets as many of the populations’ needs as possible.

    Overview, with links to the UN studies: Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: New UN Report Calls for Dramatic Shift Back to Organic Agriculture

    Delicate topic, particularly in light of the looming transoceanic ‘partnerships’ …

    1. jabawocky

      ‘Once the microbiome begins to weaken, the nutritional value of commercially grown food decreases progressively.’

      What nutrients in what crop?

      1. nowhere

        Here are a couple of links.

        Healthy Soil Microbes, Healthy People

        “Just as we have unwittingly destroyed vital microbes in the human gut through overuse of antibiotics and highly processed foods, we have recklessly devastated soil microbiota essential to plant health through overuse of certain chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, failure to add sufficient organic matter (upon which they feed), and heavy tillage. These soil microorganisms — particularly bacteria and fungi — cycle nutrients and water to plants, to our crops, the source of our food, and ultimately our health. Soil bacteria and fungi serve as the “stomachs” of plants. They form symbiotic relationships with plant roots and “digest” nutrients, providing nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients in a form that plant cells can assimilate. Reintroducing the right bacteria and fungi to facilitate the dark fermentation process in depleted and sterile soils is analogous to eating yogurt (or taking those targeted probiotic “drugs of the future”) to restore the right microbiota deep in your digestive tract.”

        Fighting Microbes with Microbes

        “Just as antibiotics indiscriminately kill both good and bad bacteria in the gut, fungicides and biocides impede the soil’s innate defenses. Studies have shown that gentler practices such as crop rotation, tillage, and fertilization can influence ecological processes in the soil, and may encourage the establishment of microbial communities capable of suppressing disease.”

    2. David

      Thanks for the link. The 2010 Report and 2013 Report. There is a lot of interesting information in the reports.

      Access to food, from the forward of the 2013 report

      “Despite significant increases in agricultural productivity and the fact that the world currently already produces sufficient calories per head to feed a global population of 12-14 billion, hunger has remained a key challenge. Around 1 billion people chronically suffer from starvation and another billion are mal-nourished (sic). Some 70 percent of these people are themselves small farmers or agricultural laborers. Therefore, hunger and mal-nutrition (sic) are not phenomena of insufficient physical supply, but results of prevailing poverty, and above all problems of access to food.”

      Global warming (page 2 of the 2013 report)

      “..the recent and future rise in global agriculture GHG (greenhouse gases) is mainly occurring in developing countries. In 2005, the latter accounted for three quarters of nitrous oxide and methane emissions in the agriculture sector. These emissions are mainly caused by some 15-20 developing countries. These countries…cause over 70 per cent of agricultural emissions worldwide.”

      Trade (page 10 of the 2013 report)

      “In the 1970s, Haiti was virtually self-sufficient in rice production, which is one of its main staple crops. However, as a consequence of its structural adjustment programme, the customs tariff, including on rice imported into Haiti was reduced from 50 percent to 3 percent…Today, less than 25 percent of its rice needs are met by local production.”

      “The trade balance in food products for least developed countries moved from a $1 billion surplus 30 years ago, to a deficit of $7 billion in 2000 and $25 billion in 2008.”

      “..the dumping of food onto developed countries has penalized domestic producers who are forced to sell at reduced prices to fewer buyers…But while producers in developed countries can usually call on their governments for compensation (which, for many, represents up to 60 per cent of their income), farmers in developing countries have no such recourse, and increasingly are unable to cover their costs.”

  11. Adam1

    One glaring fault I see is that we are all supposed to assume that efficient is to mean unit output per worker. How about measuring it in output per acre since land is limited and its fertility can be very fragile when looked at over time. In this case I do believe the data says that the worlds peasant farmers (those producing food on 2 acres or less) are vastly more productive per acre than industrial farms.

    1. Eleanor

      I just lost a long post, but this says it more briefly. As far as I can tell, efficient simply means less human labor. With 7+ billion people on the planet, we have no shortage of human labor.

