A Free-Market Energy Blog

Food Miles: The Local Food Activists’ Dilemma (a global warming inconvenient truth)

By Pierre Desrochers -- October 15, 2010

October 16th is World Food Day, an annual event that was inaugurated in 1979 by the Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to mark its founding date in 1945. This year’s theme, “United against Hunger,” harks back to the FAO’s original mission. So what exactly are the central food planners and the anti-industrial Left thinking about food-for-all these days?

Demonizing Capitalism’s Food Bonanza 

With the advent of the “foodie” fad and the rise of celebrity chefs, discussions about the most effective ways to address hunger in poor countries have increasingly fallen out of fashion among advanced economies’ food activists. Indeed, in a world where no good deed goes unpunished, the individuals most responsible for producing ever-growing amounts of food at ever more affordable prices – from large scale farmers, professional plant breeders, synthetic pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers to agricultural equipment manufacturers, commodity traders, logistics industry workers and packaging manufacturers – have increasingly been demonized as poor stewards of the Earth, if not outright public health threats.

What really motivates food activists these days are rather SOLE (Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical) food initiatives whose aim is to “liberate” consumers and communities from the grips of Agri-businesses. And here the critics have it just about all wrong.

Food Miles: The Environmental Metric

From an energy policy perspective, the most interesting aspect of recent food activism is “locavorism,” meaning the idea that an ever- growing portion of our food supply should be produced in close physical proximity to final consumers in order to reduce “food miles” (the distance traveled by food items from production sites to final consumers).

Of course, there have always been perfectly legitimate reasons for consumers to buy local food, such as greater quality or freshness. The key point emphasized in the last two decades by local food activists, however, is that by discouraging consumers from buying food transported from distant locations, less energy – and ultimately less greenhouse gas – is being expanded, thus contributing to the fight against human-made climate change.

As has been amply documented in recent years though, the food-miles narrative ignores productivity differentials between geographical locations and is therefore meaningless.

In other words, activists assume that producing a given food item requires the same amount of inputs independently of where and how it is produced. If this were indeed true, then the distance traveled between producers and final consumers and the mode of transportation used would obviously be the only determinants of a food item’s specific environmental impact.

In the real world, however, some locations are just much better suited than others for certain types of productions. To give but one example, Californian strawberries are grown most of the year under almost ideal conditions (neither too humid nor too hot). As a result, one hectare of Golden State will yield over 50,000 kilograms of berries, compared to 7,000 to 10,000 in our home province of Ontario (Canada) where the growing season is much shorter.

Higher annual yields, in turn, allow for a much more intensive and efficient use of fuel, capital, machinery and other resources through the development of significant economies of scale.

Agricultural Product Life Cycle

Any realistic assessment of the environmental impact of food production must therefore reflect the whole agricultural product life cycle which stretches from primary inputs to disposal activities (Table 1).


A 2005 study by the United Kingdom Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) remains to this day the most comprehensive discussion of the food-miles controversy.

Among other findings, its authors showed that 82% of the transportation-induced greenhouse gas emissions are generated within the country, with car transport from shop to home accounting for 48% and heavy goods vehicles (trucks) for 31% while air and sea transport each amounted to less than 1%.

This latter result can be explained by the fact that a container boat floats and uses highly efficient diesel engines. Shipping food items halfway around the world this way often requires less energy per unit transported than using a truck for a few hundred kilometers.

Even more interesting, long-distance transportation is, overall, an insignificant cause of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to the most energy-intensive segments of the agricultural production chain (fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, energy required to power machinery, etc.).

In the United States, a study even suggests that 4% of food-related greenhouse gas emissions were attributable to the long-distance transportation segment as a whole, while 83% came from the production stage.

The importance of seasonality in terms of energy input and CO2 emissions is also too often forgotten by activists. And yet, because the southern hemisphere’s growing season coincides with the northern hemisphere’s winter, shipping freshly picked from New Zealand or Argentina to U.K. consumers during their winter season entails less greenhouse gas emissions than the purchase by U.K. consumers of local apples that have been put in cold storage for several months (and, of course, the southern hemisphere apples will taste much better).

As a rule, physical environments that require significant heating and/or cold protection facilities and technologies entail much greater energy consumption than more favorable climates, typically on a scale that dwarfs the energy requirements associated with the transportation of agricultural products from more remote locations.

Inconvenient Truths

“Inconvenient truths” of this type are hardly surprising when one stops to think about the fact that the development of the globalized food supply chain was motivated by economic considerations. In this context, prices, while not perfect indicators because of worldwide systematic distortions (subsidies, tariffs, quotas, etc.) in the agricultural sector, certainly convey a much more accurate picture of overall input requirements than the geographical location of production sites.

As they have become increasingly unable to counter the “settled science” on food miles, local food activists have increasingly resorted to promoting the other alleged economic, social, health and security benefits of their prescription. As we will illustrate in our forthcoming book on the subject, however, all of these are old economic and political fallacies that have no basis in either theory or facts.

