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Is Local Food Hurting the Environment?

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Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More, has his doubts about some of the benefits of local food.

In his weekly column for Foreign Policy magazine, Kenny argues that "ditching your fancy, organic, locavore lifestyle is good for the world's poor."

An interesting position -- and Kenny makes quite the convincing case for giving the least fortunate farmers a leg up. But Kenny later introduces a fascinatingly counterintuitive wrinkle into the "local food is greener" trope that deserves extra thought.

Writes Kenny:

What about "local"? Perhaps locally grown produce tastes better to some people. And perhaps it is psychologically better to have close contact with the people who grow your food. But that doesn't make it good for the environment. For example, it is twice as energy efficient for people in Britain to eat dairy products from New Zealand than from domestic producers. It is four times more energy efficient for them to eat lamb shipped from the other side of the world than it is to eat British lamb. That's because transporting the final product accounts for only a small part of the energy consumed in the production and delivery of food. It's far better to eat foods from places where production itself is more efficient. For example, New Zealand cattle eat clover from the fields while British livestock tend to rely on feed -- which itself is often imported.

The data Kenny cites comes from a study by Caroline Saunders, Andrew Barber, and Greg Taylor of Christchurch, New Zealand's Lincoln University. And the numbers fill in a gap that few include when tallying the environmental impact of their dinner -- namely, total energy use, "especially," say Saunders, Barber, and Taylor, "in the production of the product."

To wit:

Comparison of energy used and CO2 emissions between NZ and UK Dairy. The UK uses twice as much energy per tonne of milk solids produced than NZ, even including the energy associated with transport from NZ to the UK This reflects the less intensive production system in NZ than the UK, with lower inputs including energy.

Comparison of energy used and CO2 emissions between NZ and UK Lamb. The energy used in producing lamb in the UK is four times higher than the energy used by NZ lamb producers, even after including the energy used in transporting NZ lamb to the UK. Thus, NZ CO2 emissions are also considerably lower than those in the UK.

Comparison of energy used and CO2 emissions between NZ and UK Apples. NZ is also more energy efficient in producing and delivering apples to the UK market than the UK is. NZ energy costs for production are a third of those in the UK. Even when transport is added NZ energy costs are approximately 60 per cent of those in the UK. Consequentially the CO2 emissions per tonne of apples produced are also higher in the UK than in NZ, reflecting the higher energy use but also the lower emissions from NZ electricity generation.

Comparison of energy used and CO2 emissions between NZ and UK Onions. The energy associated with onion production is higher in NZ compared with the UK. However, when storage is included for the UK, so they can supply the same market window as NZ can, the UK energy costs rise to 30 per cent higher than those in NZ, even accounting for transport.

How did New Zealand agriculture become so efficient? By ending subsidies, at, amazingly, the request of the country's farmers.

According to the Rodale Institute, back in 1982, the "Federated Farmers of New Zealand (New Zealand’s leading farmer organization) submitted to the government an economic position paper declaring that controlling inflation, rather than compensating farmers for the consequences of inflation, should be the national priority. They reasoned that a key cause of inflation was the budget deficits required to fund farm subsidies (among other programs), so that more subsidies only made the problem worse."

Where do New Zealand's farmers stand now, 30 years later? A report from the Federated Farmers of New Zealand shows that "agricultural productivity has gone up 5.9% a year on average since 1986. Prior to 1986 agricultural productivity gains were about 1% a year."

Buying local helps local farmers, to be sure -- in Halifax, Nova Scotia, farmers earn 80 cents on the dollar selling directly to consumers as opposed to nine cents selling to retailers.

As for the environment? Depending on the circumstances, that local broccoli may not necessarily be as green as it looks.
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