    2. Garrett Pace

      Considering output per unit of energy also, I understand a peasant farmer with a horse drawn plow, growing and eating his own crops, is vastly more efficient than factory farming.

        1. JTMcPhee

          …because ” everybody knows” that the Luddites were Monty Python-grade ” silly”…

    3. lylo

      Worth mentioning:
      I usually grow only a few plants of various types in my garden (most end up being “volunteers” from the year before that I don’t actively plant.) This is my third year. No, it’s not a real “serious” garden. I barely fertilize and rarely water, even though I live in an area with dry summers. Effort and cost near zero.
      Yet, somehow, I have more than my family can eat.

      Seriously, if you people haven’t put a few seeds in a pot in your living room or porch, you may very well be part of the problem. It’s not hard, it’s not expensive, and it’s not time consuming.

      1. jrs

        Of course if you were growing food in a pot you’d need to water, quite a bit probably. Growing food on an apartment balcony or something can easily become genuinely inefficient (because it’s all containers, there’s no actual land).

  12. Erik

    Beyond all the many points raised in this piece and the comments, one flaw of CASTE thinking that economists fall into is that they compare only large, industrialized agriculture to a smaller form of the same.

    Small farmers are actually on the cutting edge, looking beyond the metrics of monocultural yield and considering things like soil health, crop rotation, water use, pollinator health, and natural solutions to pest control such as strategically co-planting crops with certain plants that repel pests. Add-in things like rotational grazing and you get a system that is much healthier, much more robust, and that in fact has yields per acre that begin to exceed that of industrialized monoculture.

    One problem is that the yield of anything as complex as a food forest is a more difficult calculation that it is in monoculture. Another is that “yield” doesn’t reflect the true cost of energy, pesticides, fertilizers, and externalities. Finally, the big issue is the amount of labor this type of farming requires. It’s work that requires human hands (god forbid!). Therefore it is inefficient! Never mind the fact that we have an employment problem in this country and globally.

    What it comes down to is neoliberal economics and the underlying assumptions. If we were to get rid of industrialized agriculture, a much higher share of the population would have to be farmers again. And unlike today’s farm workers, they should be paid a living wage. This means food will be more expensive than it is now at Walmart. This means that the plebes will either need to forgo some material possessions, or get pay raises. Neither of those jibe well with the neoliberal agenda where the goal is for everyone to be a low-paid “consumer.” These are conversations about our values that we need to have anyway (and are beginning to have), and have nothing to do with food. Farm efficiency is just a red herring.

    1. Garrett Pace

      It’s work that requires human hands (god forbid!). Therefore it is inefficient! Never mind the fact that we have an employment problem in this country and globally.

      Ah, but remember that these workers need to be fed and housed and even have some comforts and joys. From the economists’ point of view providing such things is tremendously inefficient. To them it’s better to cut them out of the economy entirely and thereby achieve their nirvana of efficiency.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        We are all artists.

        Moreover, we are all farmers.

        That is, there is a farmer in each of us.

        Our present educational system kills it, unfortunately.

    2. Jabawocky

      I can testify that growing large amounts of food without fossil fuels is a Herculean effort and requires time. Lots of it.

  13. tim s

    As if economists need to go searching for something else to be wrong about….

    Economists’ Modus operandi – let’s make some assumptions (mass produced GMO/over-fertilized food is to be considered equal to locally grown & sustainable crops), ignore some basics (people growing their OWN food can be ignored), and then continue on as if they are experts somehow, all without having to prove anything.

    I do agree that most of the “farmers markets” I have seen in an urban setting have debatable value, and may be little more than an option to make people feel good about themselves. Most seem to be more boutique-like than market-like.

