The Inefficiency of Local Food

We highly recommend this Steve Sexton essay on Freakonomics. Steve is a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and resource economics, and a regular Freakonomics contributor. Excerpt:

(…) Amid heightened concern about global climate change, it has become almost conventional wisdom that we must return to our agricultural roots in order to contain the carbon footprint of our food by shortening the distance it travels from farm to fork, and by reducing the quantity of carbon-intensive chemicals applied to our mono-cropped fields.

But implicit in the argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a “relocalized” food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong. Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.

Specialization and Trade

Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.

Read the whole thing. You can read more of Steve’s research papers here at

2 thoughts on “The Inefficiency of Local Food

  1. Indeed – it’s a challenge to find objective data on this. When we do succeed to obtain reliable data, I suspect we will find that “politically correct” implies bad energy policy.

    About a year ago I found a paper that took a life-cycle approach to the entire food cycle — which demonstrated that local food production had typically a larger carbon footprint than industrial agriculture. Today I can’t find my source.

    I am fairly confident that the producer-to-retail transportation is on the order of 5% of the life-cycle energy consumed in food production. I.e., the air transport from Chile to say California. The efficiency gains of industrial agriculture are a lot bigger than 5%. For some background on this see Weber and Matthews Environ. Sci. Technol., 2008: Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Excerpt from the abstract:

    Despite significant recent public concern and media attention to the environmental impacts of food, few studies in the United States have systematically compared the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with food production against long-distance distribution, aka “food-miles.” We find that although food is transported long distances in general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%.

    In my stack of reading is Apples, Bananas, and Oranges: Using GIS to Determine Distance Travelled, Energy Use, and Emissions from Imported Fruit which employs an interesting GIS strategy to estimate transportation emissions.

    Like electrical generation life-cycle analysis, developing reliable emissions comparisons for food requires a major effort.

Comments are closed.