Why West’s local food fad can’t save the planet

COP28 is discussing reforms of global food systems but the western argument for locavorism is actually protectionism in disguise.
The current climate summit in Dubai, called COP28, will once again call for a wide range of measures to save the earth.
Because of the political difficulty of implementing measures like a big tax on petrol and diesel, some western activists are campaigning for buying food and other goods locally, and not from distant countries like India and China that entail thousands of miles of transport.
Called locavores, they seek to cut “food miles”. This may seem intuitively attractive, but makes neither economic nor environmental sense.
Just consider locavorism within India. Should Punjabis grow coconuts and Keralites grow wheat to cut transport costs? Absolutely not. The yield of coconuts will be dismal in Punjab and of wheat in Kerala. The agroclimatic conditions are totally wrong.
It will take five times as much land to grow the wrong crops in the wrong place, so the attempt to save food miles requires an enormous diversion of land and water from productive purposes to unproductive ones, and that requires a huge number of extra calories.
This will not only be very expensive, its net calorie usage will be higher than that of carrying wheat to Kerala or coconuts to Punjab because efficient transport systems use astonishingly few calories per kilo.
Of course, many Indian transport systems are inefficient, but the solution is not locavorism but transport improvement, which is anyway an urgent climate necessity.
If locavorism is adopted on a large scale, agricultural production will fall so much that India will have to import all food. That, of course, will increase food miles. Moreover, shortages galore will spread, and prices will skyrocket.
Some years ago, Stephen Budiansky said sarcastically in The New York Times : “It is sinful in New York to buy a tomato grown in California because of the energy spent to truck it across the country: it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.”
US locavores argue that it takes 36-97 calories of fossil fuel to transport one calorie of lettuce from California to New York. This is highly misleading since it ignores the fact that, as food, lettuce has very few calories. But growing lettuce takes 11,000 calories per kilo, and transporting it across the US requires just 2% to 6% extra using refrigerated trains.
Budiansky calculates that one tablespoon of diesel (around 100 calories of fuel) is enough to move one pound of rail freight over 3,000 miles (around 4,800 km). Truck transport takes thrice as much, 300 calories, for the same job.
Still, that’s peanuts compared with energy used in cultivation. Just driving 10 miles to a local farmers’ market can require 14,000 calories of fuel. Personal transport is very inefficient compared with bulk transport.
The US moves agricultural produce right across the continent. Yet on an average transportation accounts for only 14% of the total energy consumed by the US food system.
Chile, a major exporter of off-season fruit and vegetables to Los Angeles, and thence to the whole US, sends produce by sea transport which is astonishingly cheap. A Chilean economist told me that the cost of transport by sea from Peru to California was “peanuts”.
Some think that modern agriculture is too energy intensive. Certainly, major cost-cutting is feasible. But Budiansky calculates that most calories used in the food system are in homes.
Home storage, preparation and appliances account for 32% of food system energy, the largest component by far. Just running a refrigerator for a week can consume 9,000 calories. Cooking, dishwashers, freezers, and additional appliances all soak up energy. More than charity begins at home.
Sadly, locavorism is one more form of disguised protectionism. It protects farmers in rich countries from more efficient farmers in developing countries. It hurts not only Third World farmers but rips off local consumers through bogus claims of saving the planet.
There is indeed a case for buying locally grown food. It can be fresher. Since local fruit and vegetables are harvested when ripe, and not artificially ripened, they can be tastier than produce grown in distant places.
Well-off folk are happy to pay a premium for fresh, tasty, local produce. But let no one think that buying locally will reduce food miles or save the planet. The very opposite is true.
The best use we can make of our limited land, water and agroclimatic conditions is for each area to specialise in what it produces best, and then spend the very modest amounts of energy needed to transport it to consumers.
This specialisation raises yields and reduces shortages. It saves huge areas of forest and grasslands from having to be diverted to agriculture to feed the population. It raises farm incomes, increases farm labour demand and wages, and reduces poverty. It even helps save the planet.
This article was originally published by The Times of India on December 9, 2023.

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