The Inefficiency of Local Food

Kelsy harvests carrots from our garden.

Local food is near and dear to my heart. We’re kind of local food poster children, actually. We grow lots of veggies and raise our own chickens, rabbits, worms and eggs on our urban lot. We buy our beef, lamb, pork, duck, and extra chickens, eggs, fruits, veggies, and Christmas trees from local farmers. Those farmers are people we’ve met in person, and they are doing their best to produce food without the use of pesticides, hormones, or insecticides. They use more sustainable practices such as pasturing animals, letting land lie fallow, rotating crops, inter-cropping, minimal tilling… well, you get the idea.

We do get some foods like coconut oil and avocados from far away, but we try to minimize that. We live in a great place for local food, and we eat mostly in season. We preserve foods when they are plentiful and enjoy them until they run out. We also help coordinate efforts that make local food accessible to more people in the city, by doing things like gardening in vacant lots, volunteering at neighborhood farmers’ markets, and coordinating buying club purchases from local farmers.

We think the benefits of this kind of eating are worth the effort and costs, but we would not in a million years call it efficient. So when I came across this article entitled The Inefficiency of Local Food from Freakonomics, I was expecting a delightful exploration of the costs and benefits of local food – contrasting them with the costs and benefits of the industrial model. What I found instead was an article that took the costs of local food and compared them to the benefits of industrial food.

From the very start, it was obvious that the authors completely failed to recognize key points of the local food movement:

  • Cost and expense of food are defined in more than monetary terms alone.
  • Industrial food is heavily subsidized, distorting the cost/benefit analysis.
  • There is a lot of land lost to lawns and the like that could be used for small scale food production on a personal level.
  • Locavores aren’t trying to grow every kind of crop on every piece of land.
  • Pastured meat has different feed requirements, environmental impacts, and health impacts than CAFO meat.
  • Locavores acknowledge that there are places on earth that are not habitable by humans without industrial food shipping, and have a few things to say about that.
  • The “food” we get out of monocrop, GMO agriculture is very different than the food we get from polycultures.
  • What’s most efficient when considering a single aim is not most efficient when considering a whole system.

Let’s look at a few quotes, shall we?

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.

I have not seen anyone make the argument that a relocalized food system is “just as efficient as” industrial agriculture. The problem is that “just as efficient as” line – efficient for what? No one expects a thousand small farms in a thousand different parts of the world to produce the same amount of the same crop with the same inputs and distribute it to the same people as a monoculture a thousand times as big.

High crop yields from large monocultures of single, GMO crops designed for high yield also degrade soil, cause erosion, contribute to deforestation, require plenty of synthetic inputs, and pollute the watershed. This is only an efficient system if you are looking at one output – the crop you have focused on. Add to this that the cost associated with these systems are artificially low due to government subsidies. The same goes for high volume meat production.

Our chickens convert food scraps to fertilizer, meat, and eggs.

There is a reason nature is inefficient when you consider just one part of the system. By mimicking that in our agriculture we can obtain good yields while protecting the environment. A rabbit or chicken or cow doesn’t convert all its feed to meat – and that’s a good thing. Because the feed turns into poo, which can fertilize the pasture or turned to fertilizer for the veggies. In a system that is just about the animal, that poo doesn’t turn into fertilizer, it turns into toxic waste, polluting our watershed. In a system that is just about the veggies, fertilizer must be trucked in.

When just the highest yield variety of a crop is grown, that opens us up to super-pests and super-diseases… and famine. It’s happened before, and it can happen again!

Experts estimate that in the next 50 years, the global food system likely needs to produce as much food as it did in the previous 10,000 years combined.

Interestingly, the linked article actually supports what I was just saying about environmental degradation, which in the long term definitely contributes to reduced yields. But the fact remains that there are more people than ever, and they need to be fed. Surprisingly, it turns out that the big problem in alleviating world hunger and malnutrition isn’t so much a lack of food production as it is a flawed distribution based on corporate greed, poverty, and warfare.

On top of that, acres upon acres of great growing land, forest land, and other habitat is put into biofuel and grain because that’s what’s cost efficient does not provide the most nutritious, digestible, food. (I’m all for biofuel, when it is the waste product of some other system.)

I have estimated the costs of such a [psedo-locavore] system in terms of land and chemical demand. Forsaking comparative advantage in agriculture by localizing means it will take more inputs to grow a given quantity of food, including more land and more chemicals—all of which come at a cost of carbon emissions.

This only holds up if you are assuming everyone needs to continue to eat everything they are used to getting shipped in, whenever they want it, and nearly nothing is to be shipped at all. Trade and transport is not all bad. Not all crops grow in all regions. Before the industrial food system came along, people didn’t eat everything all the time. Even just 15 years ago foods came through the grocery store in season. Staple foods varied with the constraints of the region you lived in. Granted, there are some regions where most food doesn’t grow, or requires intense inputs. I don’t think the highest use for those regions is for people to live there. If you don’t have fertile soil or water in an area, the highest use is probably habitat for the creatures that naturally thrive there. Even arid regions support some human populations – but traditionally those populations are limited by what’s available to them. This is the natural balance, and it is one that humans aren’t exempt from, in the long term. In my opinion, we should be moving away from trying to achieve constant growth in all ways, and moving towards seeking balance as a population.

