Loca-Externalities


August 25, 2010

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Locavores’ main argument remain the fact that due to an exuberant amount of energy and costs that are entailed in transporting a tomato across the country, one is held morally to eat locally as it is an environmentally and sustainably sound way of reducing one’s greenhouse gas foot print. Steven Landsburg mocks this kind of micro-mindedness as follows:

You should care about all those costs. And here are some other things you should care about: How many grapes were sacrificed by growing that California tomato in a place where there might have been a vineyard? How many morning commutes are increased, and by how much, because that New York greenhouse displaces a conveniently located housing development? What useful tasks could those California workers perform if they weren’t busy growing tomatoes? What about the New York workers? What alternative uses were there for the fertilizers and the farming equipment — or better yet, the resources that went into producing those fertilizers and farming equipment — in each location?

In any case, misrepresentation of information is very much abundant when anyone is trying to advocate one’s pride agenda. It is the nature of things. As demonstrated by the guy whom Landsburg ridicules:

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.

The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far. A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers’ market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy. Just running your refrigerator for a week consumes 9,000 calories of energy.

In all fairness, Budiansky, the guy quoted right above, maintains the argument that energy consumption should not be of paramount concern. It is rather the given set of values that the locavores choose to optimize. If they were to have chosen to advocate that families did not need a second or a third refrigerator neither a standalone freezer in their home nor a dishwasher, the locavores’ argument could have well worth its case. It is a fine thing to eat locally but this is not a virtue in itself. Rather, when presented with the overall picture, the relative amount of energy spent on farming is of minute pertinence compared to our well-being and in the yield of the land.