    So much land here in the US could be used to grow food. If even half of the TV/Computer time were spent tending a backyard or community garden, the impact would be significant. The garden in my backyard provides vegetables and fruit year-round, with a very modest amount of effort. We are not able to eat everything that is produced. The garden is still a very small percentage of the available space. While this specific option is not available to everyone, it is available to many who do not take advantage of it.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Humans are quite inefficient when compared to robots.

      A robot hedge fund manager is likely to be more efficient.

      A robot senator even more so.

      I think one robot prime minister can do the job of ten.

      And best of all, half of a robot economist can replace all the human economists in the world.

  14. Jef

    I have been working for localization of food here in the Willamette valley for almost 12 years now. I have studied the economics and even secured a USDA grant and worked with OSU food innovation center on the issue. I have spoken to the state governor and the top USDA agents on the issue.

    The reason people seek out local food is primarily because of food quality.
    The reason people do not buy local food is primarily because of price and the minute there is any hint of economic decline even those who can afford it stop buying and go to big box stores for value.
    Local foods are what is called a “boutique market” and just because it is growing now does not mean that it will grow for ever or that it will crowd out supermarkets.
    Oregon is one of the most lush, verdant areas and we produce lots of food but it is still only about 18% of what we consume. Most areas of the country could not produce even that.
    USDA, even though they talk about supporting local “value added” operations when it comes down to it they said in so many words that localizing food production is the path to poverty.

    Truth is if we didn’t have tens of thousands of trucks delivering food everywhere millions would starve and it would be total chaos.

    DIsclaimer; I have 5 acres of fruit and vegetable production with a roadside farm stand. I have oodles more info if any are interested.

    1. tegnost

      “USDA, even though they talk about supporting local “value added” operations when it comes down to it they said in so many words that localizing food production is the path to poverty.” Meanwhile USDA shovels bushels of dough at agribiz, and yet there is still poverty…hmmm….talk is cheap?

      1. James Levy

        The real confusion is about what poverty is. Poverty is the inability to eat three squares a day, put clean clothes on your back, and have a roof over your head, a bed to lay in, and enough money that if you are sick or injured you can’t take care of yourself. Your Xbox, your iphone, your SUV, your Coach handbag and tickets to the Yankees game are all luxuries. To eat healthy food grown as close to us as is practical we’d need to reallocate resources away from luxuries towards basic necessities. That is being inconvenienced, not impoverished.

    2. grayslady

      Where I live, the supermarkets–even the big chains–are buying “locally” (I put that word in parentheses because “local” can still mean Wisconsin or Michigan for those in northeastern Illinois). The local produce is promoted by the stores and is very popular with the shoppers. Farmers market produce is expensive now because of transportation costs, and it also involves a lot of work for the farmers.When I was a young girl, we had a large “roadside stand”, called Hammond Gardens, where all the local farmers could simply bring their produce. They didn’t have to worry about manning a booth at a farmers market, or taking time away from their real jobs of farming, and consumers didn’t have to worry that if they couldn’t shop between 3 to 7 on a Wednesday they wouldn’t be able to buy great herbs and vegetables. So I think sensible distribution is critical to the success of local farming.

      Another issue with supporting local farming is method of payment. CSAs are expensive and inefficient, and they don’t take food stamps. Although Illinois, under Gov. Quinn, at any rate, worked hard to subsidize food stamp payment machines at farmers markets in Illinois, the machines are still more expensive than cash, even though studies here have shown farmers market sales increase substantially when the market accepts food stamps.

      All of which is to say, I suppose, that I think local farmers need to form co-ops to market their products. The dairy industry has been doing this for years, quite successfully.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        I imagine outlawing cash will take even more money away from these farmers.

        1. different clue

          If cash is outlawed, only outlaws will have cash. Actually, millions of embittered people will have kept cash-hoards and will use cash in the underground black cash-markets. These markets may be rebranded by their participants as Freedom Markets. There will also be much more barter between people within and between communities.

          The next step after outlawing cash would be outlawing gardens. And everyone knows what that means . . . . if gardens are outlawed, only outlaws will have gardens.