Although this goes against everything that local food activists hold to be desirable, the path towards greater agricultural sustainability lies in the complete liberalization of agricultural production and trade. With capital and labor free to flow in the most suitable locations, agricultural producers would be able to deliver larger volumes and lower prices while diminishing overall environmental impact. In the end, aren’t these the stated goals of local food activists?

Pierre Desrochers is Associate Professor of geography at the University of Toronto. He maintains a detailed website here. Hiroko Shimizu was trained as an economist and holds a Master’s of Public Policy from the University of Osaka.

Desrochers and Shimizu’s local food policy writings can be accessed here. This entry is based on their economic note Will buying food locally save the planet? (Montreal Economic Institute, 2010) and their policy primer Yes, We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the Food Miles Perspectives (Mercatus Policy Series Policy Primer No. 8, October 2008).


  1. Jon Boone  

    Thanks, guys, for a literate discussion about this important issue. Accounting for all relevant variables in any energy transaction does indeed reveal many inconvenient truths. Arriving at appropriate economies of scale to feed 7 billion people at a civil and environmentally responsible rate takes some doing. Palliatives about the role of local organic farming operations make for cozy listening on NPR, but work to obscure reality at a number of levels. Of course, none of this should justify the worst of our industrial agricultural/animal husbandry practices. There should be enforceable limits, in terms of humane actions and health and civil consequence, to the scope of these practices.


  2. GM  

    Indeed, in a world where no good deed goes unpunished, the individuals most responsible for producing ever-growing amounts of food at ever more affordable prices – from large scale farmers, professional plant breeders, synthetic pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers to agricultural equipment manufacturers, commodity traders, logistics industry workers and packaging manufacturers – have increasingly been demonized as poor stewards of the Earth, if not outright public health threats.

    If you weren’t so ecologically illiterate, you would know why industrial agriculture is disastrous. In fact, almost all kinds of agriculture that humanity has practiced over the last 10,000 years have been unsustainable, and that inherent unsustainability has caused the collapse of a laundry list of civilizations over the centuries. But nothing has been so bad as the mechanized large-scale agriculture we have now, which is:

    1. A very effective way of flushing soil into the sea and basically sterilizing whatever soil is left
    2. Entirely dependent on non-renewable resources for its functioning – we are effectively converting oil and fertilizers into food using soil as a catalyst.
    3. More vulnerable to collapse than anything else in history – take away the oil, natural gas, irrigation water and phosphate rocks and watch what happens. That’s in the short term, in the long term it will collapse anyway due to destruction of the soils.

    Can we produce the amount of food we produce now without it? Absolutely not. But given that we aren’t going to have it much longer anyway, what this means is that we shouldn’t have allowed our numbers to swell to the levels at which we need to produce so much food. If you’re in overshoot, it will catch up with you sooner or later.

    Again, these aren’t terribly complicated concepts to understand, all that’s needed is:

    1. Some elementary understanding of basic science
    2. Not being brainwashed by free market and ideology and technocornucopianism to the point at which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of the laws of physics and you begin to think that the economy contains the environment, not the other way around

    Sadly, that’s not the case here…


  3. Hiroko Shimizu  

    @GM: So how long do you have to be unsustainable before you become sustainable?


  4. Charles  

    GM’s comment is one from a person who is not particularly familiar with modern agricultural production systems.

    Most Western or developed countries are showing the way to efficiently produce large amounts of safe, clean and nutritious food, while at the same time improving the quality and biodiversity of the soil.

    At the same time, extensive reafforestation is being conducted in many of these arable areas, entirely at the expense of the farmers who have long realised that a more desirable and harmonious environment can exist alongside effcient food production.

    To accuse farmers, particularly those in developed countries, as rapers and pillagers of the earth, is to vent an opinion that is about 30-40 years out of date.

    GM along with Greenpeace and WWF need to be brought up to date with the realities of the present day, as it would appear most of their arguments are based on a long bygone era.

    Time to stop thinking we are still living in the Middle Ages GM, you need to get with the programme.


  5. Mark_In_St_Pete  

    SOLE is designed to increase guilt and food prices, while killing off the surplus poulation. The same thing the left has be trying to do for years. Banning of DDT, AWG, and now SOLE. It really would seem thet the left has no SOUL.


  6. Alex  

    GM is just regurgitating what he/she has read and been told by the mainstream media, Nat Geo, Science, Nature, etc. for decades. Don’t blame those who try to be informed but are mislead by activist media — blame the biased messenger.

    GM: soil erosion is the biggest and most credible sustainability threat. Old-style mold-board plowing indeed created large soil loss and organic matter degradation. But almost 3/4 of U.S. corn and soy acres are now managed using low- and no-tillage cropping methods that cut soil erosion by about 75-95%. In fact, read the multi-part exchange on soil erosion in the journal Science between hack doomsayer David Pimentel (a butterfly biologist by training) and Drs. Stanley Trimble (a soil geomorphologist) and Pierre Crosson (a soil loss expert, now deceased). Trimble and Crosson mopped the floor with Pimentel, showing with actual REAL WORLD DATA (ie. what science is all about) that the claims that modern farming are sending all the topsoil to the sea are just not credible.

