How Much Energy Do We "Waste" Transporting Non-Local Foods?


Eating local may be good for your sense of the type of person you are, or for your local growers, but locavores should be reminded it isn't necessarily a great good to the cause of energy conservation or greenhouse gases. Agricultural economists Jayson Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood in their essay "The Locavore's Dilemma" posted at Liberty Fund's "Library of Economics and Liberty" site, sum up:

The truth is that the energy expended transporting food is relatively unimportant. According to USDA-ERS data, consumers spent $880.7 billion on food in 2006. Only four percent of these expenditures can be attributed to post-farm transportation costs. One recent study indicated that over 80 percent of the global-warming impacts of food consumption occur at the farm, and only ten percent are due to transportation.7 After an extensive literature review, other researchers have concluded that "it is currently impossible to state categorically whether or not local food systems emit fewer [greenhouse gasses] than non-local food systems.

Reason's Ron Bailey wrote at length on the silliness of "food miles" obsession back in November 2008.

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  1. I only consume locally raised/produced foods. Anyone who doesn’t is KILLING OUR PLANET!!!!1!

    [Takes sip of coffee…..]

    1. Would you like some dolphin safe tuna with that?

      1. I prefer my dolphin “tuna safe”.

      2. Could you douse it in a little whale oil?

  2. Welcome to Brian Doherty Night at Hit & Run.

    What if they burn local food in their gas tanks to bring the non-local foods to your regional grocer? Does that buy us a little extra ozone?

  3. Tell this to Alice Waters who won’t eat a tomato that hasn’t a given name!
    Added to the fun of SF is the number of local gardens which now have fences (at what cost?) to keep the dogs from peeing on them.

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  6. What if I eat local to avoid the fecal farms where they feed chicken parts to their cattle?

    1. I suppose you think corn or grass fed is better?

      Nothing better than a grilled, chicken fed steak.

  7. You think I buy local to “save the planet”? Fuck you. These are my neighbors. I buy from local small businesses for the same reason I own a small business.

    1. I purchased my chain saw from the shop that is owned by my neighbor. I paid about $40 more for it than buying it at Home Depot but this guy was one of the first customers to sign up with my ISP business and one of the last to bail when it finally failed.

      … Hobbit

      1. It’s funny. The Lowes near me sells John Deere equipment, which they buy through the local/regional dealer (Pole Tavern Equipment).

        The backbone of my entire area, particularly my town, was built on the foundation of independently owned small, and mid-sized farms from about 1860. We invented the produce auction. All of our farms are now in jeopardy with this fucked up Food Safety Act. It’s nothing but the California farmers forcing their own fucked up regulations on the rest of the country, to make them more price competitive. Thank douchebag Henry Waxman. If you sell contaminated food to a retailer, nobody will buy from you anymore. What more regulation do you need? The Cali coop that sold contaminated spinach should have been forced out of business by the market, not protected by more regulations. In order to regain the trust of the buyers, they enacted regulations and forced them on all farmers in Cali. Now, Cali farmers are finding that it is more expensive to comply with the new regs, so they are going to force them on everybody in the country. If that’s going to keep me safer, I’d rather die.

        1. This is how a coop of growers is supposed to work:

          First: Because buyers must openly bid against each other, auctions provide the opportunity for growers to receive competitive prices. Buyers have equal opportunity to bid on grade and quality their trade demands. Growers can receive a price even for low quality produce. However, price differentials provide strong incentive for growers to produce the best quality possible.

          Second: Auctions result in wide publicity of prices reflecting supply and demand conditions to growers, buyers and or other interested parties. Market information is readily available and rapidly disseminated. Quotations for private sales of produce are often based on prices determined at the auction.

          Third: Auction markets require less capital investment than other common marketing methods because they can concentrate on selling produce, not on packing, inspecting or transporting.

          A produce auction removes from the grower, the burden of collecting accounts and determining the reliability of the buyer. The grower is assured of receiving payment on a regular basis. In addition, the grower’s liability for marketing losses ends at the delivery of the produce. Accounting and credit are valuable services often provided to members by auction markets.

          The heartbeat of every auction is its buyers. There are about 35 buyers who regularly purchase produce at the Vineland Produce Auction. Most buyers are local dealers who could best be described as buying brokers. They play the important role of assembling quantities of produce from several sources into larger economical units. Most of their purchases are filling orders that have already been negotiated.