    3. Winston Smith

      You are living my pipe dream! I had thought, years back, about chucking the working here in Los Angeles and start a berry farm and raise strawberries, blueberries, other edible berries along with heirloom Japanese vegetables up in Oregon after visiting your beautiful state awhile back. Still sticks in the back of my mind, just need to convince the wife. Must be the farmer ancestry calling!

      My in-laws back in Japan had a good sized garden near their house and I was often put to work on it. They always had enough fresh vegetables and fruit from their garden. When I lived in Tokyo, my wife always inspected where the food was from, rarely bought anything from overseas and insisted on Japanese grown food and especially organic. I think the only thing we ate from abroad was new zealand steak and peanut butter. Despite Japan importing so much food, many Japanese families are very picky with regards to food sources and insist on Japanese locally grown food first. America is actually low on the ideal source for food, just above China.

      1. Jef

        Winston – Hardest work I have ever done and by far the lowest paying. The only way we continue to exist is that two other adults on the farm go out into the real world everyday and bring home a paycheck.

          1. Kfish

            My family are farmers. The rule of thumb in this area is that a well-run farm will produce a 2% annual return on the purchase price of the land. If you’ve borrowed at a higher rate than that? You’re screwed. And if you can’t afford $1 million cash for a yearly income of $20,000? You’re also screwed.

            In an economy where you can get at least twice the return lending out that money, we’re all screwed.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          The time for the idea of a national ‘farmy*’ might have finally arrived.

          *a farmy is like an army. We draft people to serve in it.

          1. hunkerdown

            We already have a volunteer farmy (WWOOF). But a couple of years on the farms in compulsory service instead of the university-industrial complex will almost certainly be more useful to youth and society in the long run.

            1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

              Good information.

              Noting is more important than to teach our kids the importance of a healthy diet, and, this is quite dear to me, to empower ourselves (as we are all divine/great) by actually working on the field.

              That is more important to learn than knowing how to program a robot or split an atom.

              You exist as a human, to lead a healthy and happy life, not as a consumer to consume a billionaire’s products/services and give birth to his/her billions, nor to slave away as a serf in computer lab, in order to contribute to the GDP.

    4. Jabawocky

      I think this is on the button. It is nice to have some local animal products, fruit and vegetables but there is no money in producing it. You have to have no overheads (mortgage), money to invest you don’t need back and if you need real income you have to rent out holiday lets or something else. It is not the route to riches.

  15. Felix

    Thank you for this article. With politicians controlled by white shoe Ivy League lawyer lobbyists our farm system has nothing to do with comparative advantage and food unless you are talking steak dinners in Washington. California’s water shortage has little to do with water and a lot to do with the army of cheap labor that is available along with the government subsidized water as well as health care and education and food made available by the government for the progeny of the cheap labor. Socialization of the costs and privatization of the profits…….

  16. Ed

    A system of various artificial “foods”, and lots of beans, grown in a few locations and shipped everywhere, is probably needed to get the world population to ten billion. At some point this system will fall apart, for the reasons James Levy and others pointed out. Then the world population will fall back below ten billion.

    1. Praedor

      It will never reach 10 billion. That assumes all is rosy and unchanged from now until 10 is hit. It ignores drought, famine, war all sprouting from climate change and CURRENT overpopulation. Population is going to peak and fall sooner than 10 billion.


  17. PlutoniumKun

    Its a shame the authors have to go to the trouble of applying proper analysis to the sort of stupidity that Freakonomics influenced economists all too often come out with. The fact that you can get published criticising local farm schemes on the basis of a 19th theory without bothering to to come up with any evidence says enough.