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.

Our back yard veggie garden isn't displacing housing.

This is the most ridiculous statement in the article. I live in a city that is all about urban farming. Vacant lots are being turned to gardens, but homes are not being torn down for gardens. Homes are being built with smaller footprints – going up instead of sprawling. Roof gardens cover the footprints of some buildings, helping solve stormwater issues caused by development while creating green space. People are turning lawns to gardens, and going back to raising small animals like chickens, ducks, rabbits, and goats for milk, meat, and fertilizer in the city. The amount of land still available to these purposes is huge.

Local “food sheds” couldn’t support the scale of farming and food processing operations that exist today—and that’s kind of the point. Large, monocrop farms are more dependent on synthetic fertilizers and tilling operations than small polycrop farms, and they face greater pest pressure and waste disposal problems that can lead to environmental damage.

But large operations are also more efficient at converting inputs into outputs. Agricultural economists at UC Davis, for instance, analyzed farm-level surveys from 1996-2000 and concluded that there are “significant” scale economies in modern agriculture and that small farms are “high cost” operations. Absent the efficiencies of large farms, the use of polluting inputs would rise, as would food production costs, which would lead to more expensive food.

Yes. Food is expensive. We’ve been artificially insulated from this fact by our industrial food system that uses products like undigestible cellulose as filler in “foods,” and which makes decisions on what to grow and sell based on what’s most cost effective rather than what people need to eat. Costs can be mitigated by creating a world where people have access to grow some of their own food, changing the food subsidy systems, and to some degree, changing our population distribution. These are not simple solutions that can be worked out overnight, but there are alternatives to growing tons of wheat and corn at the expense of the environment, habitat, and people’s quality of life, making it cheap, and calling that “feeding the world.”

Finally, higher costs on certain foods may be a solution to the big health challenge in the developed world. But higher prices on any food are precisely the wrong prescription for the great health problems in the developing world, where millions remain undernourished. As the food crisis of 2007-08 revealed, winning the war on human hunger requires a constant commitment to getting more food out of less land, water, and other inputs.

The Green Revolution is not what it was cracked up to be, and there is more than one way to look at a problem. The starving developing world is actually exporting food. To me it seems world hunger is more about the inequitable distribution of wealth than a crisis of production.

By eating local we’re not causing world hunger. We don’t fool ourselves into thinking we’re saving the world, either. But when I get a pastured cow from the farmer down the road, I am supporting the local economy, feeding my family food that is actually good for us, avoiding supporting CAFOs, and helping keep a piece of land in good shape for future generations. When I garden in my back yard, the food I grow is reducing reliance on fossil fuels, converting our waste back to food on-site, providing us nutrition, and teaching my kids and neighbors where food comes from. Eating local is not an all or nothing proposition, and it’s part of (but not all of) the solution for problems ranging from environmental degradation to world hunger.

This post is part of Fresh Bites Friday on Real Food Whole Health.

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7 comments to The Inefficiency of Local Food

  • I read the original article and posted comments a number of times. Your response here does a great job of summarizing everyone’s criticisms about the piece. I especially believe that if we spent less time, money, and resources on grooming weed-free lawns and turned much of that space into gardens instead, we’d be much better off. Better for the environment. A creative, healthy form of family activity and exercise. And a great source of food.

  • Wow. Great recap of such an irresponsible article. I’ve always liked Freakonomics but they got this one SO wrong, I’ve completely lost trust in their logic. Thank you for sharing and for doing all you do to support local farmers and buck industrial food. If we ended government subsidies on commodity crops and regulated pesticides and fertilizers properly, I think we’d all be enjoying more diverse produce. We can feed the world’s growing population with healthier food. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way!

  • Thanks, what an excellent response! Local food IS nearly always efficient, if one considers all the parameters of growing, health and environment.

  • How lucky you are to have such opportunity to avail of fresh, pesticide and hormone-free products. Sadly though, government funds go to raising chemically raised agricultural products (like corn), as they make more money than the organics. Let’s dream this will change someday, or work for it.

    Liked your lovely blog (something seems wrong with twitter this time). I am also inviting you to add your blog at Momma’s Lounge ( http://olahmomma.com/momlounge ) where you meet more mom bloggers, shout away, add your giveaways and business links and get featured by sharing your crafts, recipes and interesting musings. Following us back is deeply appreciated.

    Thanks and have a great day!

    http://olahmomma.com

  • I love this article! So many people have wondered why we can food and make our own food and all I can tell you is that the benefits so outweigh all of the hard work but I love all the points you make in your blog post! I am fortunate to be able to garden and work hard to produce such a bounty on our Lil’ Suburban Homestead. Thanks so much for linking up to “The Ole’ Saturday Homesteading Trading Post!” Would love for you to link up anytime!

    • Joy

      Thanks for stopping by, Karen Lynne! I’m glad you liked the article and I’ll definitely be back to your site! We started out with grand visions of really being self-sustaining and have realized we have to reach out into the broader community. It’s just too much work otherwise. But we can get away from most of the industrial food system, and we do what we can. Every little bit makes a difference!

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