          All buyers must be bonded through the state of N. J. Their bond ranges from $3,000.00 to $50,000.00. We on the board of directors feel that the bonding of the buyers is inadequate and are asking the state legislature to increase the bonds to $100,000.00. Non-bonded buyers may purchase at the auction depositing their driver’s license with the cashier and paying cash after the bidding is complete and his produce is received. Many buyers operate their businesses all year from the office at the produce docks.

          The wide variety of products available at one location has been the key to Vineland’s success. The availability of truckers in the Vineland area has been very helpful. Growers need to keep alert to the buyer’s needs and attempt to address those needs. The Vineland Produce Auction serves producers and buyers. In fact, it is becoming a major produce terminal.

          Like any other business, a cooperative is judged largely on how it performs; that is how it benefits its owners. The Vineland Produce Auction unquestioningly has done well for its member-owners. It has provided an orderly market with competitive prices for all its produce. The cooperative earned net savings and returned them to the cooperative members while it made necessary capital investments. A marketing cooperative can be successful only to the extent that it also satisfies the buyer’s needs and is acceptable to them. The board of directors has recognized this fact and has been able to keep an adequate number of buyers competing at the auction as increased amounts of produce is offered. It has done this by paying attention to the buyers needs.

          1. asking the state legislature to increase the bonds to $100,000.00.

            WTF? How about just setting you own bonding rules, you statist fucks?

    2. I don’t think Doherty and the folks of the cited essay are claiming that all people who buy local do so to “save the planet”, but those who DO buy local specifically to “save the planet” don’t have a valid argument.

      1. this is the crux of the argument of the paper doherty linked to:

        “An extra trip by a consumer to the farmers’ market is likely to expend more energy than was saved by reducing the distance the food travels. Moreover, fresh local foods often require more at-home preparation, where energy use is less efficient relative to that of large-scale processing facilities.”

        What? Most farmer’s markets are in-neighborhood. Also a burger at mcdonald’s costs about twice what it would if I made it at home, suggesting it’s *twice as inefficient*.

        1. Are you including in the “home” cost $10 an hour or so for your time, as well as energy use for your stove, maintenance on the stove, a portion of your rent or mortgage, cost of washing your frying pan and plate, cost of refrigerating the meat before you use it, and cost of trash collection to get rid of the remains?

  8. Is it “Buy local” or “A global economy”? I’m so confused …

  9. Just like everyone has a personal doctor, dentist, pharmacist, and cabana boy, everyone should have a personal farmer.

  10. We agree today, Ron. I have been arguing with my fellow environmentalists over this point for years.

    What is particularly insideous is that if you drive more than a couple miles out of the way to get that special local food, you almost certainly have caused far more emissions than if you had just bought it while already at your regular MegaMart.

    1. Agreed, Chad. Transporting an environmentalist 100 miles to the closest farm burns more gas than transporting a bag of corn a much farther distance. The corn is lighter than the environmentalist and it can be stacked for efficient transportation.

  11. Other than the freshness factor of getting stuff from a farmer’s market, it’s good to know that if the shit ever hit the fan you wouldn’t have to live off of supplies of canned goods in your local grocery store fortress.

    1. I’ve read that “fresh” foods may actually have less nutritional value than frozen foods. The idea is that fresh fruits/veggies must be picked prior to ripeness so that they ripe on the way to the store/market thereby robbing them of the time when the most amount of nutrients are delivered to the plant. Frozen on the other hand are flash freezed right at ripeness thereby preserving the max amounts of nutrients.

      Could be BS, but sure makes sense.

  12. This kind of shit makes me think that “progressive” of “liberal” or “green” are often interchangeable phrases meaning “people who obsess over the dumbest possible ideas that all have in common that they’ll make shit cost more”.

    Have any of the people that describe themselves as one of these things ever come up with an udea to lower costs, make things cheaper, or actually save actual people any fucking money whatsoever? I think not.

    1. Local food is a status symbol just like organic food. Lowering the cost of it would defeat the entire point of buying it.

      1. ^ This!

        It is just a new status symbol, and it is cooked up by a lot of image-consultant firms that are the intersection of trendy restaurants and the star power that Food Network has brought them.