    I do worry a lot about the increasing centralisation and specialisation of farming – it is almost by definition unstable compared to mixed farming. I remember as a child visiting my uncle and aunt in the west of Ireland. They were mid-sized farmers, not by any means poor, but they had an orchard out the back, and cabbages and potatoes in what they called ‘the garden’ (actually about an acre of ground), and kept chickens and turkeys, in addition to the ‘cash’ part of the operation, which was dairying. They had no particular interest in organic farming or similar – it just made sense to them to grow much of their own food. One year we visited and to my parents horror the orchard had been grubbed up and the ‘garden’ turned into pasture. My uncle shrugged and said that with the price of milk (then grossly pumped up from EU policy), it made no sense to grow food when he could have another two cows on that land. The extra money made more than compensated for having to drive 15 miles to the nearest supermarket for potatoes and frozen chickens.

    We forget some of the lessons of history. The Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840’s is often blamed on the potato blight and overpopulation – and of course this was partly true. But the real reason it killed so many at one go was that imported corn from the US had devastated the traditional crops (various grains for export to the UK), so farmland was converted either to raising beef (larger farms), or potatoes for the poorer lands. The potatoes grown were of just one genetically narrow variety (not because of a 19th Century monsanto, but because it was the only variety capable of growing sufficiently well on the poor ground). When the blight arrived, there was insufficient genetic variety to allow any percentage of the crop to survive, and the alternative crop, beef, was controlled by larger, wealthier farmers. So a million small farmers starved to death. Of course, Liberal policies in the UK meant that there was an ideological opposition (along with racism against catholic Irish) to any sort of interference in agricultural markets to protect the poor.

  18. Local Farmer

    I farm a few hundred acres in a densely populated region. We are one of the last working farms in the area. Regardless of the relative strengths of these various systems, it all comes down to the cost of energy. Even as a local farm with progressive practices, without fuel, I’d be happy to be able to subsist and feed my family and friends. I could not continue to feed the broader community.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      We need a ‘farmy’ to war on hunger.

      Citizens are drafted into the national ‘farmy’ for a few years to serve the country, by going to local farms to grow food.

      Then we don’t have to worry about needing fuel to feed the broader community. The broader community is actively feeding itself.

      So, we have the army to defend us, with force, and the farmy to feed us with non-violence.

      1. tegnost

        farmy is a great idea… as a landscaper my neoliberal dream is to start a company called grubbersize where I run the biz like a cross fit/ boot camp style workout and my employees pay me and the customers pay me too! haven’t really gotten into the brass tacks of it yet though…honestly though it does make you feel good..

    2. TG

      Kudos! Yes, exactly! You could feed a modest number of people without large external energy inputs. Producing food on an industrial scale requires industrial scale inputs, no matter how progressive or local you are…

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        I also think there is value, for everyone, in growing what one eats (some of it).

  19. HotFlash

    Seems is if the climate-change-denial machine is warming up again, this time taking on local and organic. Organic agriculture is not only as productive but can be moreso, as it is more mindful. This is a link to one farmer giving one talk at one organic/no-till conference, of which there are many, about his 15 years of farming no-till and organic talking to an audience of fellow organic farmers. Youtube will suggest more, similar videos. I have watched everything I could find from this conference and many of the ‘suggested/similar’ ones.

    I was profoundly impressed that this man and the many others are *doing* this stuff right now and have been, professionally, some for decades. I class the naysayers, whether academic or corporate (do I repeat myself?), as the same sort of people who said tobacco is not a health hazard or, more charitably, as the experts who determined that bumblebees can’t fly. Fortunately the farmers and the bumblebees have not been persuaded by the ‘experts’.

  20. HotFlash

    Hmm. If you have a 100,000 mile food chain, how much does the cost of transportation per mile have to rise before the cost of goods transported becomes “uneconomic”?

    1. frosty zoom

      not how much the “cost” in dollaritos, but how much the costs that can still be hidden and/or shuffled away.

  21. Praedor

    I don’t give a flying crap about economist made up arguments. What I like about locovoring (I just made up a new word?) is that it gets around the undemocratic and unconstitutional negation of COOL laws by the WTO, coming TPP, and TTIP.

