The Freakonomics blog does what I tried to last year, but so much better than I could have dreamed. First, the thesis:And the issue of transportation:
Forsaking comparative advantage in agriculture by localizing means it will take more inputs to grow a given quantity of food, including more land and more chemicals—all of which come at a cost of carbon emissions.Now the numbers:
In order to maintain current output levels for 40 major field crops and vegetables, a locavore-like production system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals.
It’s not even clear local production reduces carbon emissions from transportation. The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser estimates that carbon emissions from transportation don’t decline in a locavore future because local farms reduce population density as potential homes are displaced by community gardens. Less-dense cities mean more driving and more carbon emissions.And here's what happens to cost:
A local food system would raise the cost of food by constraining the efficient allocation of resources. The monetary costs of increased input demands from forsaken gains from trade and scale economies will directly bear on consumer welfare by increasing the costs of food. And, as we try to tackle obesity, locavorism is likely to raise the cost of precisely the wrong foods. Grains can be grown cheaply across much of the country, but the costs of growing produce outside specific, limited regions increase quickly. Thus, nutrient-dense calories like fruits and vegetables become more expensive, while high fructose corn syrup becomes relatively cheaper.
Finally, higher costs on certain foods may be a solution to the big health challenge in the developed world. But higher prices on any food are precisely the wrong prescription for the great health problems in the developing world, where millions remain undernourished.
Well, if we’re going to think like economists, then lets talk about how we got here. The food distribution network cannot thrive as it does now without the massive public works program called the Interstate Highway system, which subsidizes distant food movement.
Which is why I have called several times for a higher gas tax.