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The Fallacy of Locally Grown Produce

by Brian Dunning, May 28 2009

Traveling SalesmanThe famous Traveling Salesman math puzzle is much more than just a fun game. It’s a dramatically illustrated way to understand the efficiencies involved in product distribution models. The problem works like this: Take a map and draw dozens of dots on it. The salesman’s task is to define a driving route that visits each dot, with the minimum driving distance connecting them all. He has to visit so many locations, and he wants to burn as little gas as possible. Obviously this is something that people are looking at harder than ever today.

There’s a very cool piece of freeware software that uses a genetic algorithm to solve the Traveling Salesman problem. It’s by Michael Lalena and is found at http://www.lalena.com/AI/Tsp/. Draw dozens (or hundreds) of dots, and the software will start with a random route and then refine it iteratively until it’s super efficient. It’s fun trying to stump it with a zillion dots in a pattern that appears to be hard to traverse, and then to see what a surprisingly simple curve it finds to visit them all.

Many years ago I did some consulting for a company that was then called Henry’s Marketplace, a produce retailer built on the founding principles of locally grown food. They had grown from a single family fruit stand into a chain of stores throughout southern California and Arizona that stuck to its guns and sold produce from small, local farmers. It’s a business beloved by its customers for its image of wholesome family goodness, community, and healthful products. (Henry’s has since gone through several acquisitions and is now called Henry’s Farmers Markets.)

Part of what I helped them with was the management of product at distribution centers. This sparked a question: I had assumed that their “locally grown produce” model meant that they used no distribution centers. What followed was a fascinating conversation where I learned part of the economics of locally grown produce. It was an eye-opening experience.

In their early days, they did indeed follow a true farmers’ market model. Farmers would either deliver their product directly to the store, or they would send a truck out to each farmer. As they added store locations, they continued practicing direct delivery between farmer and store. Adding a store in a new town meant finding a new local farmer for each type of produce in that town. Usually this was impossible: Customers don’t live in the same places where farms are found. Farms are usually located between towns. So Henry’s ended up sending a number of trucks from different stores to the same farm. Soon, Henry’s found that the model of minimal driving distance between each farm and each store resulted in a rat’s nest of redundant driving routes crisscrossing everywhere. What was intended to be efficient, local, and friendly, turned out to be not just inefficient, but grossly inefficient. Henry’s was burning huge amounts of diesel that they didn’t need to burn.

You can guess what happened. They began combining routes. This meant fewer, larger trucks, and less diesel burned. They experimented with a distribution center to serve some of their closely clustered stores. The distribution center added a certain amount of time and labor to the process, but it (a) still accomplished same-day morning delivery from farm to store, and (b) cut down on mileage tremendously. Henry’s added larger distribution centers, and realized even better efficiency. Today their model of distributing locally grown produce, on the same day it comes from the farm, is hardly distinguishable from the models of Wal-Mart or any other large retailer.

Here’s where it seems counterintuitive: If you look at the path traveled by any one given box of produce, it’s much longer than it used to be. It no longer travels in a single straight line from farm to store; it now travels the two long sides of the triangle in its path from farm to distribution center to store. But quite obviously, this narrow view omits the overall picture, where the stores are all stocked with produce that got there much more efficiently.

Locally grown produce is rarely efficient. Apply a little mathematics to the problem, and you’ll find that the ugly alternative of giant suburban distribution centers accomplishes the same thing – fresh produce into stores on the same day it’s picked – but with much less fuel burned.

This even extends to local farmers’ markets like you may have in your town, where all the family farmers personally bring their produce to the market to sell. Imagine a map with the market in the center, and the round-trip routes driven by all ~20 vendors radiating out from the market, like the arms of a starfish. Applying our Traveling Salesman model to this map, it’s clear that the farmers’ market is the least efficient model possible, if you are measuring efficiency in terms of delivery miles driven and gallons of diesel burned. To properly restructure this model to be as efficient as its proponents believe it to be, you’d drive a single truck in a calculated route to visit each farm in the morning, sell all the goods in a single store, and then discard or donate the leftover food (why double the driving miles to return perishable goods to the farmers?).

Don’t get me wrong, I love farmers’ markets. We go to our local one sometimes and it’s a fun family event for us. We love the giant, wonderful tomatoes and strawberries that you can’t get at the supermarket. I’d hate to see the experience replaced by the efficient alternative I just described, but then, I understand that farmers’ markets are more of a premium boutique community experience than an efficient (or “green”) way to buy food. The real reasons to enjoy your farmers’ market have nothing to do with it being somehow magically environmentally friendly. It’s the opposite.

Too often, environmentalists are satisfied with the mere appearance and accoutrements of environmentalism, without regard for the underlying facts. Apply some mathematics and some economics, and you’ll find that a smaller environmental footprint is the natural result of improved efficiency.

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126 Responses to “The Fallacy of Locally Grown Produce”

  1. Daniel Hawkins says:

    Very interesting post. I found the concluding two paragraphs especially insightful.

  2. Iain Brown says:

    While that all may be true, you’re completely missing the point of locally grown produce. In your comparison to Wal-Mart you gloss over the fact that the big stores aren’t buying from those same local farms as Henry’s. They’re buying fruit from South Africa, coffee from Kenya etc.