    OK, so you want to deny us the right to know where our food comes from? I’ll just end-run you bastards and buy local. Screw Canadian food, etc, I KNOW where my LOCAL food comes from.

      1. Praedor

        I mention Canada because it was Canada that whined to the WTO about our new Country of Origin Label laws coming up in various places. “People knowing where their food comes from is anti-competetive!” Bullcrap.

        I’m otherwise fine with buying foreign-produced foods so long as they are grown or produced properly (no cruelty, no nasty diseases like Mad Cow in the mix). The instant there appears to be a problem (country X is destroying wild lands to plant more corporate farmland, pushing endangered species over the brink, or, country Y is nasty cruel to its livestock, uses battery cages in shit conditions for its fowl, doesn’t give a fuck about farm runoff creating a nasty new dead zone in the ocean off its shores) then I want to be able to immediately stop buying their shit.

    1. jrs

      Well the last paragraph does mention power :)

      the argument against locavores was characterized as “In other words, well-meaning locavores are inadvertently promoting a future characterized by less food security and greater environmental destruction.”

      I could see how someone could argue this, but isn’t the big big picture: any support that goes to large corporations is inadvertently promoting a future characterized by less security etc. It’s about power.

  22. nat scientist

    The authors dilemma-mobile is driven by the economics as if the failing global food distribution structure was the most important thing, whereas nature ensures that the survivors of successful self-sustainability structures do the carrying on rather than the apologists.

  23. TG

    Yes, an excellent post as always. The “grow locally” model may not be the savior that many think it is.

    However, I suggest that concentrating on just economies of scale and that old Shibboleth “comparative advantage” are missing a lot of the point.

    A paleo-Keynesian analysis would start with the realization that, first and foremost, this is an engineering problem and before worrying about economic factors, ask what is physically possible. Because no amount of financial trickery can make the impossible happen. The big issue remains a population explosion that, to a great extent, has been engineered/encouraged by the rich to drive wages down and profits up. If the global population had been allowed to stabilize at two or three billion (still a lot of people!) we wouldn’t have these problems. But as population grows, it becomes physically impossible to grow food ‘organically’. You simply MUST use chemical fertilizers, and diesel-driven pumps, and massive use of insecticides etc. This is true whether food is grown locally or far away, and comparative advantage is irrelevant. And as population continues to climb, the amount of resources that you need even to produce subsistence level food increases, not just in total but per capita. (Think how much it costs in energy etc. to keep an astronaut alive on the space station). If we start to need to desalinate seawater to grow crops, well, the energy costs would quickly become staggering.

    Sure we could cut some slack by ‘conserving’, i.e., by ensuring that everyone who is not a billionaire is crushed to bare subsistence poverty. That might buy us a couple of decades. Until continued population growth uses up all that slack, and we hit the wall with no reserves… Kind of like what just happened in Syria.

    1. HotFlash

      You simply MUST use chemical fertilizers, and diesel-driven pumps, and massive use of insecticides etc. This is true whether food is grown locally or far away, and comparative advantage is irrelevant.

      Well no, no you don’t. What you need to do is to spend more *human hours* (horrors!!) instead of petro-energy making it work. But gosh, it’s not like we don’t have massive unemployment. This argument is so dumb, it reminds me of the women’s magazines that run the same three lead articles every month: how to feed your family for $10 a week, recipe for double-chocolate fudge cheesecake , and miracle diet melts fat.

      1. Jabawocky

        Nice thought. Now go farm a few acres without fossil fuels and come back in a few weeks and see if you change your mind.

        Mow, well no, get out your scythe. Plough, drill or rotivate? Instead get digging. Maybe you could grow enough to feed a few people like this but that’s it. And it’s tough. The reality is that without fossil fuels agriculture is doomed. And greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are 15-20% of total global emissions before you have driven the food anywhere. This is the unfortunate reality we need to face.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Huh? When I was a kid, we had a nice rotary grass cutter. It was really pretty too.

