[WARNING: Long post. It’s long because it’s important. The myths surrounding industrial agriculture’s “cheap food” are widespread, and this post addresses those myths by responding to a “cheap food” blog post at Freakonomics.]

Stephen Dubner, co-author of the book Freakonomics, recently wrote in his blog about trying to make orange sherbet with his children (Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?). Apparently, he wasn’t very good at it, spending far more than is reasonable for ingredients and making a product that wasn’t very good. This isn’t surprising, of course, for a first effort. What is surprising is that he used his first-time-effort failure to introduce an argument that eating locally produced food is inefficient due to lack of scale and specialization. In the process he exhibits an appalling ignorance of the locavore (local food) movement and industrial agriculture, plus he makes egregious rhetorical leaps. Let’s take a look.

First, let’s look at what the local food movement is. In short, the concept behind local food is that by eating local food, consumers have a better chance of knowing their food producers, knowing how their food is grown and processed, and will have access to fresher food. Locally produced food might be food you grow yourself, but a standard rule of thumb is that it is food produced within 100 miles. Part of the local food argument is that transportation costs associated with moving food hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from farm or factory to consumers is wasteful and costly.

Dubner focuses his argument around four points:

To eat locally grown food or, even better, food that you’ve grown yourself, seems as if it should be 1) more delicious; 2) more nutritious; 3) cheaper; and 4) better for the environment. But is it?

Let’s take a look at his answers. First, does local food taste better?

1) “Deliciousness” is subjective. But one obvious point is that no one person can grow or produce all the things she would like to eat. As a kid who grew up on a small farm, I can tell you that after I had my fill of corn and asparagus and raspberries, all I really wanted was a Big Mac.

True, what is delicious is subjective at the individual level. But, it’s easy to make it objective by surveying people’s individual assessments and comparing averages. Given the explosion in farmers’ markets the past few years, and the fact that people are willing to pay higher out-of-pocket costs for food at these markets, there must be something that they are willing to pay a premium for. One of these things is certainly the better tasting food. I invite Dubner to go try some locally produced food and see for himself.

But, it’s important to note the rhetorical tricks he uses here, what I call switch-and-bait. He completely changes the topic, arguing that people can’t grow all the things they would like to eat. While this is true for all but those dedicated to self-sufficiency, it has nothing to do with how food tastes. More importantly, it has nothing to do with the local food movement. Almost no one suggests that everyone should grow all their own food. While I encourage people to grow some of their own food, I also encourage people to trade with others, in part so no one needs to grow all their own food (see Cherries and communities). Another trick is to redefine delicious from its usual meaning of how something tastes to something possible only with dietary variety. He does this explicitly elsewhere in his essay, saying “…variety, which in my book means more deliciousness… “.

What does Dubner say about nutrition?

2) There’s a lot to be said for the nutritional value of home-grown food. But again, since one person can grow only so much variety, there are bound to be big nutritional gaps in her diet that will need to be filled in.

Apparently he agrees with me that locally produced food is often, if not usually, more nutritious. Again, however, for inexplicable reasons, he raises the straw man argument that individuals cannot raise all their own food and would thus be short of nutrients. While I don’t advocate growing all your own food, some people in cities come quite close to that. For an example of urban food self-sufficiency in Berkeley, California, see this general article and this interview about raising goats. So, it is possible to have a delicious and nutritious diet if you choose to grow most of your own food, even in urban areas. (This is very difficult in some urban environments, which is one reason I don’t advocate it for everyone.) A better solution for most people is to produce some of their own food and to trade with others who produce other things. It’s not difficult to get variety in your diet. In fact, my experience is that since I’ve been eating more locally, my personal dietary variety has increased. For example, I used to eat apples and oranges year-round. When they weren’t available from local sources, apples were readily available from Washington state or New Zealand and oranges were available from Florida or Chile. However, by eating locally available fruits, I now eat more berries (homegrown) and stone fruit (amazing sweet, juicy and flavorful fruit from farmers’ markets). So, eating locally can easily improve dietary variety and, by Dubner’s argument, nutrition.

However, the important nutrition argument is this: Locally grown food is usually more nutritous for two reasons. First, it is harvested when it is riper, because it doesn’t need to be shipped hundreds of miles. More time growing increases nutrition. Second, food loses nutritional value once it is harvested. Thus, shipping time and sitting around in grocery stores reduces nutritional value. The ultimate in taste and nutrition, in my book, is what I grow in my own yard. This is the ultimate in local food. In fact, often my harvest only leaves my garden in my belly. Eating ripe food within seconds of harvest is a treat that is hard to beat! This is one good reason to grow some of your own food.

Now let’s take a look at what he says about cost, since “cheap food” is industrial agriculture’s main argument.

