Op-ed published exclusively on the Montreal Economic Institute's website.
The lessons of history can be very eloquent, if only we are willing to take the time to learn them. In a 2008 National Geographic article, journalist Charles Mann discusses how soil management policies in communist China led to the creation of terrace agriculture in unsuitable conditions, the cutting down of trees, and the planting of grain on steep slopes. The main results were increased soil erosion and soil depletion.
Daring to challenge official edicts, some villagers replanted the steepest and most erosion-prone third of their land with grass and trees, covered another third with harvestable orchards, and concentrated their crops on the remaining lower flat plots that had been enriched by the soil washed down from the hillsides. As Mann tells his readers, by making better use of their limited supplies of fertilizer on the best land, the dissident villagers were able to increase yields to such an extent that they more than made up for the land no longer under cultivation and in the end managed to deliver both increased output and reduced environmental impact.
High-yield agriculture and long-distance trade have long delivered a similar outcome—more abundant and affordable food with reduced environmental impact—on a global scale. As the Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky observed in 1899 in his classic On the Agrarian Question, “As long as any rural economy is self-sufficient it has to produce everything which it needs, irrespective of whether the soil is suitable or not. Grain has to be cultivated on infertile, stony and steeply sloping ground as well as on rich soils.” In time though, the development of better production areas such as the Canadian Prairies removed the need to keep producing grain on poorer soils, “and where circumstances were favorable it was taken off the land and replaced by other types of agricultural production” such as orchards, beef cattle, and dairy cows. Exporting food items from production locations where water was abundant to consumers living in regions where it wasn’t similarly removed the need to drain surface waters and aquifers in many drier parts of the world.
Unfortunately, in our carbon emissions-obsessed era, local food activists (or locavores) have embraced the notion of “food miles,” or the distance food items travel from farms to consumers, as the be all and end all of the environmental impact of agricultural production. As has been repeatedly and rigorously documented in numerous life cycle assessment (LCA) studies, however, the distance traveled by food is a worthless indicator of sustainable development.
Among other issues, producing food typically requires (much) more energy than moving it around, especially when significant amounts of heating and/or cold-protection technologies, irrigation water, fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs are required to grow things in one region, but not in another. Reducing food miles typically means a greater environmental footprint given the use of additional resources in less desirable locations.
Another issue is that the distance travelled by food matters less than the mode of transportation. For instance, shipping food halfway around the world on a container ship often has a smaller footprint per item carried than a short trip by car to a grocery store to buy a small quantity of these items.
Advances in transportation and conservation technologies have also historically increased the importation of perishable food items produced at different latitudes and decreased local food production and storage, in the process delivering greater freshness, lower costs, and reduced energy consumption. Importing New Zealand apples in the northern hemisphere in April rather than preserving local apples picked in September in cold storage for several months thus delivers fresher items while reducing both storage costs (mainly the need to maintain higher than normal CO2 concentrations, lower than ambient temperatures to inhibit spoilage, or higher than ambient temperatures to prevent freezing) and losses to spoilage.
While agricultural markets are not perfect, due to numerous subsidies and barriers to trade, market prices nonetheless do a good job of factoring in the environmental impact of food production by including the additional costs inherent to less desirable production locations. On this Earth Day, do the genuinely green thing by ditching locavorism and preparing your meal from the most affordable food you can get your hands on. You’ll be doing both your wallet and the planet a favour.
Pierre Desrochers is an Associate Professor of Geography (University of Toronto Mississauga), an Associate Researcher at the Montreal Economic Institute and the co-author of The Locavore’s Dilemma. In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet (PublicAffairs, 2012).