Recently, we have been discussing the ongoing series of pronouncements from the Freakonomics fellows along the line that “Local Food is worse for the Environment.”
These economists always supply readers and listeners with interesting fodder that can help to break-through common misconceptions or misunderstandings of how the world’s economy works. In this case, we think they actually have some valid points. It’s just that their headlines—plus assumptions and conclusions—are not correct.
We, of course, are intimately involved with the production, processing, distribution and marketing of local food here in Missouri. We do it because we’re trying to build a local food industry that can create jobs and transform the economic livelihood of farmers. We do it because we believe that a transparent and traceable food supply is more secure and safe than a commodity system washed clean with ammonia and gas chambers. We do it because we like the tasty and farm-fresh flavors of local foods. However, we have been working on this issue and thinking about it long enough to know that even in a simple economic analysis the Freakonomics team left some things out.
Economies of Scale
One of the arguments presented by the bloggers is that efficiency is achieved by large scale production and processing. The argument revolves around the fact that smaller farmers would require significantly more land and inputs to produce the same thing (a fallacy in itself seeing as an efficient local food system would never rely on commodity corn and soybeans). Why would the Freakonomics folks simply assume large industrial farms reach economies of scale and therefore emit less carbon and use fewer inputs than smaller farmers? It’s possible that they’re right. But they are also leaving out one of the biggest factors available to producers of all kinds of products: innovation.
We as farmers and participants in the local food system take offense at the mischaracterization that we want to turn back the clock on the farming landscape. I think farmers participating in the local farm economy would tell you their farm looks nothing like that of the 1950s. Many Root Cellar farmers are truly innovative in how they use inputs to produce food. They have few, if any, off-farm inputs derived from a dependence on cheap fossil fuels (such as anhydrous ammonia fertilizer made up of natural gas). Instead, many of our farmers use composted organic matter and manure to fuel a living and breathing soil community. They use diversity and polyculture to fight pests rather than increase pest pressures due to large-scale monoculture of the industrial factory farm. They use interplantings and efficient spacing to crank out more than one sellable product per acre in production.
In other words, the text-book version of commercial horticultural and livestock production is not how our farmers produce food. Therefore, the comparison is not valid.
One of our primary reasons for doing what we do is also because of environmental factors. Food miles are one of the most compelling reasons for environmentally-conscious consumers to choose local foods. At the Root Cellar, we have tried to figure out our volume compared with product mix compared with mileage and we feel like our average miles-per-product rate is right around 50. That compares with a 1700 miles-per-product average for the conventional grocery and food industry.
These economists question the food miles logic in two ways. First, they question whether efficiency (hence carbon emissions) is actually worse for trucking and transport of local food in small vehicles than is ocean and trucking fleet transport to large urban centers from all over the globe. Second, they argue that transportation to market actually makes up a relatively small portion of the food production contribution of the carbon emissions pie.
On the food miles front, we acknowledge that this is a relatively complex issue. We struggle with how to improve our efficiency and economies of scale in this regard every day. Do we drive our van (15 miles per gallon of diesel in fuel efficiency) to pick up local food products? Or do we drive the VW Jetta Wagon (45 miles per gallon)? The former holds around 5000 pounds of food; the latter around 900.
One of the ways we deal with this challenge is by actually picking up the outputs of many farms in a single weekly trip around the state. That gives market access to farmers, yes, but it also decreases the many smaller trips farmers would otherwise have to make to get their product to Root Cellar customers. So through smart logistical and transportation coordination (plus the flexible human and trucking equipment efficiency factor), we have tried to design a farm-to-store delivery system that does the best job we know how to do. We have plenty room for improvement, but for the scale of our sales volume and the scale of our farmer production end, we feel like we do a pretty good job.
One place we agree with the Freakonomics analysis is on diet as a key factor of how to control emissions. A key way to cut emissions and improve agricultural efficiency is to decrease the hamburger-and-fry diet in favor of the salad and rice-and-beans. Decreasing factory farm meat consumption (and only eating grass0based meat when we do consume it) and eating more veggies is a clear answer. One way we believe people can eat more veggies is to participate in local eating through a CSA or subscription program like our Missouri Bounty Box. These programs help to increase the amount of healthy vegetables consumed by selecting your diet based on what’s in season, therefore offering the most efficient and affordable produce at the moment. This means you get to eat things you might not have otherwise selected at the grocery store such as kale, chard, butternut squash and more. (Yes, this also includes pounds and pounds and pounds of salad and cooking greens that Bounty Box members get to know so well).
Subsidization and Monopolization
Finally the folks at Freakonomics forgot to mention altogether a couple of important issues that have major impacts on the future food landscape. First, the fact that commodity agriculture and agribusiness are supported by a mountain of federal policy. These supports include direct farm payments for every crop acre, whether they produce anything or not; subsidization of commodity crop insurance to ensure guaranteed revenues each year; and loan guarantees that cover the cost of defaults for banks if a farmers fails at a confined animal feeding operation. Without some of these supports we have a good feeling that the modern crop production system would fall to pieces. We have seen examples of these transitions in countries like New Zealand where the death of commodity subsidies lead to a massive transition to raising animals on grass.
Second, in the protection of all things corporate efficiency, they forgot one thing; monopolies are bad for capitalism. With corporations like Monsanto beginning to own all the seed viable for planting in the modern commodity system or a few meat packing plants (who often work together) owning the vast majority of commodity meat we run a huge risk. This risk runs deeper than price increases or lack of choice. The largest risk is the catastrophic impact of a mistake. We have already seen the massive recalls of meat and produce like spinach and cantaloupe. These recalls and the impact of illness or death to consumers should have some weight in the overall economic scale these people analyze.
So on balance, we are glad that the Freakonomics team brings up the efficiency and emissions questions as they relate to local food production. They just come to the wrong conclusions. Not all tomatoes are created equal, neither in flavor and taste nor in production practice and carbon footprint. It’s much more complex. And we feel like this is a conversation worth having, because in the end we believe we have the data and stories to back up our claims. Eating local through the Root Cellar and the Missouri Bounty Box and Barnyard Boxes are incredibly sustainable and energy efficient choices for Mid-Missouri consumers.