3) Is it cheaper to grow your own food? It’s not impossible but, as my little ice cream story above illustrates, there are huge inefficiencies at work here. …

Notice, again, that he’s not talking about locally produced food, but only the extreme case of growing your own food. There are obvious advantages to scale of production as found in industrial agriculture. But, this doesn’t mean that the lower cost at the checkstand makes industrial food really cheaper. One of the main advantages of scale in industrial agriculture is that it concentrates power and money, two things to which politicians pay close attention. Thanks to agribusiness lobbying, taxpayers provide MASSIVE subsidies to industrial agriculture through direct subsidies (ever hear of the Farm Bill?), water projects that provide underpriced water, food safety regulations that benefit large producers over small, agricultural research that primarily benefits large producers, protectionist trade policies, patent rules and liability laws that favor genetic modification of seeds over traditional seed saving practices, and pest monitoring and control programs. Urban producers, especially those who grow their own food, have to compete against these subsidized producers on a playing field tilted steeply in favor of the large producers. Now add in the market externalities of industrial agriculture (Dubner writes about economics; surely he’s heard of these). These include pollution of soil and waterways that alter or destroy natural ecosystems, often putting commercial fisheries out of business. Poor quality food and poor dietary practices promoted by industrial agriculture increase healthcare costs. Let’s not forget the unexpensed capital depletion costs from soil erosion, overuse of underground water and reliance on underpriced oil. Total it all up and industrial agriculture isn’t so cheap.

But, it doesn’t end there. Locally produced food (and I’m not talking just about what you grow yourself) is often more labor intensive and often pays better wages than industrial agriculture, so it will be more costly at the checkstand. Organic and other ecologically sensitive practices often used in local food production also raise the dollar cost of food. But, these factors reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce external market costs. Since these cost savings don’t appear in the market price, consumers have to pay a higher price. In short, the costs that industrial agriculture shifts to others outside the marketplace are often born by local producers. What’s fascinating to me is that more and more consumers are willing to pay a higher price at the market. Maybe they know something Dubner doesn’t.

So, what about the purported environmental benefits of local food? Can Dubner shred those arguments?

4) But growing your own food has to be good for the environment, right? Well, keeping in mind the transportation inefficiencies mentioned above, consider the “food miles” argument and a recent article in Environmental Science and Technology by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie-Mellon:

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%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

I’m a numbers guy by training and by inclination, and I think these are fantastic statistics! Isn’t it great that we can have a major effect on our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by simply eating less red meat and more chicken and fish? These numbers also support the case for more local production. Isn’t it great that we can reduce food-related GHG emissions by up to 4% by producing locally? At a time when we are struggling to find ways to stop increasing GHG emissions, it’s good to know that we have a way to decrease emissions. But, it gets even better. Another 7% of costs (making up the total 11% of transportation costs) can potentially be reduced by reducing other transportation costs (presumably costs of shipping all those GMO seeds, chemicals and fuel). While not all local production would eliminate all of these costs, some of these costs would be reduced, especially in cases where producers use more labor intensive and more organic methods. Finally, if 83% of typical food-related GHG emissions come from the production phase of agriculture, labor intensive methods that use less fuel can save phenomenal amount of GHG emissions. Given that my backyard food production is done completely with my own labor and no tractors or chemicals, the more food I produce, the lower my carbon footprint.

These data, Dubner concludes, make “a pretty strong argument against the perceived environmental and economic benefits of locavore behavior.” Huh? Apparently, he believes that specialization in industrial agriculture makes efficient use of resources, missing a couple of key points. First, rather than efficient use, how about simply not using resources in the first place? By substituting local production for distant production and shifting to more labor intensive and organic methods, we can simply stop using much of the carbon-generating fossil fuels that he wants to use more efficiently. Second, it’s unclear why he thinks that local production means a lack of specialization, so they are inefficient. Perhaps he actually believes his straw-man argument that local food means everyone should produce their own food. But local producers, even home gardeners and preservers, usually specialize. A quick visit to a good farmers market would show him that vendors specialize, some in particular fruits, some in particular vegetables, some in flowers, some in honey, some in breads, vinegars, fish, beef, cheese, seedlings, dried fruits, jams, etc. He is absolutely right about one thing: specialization is more efficient. But he’s wrong in his assumption that local food production isn’t specialized already.

There is one more area that Dubner completely misses the boat on. It’s what I call the human side of local food. When I’m at the farmers’ market, I talk to other shoppers and to vendors. When I’m sharing my garden surplus with family and friends, neighbors and coworkers, I’m having a great time, often learning new things, sometimes receiving some of their surplus in return. When I’m gardening, I have fun. I hope to gawd Dubner had fun with his children while making sherbet. Hopefully, his children learned something from the process. Hopefully, they learned more than what Dubner learned: If at first you don’t succeed, go buy something at the market. Life isn’t perfection, it’s a series of mistakes. The whole point of trying something new is to learn from it, providing an opportunity to do better next time.

Sadly, he dismisses these things because they aren’t measurable:

“The extra benefit of growing your own food only works out if you count the unquantifiables such as the sense of accomplishment, learning, exercise, suntan, etc.”

While I disagree that local food works out only if I count these things, I certainly do count them. I simply cannot center my life around efficiency, following the “dismal science” that dismisses the things that make my life worth living. One of the commenters on his post at the NY Times said it much more succinctly than I can:

You raise your own children?! How efficient is that?
Aldous H.