Thursday, November 26, 2009

economies of scale and eating local

Very interesting article in Forbes magazine, "The Locavore Myth" (hat tip to Veg News). The article opens by considering other factors in calculating the energy cost of food production beside transportation (water usage, fertilizer types, processing methods and packaging techniques).

Perhaps more interestingly, the author then considers economies of scale in determining the energy cost of food transportation:

To choose a locally grown apple over an apple trucked in from across the country might seem easy. But this decision ignores economies of scale. To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market. The critical measure here is not food miles but apples per gallon.

The one big problem with thinking beyond food miles is that it's hard to get the information you need...This is an opportunity for watchdog groups.

This adds an interesting twist to the dilemma of organic v. local. I go for organic when I have to pick one or the other, and perhaps that might be the more eco-friendly decision, depending on the shipment. But who knows at this point? No one, really.

And so I appreciate the author's conclusion: skip meat instead.

Until our food system becomes more transparent, there is one thing you can do to shrink the carbon footprint of your dinner: Take the meat off your plate. No matter how you slice it, it takes more energy to bring meat, as opposed to plants, to the table. It takes 6 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken and 10 to 16 pounds to make a pound of beef.

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