The tender, tasty tomatoes we buy at the Farmer's Market in the summer are vastly preferable to the bland, rubbery things we have to settle for in the winter, but taste is probably the only good reason for calculating "food miles." People touting "localization" -- i.e., eating only locally produced foodstuffs to "reduce their carbon footprint" are economically misguided. Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek links to several articles that happily demolish their arguments. In particular, Boudreaux highlights an article at Coyote Blog that sets it all out in neatly bulleted form:
- [Localization] doesn't work. The total energy used for transport, say of food products, is a small percentage of the total energy used in the total production process. The energy transportation budget is generally smaller than efficiency gains from scale or from optimizing location. For example, a wheat farm in Arizona on 50 acres is going to use a lot more energy (and water, and fertilizer, and manpower) than a wheat farm on a thousand acres in North Dakota.
- It leads to poverty. Our modern society, our lifestyles, our lifespans all are a result of the fantastic increases in efficiency we have reaped from the division of labor. A push to localize all production reverses the division of labor. Many products, such as semiconductors, become outright impossible on a local scale.
- It leads to starvation. It is hard for us to imagine famine in the wealthy nations of the world. Crop failures in one part of the world are replaced with crops from other parts of the world. But as recently as the 19th century, France, then the wealthiest nation on earth but reliant on local agriculture, experienced frequent crop failures and outright starvation.
I would only add that an attack on the transportation of foodstuffs is basically an attack on modernity. Long-distance trade developed very early in human history. Aztec obsidian was distributed throughout Northern and Mesoamerica in the pre-Columbian era (Smith). But people can't eat stone, and perishables are, alas, perishable. Until quite recently, local farmers were unable to provide local communities sufficient security against the vagaries of weather, soil, and social instability (e.g., war) to prevent sporadic famine. Hunger was an ever-present threat until the massive project of transporting foodstuffs safely and rapidly over wide areas became practical -- mainly through the expenditure of fossil fuels. We think nothing of flying tons of grain to starving people halfway across the globe, but without the worldwide mechanism of food transport that has evolved over the past century, we would be the ones starving when the weather failed us and there would be no one to help. The community of nations would collapse into a Hobbesian nightmare. Homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man, when basic survival is at stake. The only alternative is to band together in larger and larger communities of mutual aid and mutual profit as we have done and will continue to do unless we frighten ourselves into isolation once again, draw ever smaller circles around ourselves, direct all our charity inward, and all our enmity to those who have something we might want to take by force.