        I’m all about savoring and supporting local ingredients. But, having lived in Colorado, I don’t want any asshole telling me I have to subsist on rainbow trout if I want some seafood.

  13. Generally, one of the reasons it’s more expensive to buy local vegetables is that vegetable plants are more adapted to some environments than others, just like all other plants. So go ahead, buy your grapes from Chile, because the resources needed to make them grow in South Texas are enormous.

    If we only ate what was efficient to grow in our region, nearly all of us would be malnourished. The Indian tribes that lived where Houston is now (Cohuiltecan) were so bad off for food they would let fish get maggotty so there was more to eat.

    /environmental engineer by undergrad degree
    //environments and soil types are very different from each other across a few miles
    ///hates local food douchebags

    1. Not to speak of the problem that the plants that are acutally adapted to grow in your local area won’t produce food in the winter.

      1. Larry — will you NEED a tomato in Winter? Can you get by on root vegetables? Unless we’re talking about Canada, most areas can live off their own land.

    2. Some of your points are well taken. But Houston is built on a swamp, smart guy : )

      Give me a better example.

  14. The principle reason for taking these kinds of actions – buying locally – is to make oneself feel superior. It isn’t just a liberal or environmentalist trait; conservatives do it too. I’m reminded of a recent drive in my community to collect gum, socks, snacks for the troops overseas.
    Everyone was encouraged to bring donations to a central location for packing. It would have been far more efficient and environmentally friendly for people to send in checks, the sponsors to contact a sox manufacturer, and have them send a pallet direct to Afghanistan. But that solution is far less satisfying to the soul than driving over to XMart, buying a couple pairs of socks and then schlepping them to a collection point where you get a pat on the back and a “free” cup of coffee for being so patriotic.

  15. damn, where the hell are the cultural libertarians that supposedly inhabit this site? the ever-increasing availability of specialty food products, people getting exactly what they want to eat, and people joining like minded people to make it all happen are good things, no? yeah, some assume an air of moral superiority for the supposed environmental benefits, and that douchebaggery should be condemned.

    however, most are just people who like food (sometimes truly obscure) that is unavailable in the supermarket. libertarians should stand arm in arm with these people and the farmers. they’ll need it to avoid being swept away by fucking stupid regulations.

    now i think i’ll go read my favorite obscure publication.

    1. I’m sure this is true for some of the “local food” shoppers. There may in fact be one or two specific items not available at the local mega-grocer. But the reality is that, at large, the mega grocers have a much more diverse selection. Specifically for the reasons mentioned above (not all food is ideal to be grown in your local climate).

  16. Ahhh…good to see that Koch money/influence at work 🙂

    1. pleasew take your anti-intellectual snarky attitude to some knuckledragging gossip bumrag zine where they appreciate your mental diarrhea

  17. This may be the single stupidest comment thread in the history of man. To sum: we should trust the big food industry because liberals stink. I’m a Christian, Bible-believing red blooded man and I’m awake to how sick our food chain is at this point. I’ll take local and sustainably grown foods, you can take your pesticide beans from Birdseye and your cow-that-ate-chicken-crap from [insert big company with huge PR budget] here.

    1. have fun eating food laced with copper sulfate, which is 200 times more toxic than any “big agro” chemical, because that is exactly what you’ll eat if you eat organic

  18. the new concept of LEED will surely help countries to cut down and make a better eco-cycle

    1. LEED is a very haphazard, uncritical system. It makes use of practices that had been in place in the construction industry for decades, so it essentially contributes nothing. (eg., giving points for recycled structural steel – steel used to frame a building is already 95%+ recycled content, or usuing local concrete – people already source concrete as close as possible)

  19. It is also important to note that shipping several tons of produce across the country often consumes less energy than moving small shipments locally

  20. The truth is that the energy expended transporting food is relatively unimportant. According to USDA-ERS data, consumers spent $880.7 billion on food in 2006. Only four percent of these expenditures can be attributed to post-farm transportation costs. One recent study indicated that over 80 percent of the global-warming impacts of food consumption occur at the farm, and only ten percent are due to transportation.7 After an extensive literature review, other researchers have concluded that “it is currently impossible to state categorically whether or not local food systems emit fewer [greenhouse gasses] than non-local food systems.

    Bryce Mcminn, Meriden

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