          The problem is fertilizing the soil, which if you do it through compost (as opposed to hauling manure or other fertilizers in) would take time. But even small gardens produce a lot of produce. The problem is we’ve been trained to have variety all year and not “oh, corn is in now, we eat a lot of corn because once this is done, it won’t be till next year that we have it again.” You have to be willing to produce excess and can or otherwise story it. And of course we assume refrigeration. although you can create a cold cellar, or use a geothermal well (not uncommon in Europe but unheard of here) or use solar to provide power.

  24. Adam Eran

    The “comparative advantage” argument advanced by Ricardo to bless all trade as a win-win for the trading partners assumed labor and capital did not cross borders with the goods. That is manifestly not so now, so whenever you read “comparative advantage” you can almost immediately discount the argument.

    1. jrs

      Neither do most of the examples above. They are too kind. Iowa and New York are trading see as are Memphis and California… Really food is coming from all over the world at this point with massive transportation costs … Iowa trading with New York is the least of our problems.

  25. aletheia33

    there is history to be investigated.
    i don’t know much about this history, but i know that during the Great Depression, food rotted in warehouses because the economic system was perpetuated, while people went hungry.
    arising out of the left (far stronger then than it is today), cooperatives formed in efforts to feed populations by growing food outside the economic system.
    all of them failed.

    that said, if you owned your own land and could grow and raise vegetables and a few animals, you were likely to make it through OK. (my mother’s family did.)
    if you did not have that resource, you were simply screwed.
    so owning a farm, barely eking out a living today, tomorrow could look like a lucky position to be in.

    here in vermont we know we can feed ourselves if we have to–we are so few.
    but we know we won’t be able to feed the hordes who will arrive fleeing the megalopolis south of us, hungry.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      They will come as patent-holders, demanding you hand over ‘their’ GM corn.

      “Those belong to us.”

      1. HotFlash

        Ah, you are not near the cities, I think? They will come with zipguns and clubs and in large numbers, they will be very hungry, and it will be over in hours. Food can be grown about anywhere, GMO or otherwise, but it takes *months*. And we will not have months, we will have days if we are lucky. Humans like to eat at least once a day. Experiment: go without food for n number of days, record and report the result. Feeling like looting the nearest Meijers (or Walmart or Wholefoods)? Yeah, that’s how it is. They will be very angry and will take whatever they can for as long as they live. :)

  26. Paul Spring

    Talk about missing the forest for the trees! This is a non-issue relative to what’s really destroying our ecosystem. As a few others have pointed out here, its animal agriculture that’s the problem. This is not an economic problem but a societal one as a result of ignorance, meat and dairy industry propaganda and plain old addiction to animal products. We mow down the amazon rain forest to feed the cattle to feed our cravings.

    Let’s see some meaningful economic discussions regarding the impacts of our agricultural choices instead of this contrived issue.

  27. Alex Tolley

    The problem with local food is that even apart from seasonality, some crops simply cannot be grown in some regions. In some cases, the crop is extremely local.

    From what I see, much of the argument against transport of food is that it uses fossil fuels and therefore has a carbon footprint. But this could be changed and AFAICS this would undermine the argument of some, but not all, locavores.

    I do try to support local farmers markets for 3 reasons:
    1. The food is often fresher than it is by the time it reaches the grocery store.
    2. It is usually a lot cheaper, presumably because I am not paying the middlemen.
    3. I can buy from farmers whom I have grown to trust in terms of quality.

    But in principle, if those farmers were anywhere on the planet and could instantly transport their products, I would be quite happy to buy from them.

  28. human

    “New York City residents benefit from the inexpensively produced corn, and resources are freed up to use their land, labor, and capital to produce other goods.” … Such as…?

    Methinks there is a Dicken’s story here.

Comments are closed.