Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Local Food vs Free Trade

We've talked about this before but I found a link to this really interesting article on Andrew Sullivan's blog.  

Some highlights....

Local food production does not always produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the 2005 DEFRA study found that British tomato growers emit 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of tomatoes grown compared to 0.6 tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of Spanish tomatoes. The difference is British tomatoes are produced in heated greenhouses. Another study found that cold storage of British apples produced more carbon dioxide than shipping New Zealand apples by sea to London. In addition, U.K. dairy farmers use twice as much energy to produce a metric ton of milk solids than do New Zealand farmers. Other researchers have determined that Kenyan cut rose growers emit 6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per 12,000 roses compared to the 35 tons of carbon dioxide emitted by their Dutch competitors. Kenyan roses grow in sunny fields whereas Dutch roses grow in heated greenhouses.

Desrochers and Shimizu demonstrate that the debate over food miles is a distraction from the real issues that confront global food production. For instance, rich country subsidies amounting to more than $300 billion per year are severely distorting global agricultural production and trade. If the subsidies were removed, far more agricultural goods would be produced in and imported from developing countries, helping lift millions of people out of poverty. They warn that the food miles campaign is "providing a new set of rhetorical tools to bolster protectionist interests that are fundamentally detrimental to most of humankind." Ultimately, Desrochers and Shimizu's analysis shows that "the concept of food miles is...a profoundly flawed sustainability indicator."

I think this raises some important empirical questions about whether eating locally actually achieves the environmental goals it says and whether any environmental gains it does produce, which as the article argues are debatable, outweigh the costs imposed on the rural poor around the world.


The Law Talking Guy said...

Doesn't it just raise questions about greenhouse growing, particularly in heated greenhouses?

Pombat said...

It depends what people mean by eating locally. If they mean eating something that was grown locally, regardless of how many artificially heated greenhouses etc it needs, then it may or may not be good. If they mean eating food that naturally grows in the local environment without needing all the extra help, and only eating seasonally, then it's got to be good (apricots and cherries just coming into season here - it's good!). Doing this in the UK does mean you spend most of the year trying to find interesting things to do with turnips though.

Brings us back to that debate about including 'carbon cost' or similar on packaging / shelf labelling*, as well as a distance travelled / travel carbon cost, so that people can see which are least costly environmentally.

*I would rather see loose foods with good shelf labelling than packaged foods obviously - I'm a bit of a hippie when it comes to my food shopping, trying to minimise packaging use, taking all my own bags etc :-)

The economical question is a different, yet complementary, question to the environmental one - if your chief concern is assisting the rural poor in developing countries, then yes, eating plenty of imported foods is a great thing. It may even be cheaper for the purchaser, although that does raise questions about whether those rural poor are being assisted or screwed. If your chief concern is assisting your own economy, then you want to buy local as much as possible.

I think a nice balance can be struck. Agricultural subsidies have always seemed daft to me, so phasing them out, and/or using them to get the farmers who would not be able to afford to carry on being farmers without them into different lines of work, seems like a good idea. Then, decent labelling on all foods, something like "greenhouse gas emissions during production" and "grown in xxx country/state", possibly even "grown without heated greenhouses etc". All of which would help the developing world by removing the imbalance caused by subsidies, allow environmentally concerned consumers to make informed choices, and probably minimise the use of heated greenhouses etc.

The Law Talking Guy said...

One of the great things about California is that almost every fruit or vegetable we could want is grown locally without greenhouses.