Friday, August 20, 2010

Does eating locally save energy?

Three years and two weeks after this piece of NYT op-ed took on the issue of food miles, another column appears in the same place making the same point. "Local food" is an idea that foodies get excited about, but the economic and energy consequences of it aren't nearly as clear as one might think. It's true that energy goes into moving food around, but as the more recent article points out, it's not a very large share of the energy that goes into the processes of food production, storage, preparation, and consumption. Why is it more virtuous, asks the author, for us to consume something produced in a nearby heated greenhouse than to consume something grown outside and trucked here? This argument is similar to the issues raised by the first writer, who notes that fewer resources are required to grow lamb in New Zealand and ship it to Britain than are needed to grow it for consumption in Britain itself.

Often, liberals are skeptical of the benefits of the market. "It must be cheaper because it was produced with underpaid labor!" we fear. But often the market just reflects reality, and work gets done in the cheapest way possible, which also means that the minimum amount of waste happens. Does that mean that the local food movement is totally wrong-headed? Not necessarily: some people do not care about the energy issues and think that local food just tastes better. I can't argue with that! Let me conclude the way the former article did: "While there will always be good reasons to encourage the growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop in tandem with what could be their equally sustainable global counterparts."

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