    Bottom line: organic farmers have 6-7 times higher soil LOSS from fields as no-till farming practiced by mainstream agri-business allied farmers. Their only salvation is importing organic matter from other farms — which is simply unsustainable in a holistic perspective.

    Facts and reality are stubborn and unfashionable, but in this case they’re entirely reassuring.

    Alex Avery
    author: The Truth About Organic Foods
    Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues


  7. GM  

    Talking about biased messengers, here is the first thing I see about the Hudson Institute:

    The Hudson Institute is an American, conservative, non-profit think tank founded in 1961, in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, by futurist, military strategist, and systems theorist Herman Kahn and his colleagues at the RAND Corporation.[2] It moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1984 and to Washington, D.C., in 2004.[3]
    The Institute promotes public policy change in accordance with its stated values of a “commitment to free markets and individual responsibility, confidence in the power of technology to assist progress, respect for the importance of culture and religion in human affairs, and determination to preserve America’s national security.

    That’s absolutely not biased….

    Neither is this blog itself, which prides itself as a “free market energy blog” (what the hell do free markets have to do with energy, which is a purely physical issue).

    As far as soil going into sea, I don’t think you understand what I am talking about; it is not just the soil itself, it is the nutrients in it (there is a reason it is so hard to grow crops in Australia, for example, as it is geologically very old and most essential minerals have been leached from the land), which get removed from the land with each crop and shipped to cities (where they eventually get flushed), it is phenomena like soil salinization due to irrigation and others. Unless you close the nutrient cycle, you can’t have a long-term sustainable agriculture and this means that eventually it will collapse. Not a good thing when the whole planet has been converted to a feeding lot for humans; in the past once agriculture collapsed in one are, it was possible to move to another, not anymore.

    And I have no idea why you think that I think “organic food” is a viable alternative. It definitely doesn’t aim at closing the nutrient cycle most of the time . This only give me more evidence that people like you have absolutely no interest in understanding what other are telling them, instead they see the vast left conspiracy to enslave the world , end democracy and destroy capitalism behind everything, and as a result they quickly associated views and ideas that have nothing to do with any such thing with it.


  8. Pierre Desrochers  

    @GM: Soil erosion was what made environmental activists tick in the first half of the 20th C (see a synthesis of this literature in the “classic” 1939 The Rape of the Earth (see the link below) – and that was long before eco-feminists (industry is male, nature is female, therefore industry rapes nature…) came along.

    Not surprisingly, the conclusion of environmental activists back then was that smart people such as themselves should impose their wisdom on people who didn’t see the planetary scale of crisis, and this implied preventing the unchecked spawing of humanity – of course, activists back then were much more open about the fact that they were really targeting brown, black and yellow people…

    I find it amazing that the erosion issue is now being kept alive by the likes of Pimentel, Paul Ehrlich and their disciples in light of the facts discussed by Alex Avery.

    The Rape of the Earth

    I address some of this history in my own work


  9. Alex  

    Uh, sure GM. You go live, eat, and poop in your “closed cycle” farm and the rest of us will continue to rely on sustainable production of N, P, and K. The N comes from the atmosphere (78% N and inexhaustible) and can be fixed into fertilizer sustainably using nuclear, fusion, or other inexhaustible energy sources (hint: virtually all of synthetic N fertilizer is currently fixed from atmospheric N using energy and hydrogen from methane, not “oil” or “petroleum”. But you could power the fixation process with hippies riding bicycles if you wished, the energy input is essentially irrelevant). The P and K come from rock ores and there is huge quantities in deposits in several places in the earth.
    Finally, we are increasingly closing the cycle by applying waste treatment effluent onto cropland, which is happening in the more advanced sewer treatment facilities — over the objections of many “educated” foodies.
    So just what exactly is unsustainable with the current fertilization regime? And what does Australia have to do with any of that?


  10. GM  

    Alex { 10.19.10 at 8:07 am }
    Uh, sure GM. You go live, eat, and poop in your “closed cycle” farm and the rest of us will continue to rely on sustainable production of N, P, and K.

    Of course those are the only minerals plants need, and there is absolutely no such thing as Peak Phosphorus…

    So just what exactly is unsustainable with the current fertilization regime?

    Maybe its total reliance on non-renewable resources. Which delude lunatics of the kind that like to post here will eventually realize when the reality of Peak Oil hits hard. But it will be way too late at that point

    And what does Australia have to do with any of that?

    For a person who claims to be an authority on the subject you demonstrate an amazing ignorance of it. Somehow I don’t find it strange though

    P.S. It is also very curious how you got exposed on the biased messenger issue and you chose to just pretend that conversation didn’t happen in your next post…


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  14. Geraldine  

    We can all blame the Marketing Junkie Gurus – one hit word wonders, I do believe the originators of these one hit words
    are eventually taken out of context.


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