    Flying this produce around the world is clearly using more fuel than even an inefficient model for distributing food locally. The efficiency comes not from reducing fuel usage, but from paying significantly less for the produce.

    • I guess the odd thing is that often local produce costs more than similar items at the mega marts. There are a couple economical reasons beyond what was listed above for it:

      - It’s scarcer. Supply/Demand.
      - It’s perception is of a premium item, thus stores can mark it up further.

      • Max says:

        If local produce were cheaper, then it would be a no-brainer for people to buy it, and you’d start seeing “Don’t buy local” campaigns.

  3. Aplastic says:

    Where I live “Locally grown produce” means in one’s own or one’s neighbours backyard. Therefore locally grown produce is neither a fallacy nor inefficient. Maybe you all need to stop looking for “environmentalist” in rich elitist farmer’s markets.

    • zayzayem says:

      I believe that’s called shifting the goalposts. Because they do not follow your model they aren’t “real environmentalists” (which I think was the point of the whole article anyway).

  4. Miko says:

    I think that there are better options for the last stop than a dumpster…

  5. MadScientist says:

    “… a smaller environmental footprint is the natural result of improved efficiency”

    That’s a tough one. In farming, “efficiency” is often construed as “productivity” or tons per hectare of produce. The more you can produce on a given piece of land, hopefully the more profitable your operation. (I say hopefully because market forces may actually result in lower profits despite your higher yield.) Looking at certain crop practices in Australia the land is indeed giving a high yield but only for a relatively short period of time (a few years to a decade or two). Because of the push for high yields, some farming practices in some areas destroy the land. Different farming practices (which may result in far lower yields) may be more sustainable but this will likely also increase the cost of the goods and make a particular farm uncompetitive with another farm somewhere else on the planet. There are similar cases for livestock. So the question is: can you come up with a generic measure of efficiency which takes into account sustainability as part of the “environmental footprint”? There is still a lot of land within Australia which can be converted for farming purposes so there is no immediate threat to the supply of such goods, but it is rather peculiar to continue with practices which eventually convert productive land into wastelands. I don’t believe that short-term efficiency is always a desirable thing, but this is certainly not a trivial issue. Market forces and a growing population demand greater efficiency and as much as possible lower costs as this is universally seen to be beneficial to the customer, however it may have quite dire environmental consequences in the long term (I’m talking several generations).

    As another example of efficiency and environmental footprint not matching up, let’s look at mining operations. Mines are incredibly expensive to operate and really only produce a very small profit per ton of ore; some operations rake in quite a bit of money each year as a result of the incredible volumes of ore which are produced. In many parts of the US we can see old abandoned mine sites and what mess they have left for future generations. There is frequently leeching of various salts into the earth, perhaps making soil toxic to plants or altering soil pH beyond what local vegetation can handle, or making shallow potable aquifers less safe or unsafe for consumption. Lawsuits abound over who should be responsible for cleaning up. Every few years we read yet another news story about an old tailings dam breaking and devastating some town.

    So in short, I don’t agree that improved efficiency necessarily results in a smaller environmental footprint.

  6. GL says:

    It seems the mental exercise presented here is lost on many people.

  7. Becca Stareyes says:

    Huh.

    Do you have a comparison between regionally-grown produce sold in a farmer’s market or supermarket versus nationally-grown produce sold in a supermarket? I know one of the arguments for ‘eating local’ is that it cost money and fuel to drive things across the country in a truck, and your post addresses distribution of local/regional foodstuffs, rather than local versus national. (Not even coffee and bananas — since these are hard to grow in most of the US, they aren’t really a good comparison.)

    I know our local supermarket (one of a chain) makes a big deal about things like lettuce and apples that are grown in-state or in-region. (Of course, they also make a big deal about organic produce, so some of it could be the nature of the community I live in*.) Presumably, they have something like your described distribution network.

    * Granted, some of the ‘organic’ baked goods taste nice… mostly because they taste like something that I might bake myself, rather than typical commercial fare. Which has little to do with the nature of the wheat flour.

  8. Jeff says:

    Joel Salatin (http://www.polyfacefarms.com/, http://www.michaelpollan.com/omnivore.php) was talking here in Charlottesville the other day about this exact problem. Because of the economies of scale, it may take the same amount of fossil fuel to transport one of a million Argentinian apples all the way to your Walmart Supercenter as it takes the apple farmer who lives outside your city to drive one of his two bushels of apples to the Saturday market downtown. The farmer is using a larger percentage of the gas he uses just to move the truck that is moving the apple, etc.

    Joel outlined 6 components of local food:

    1) Production
    2) Processing
    3) Marketing
    4) Accounting
    5) Distribution
    6) Patrons

    I don’t have time now to write his comments on each point, but I will try to summarize his points on Distribution:

    The Aldo Leopold Center at the Univ. of Iowa found that farmers market food was higher energy use than ‘conventional’ produce because of the lower scale production.

    The solution he described was a collaborative distribution network. Another factor in the solution is to rectify government required non-local processing. If he raises a cow in Virginia but has to send it to South Carolina before he can sell the beef to restaurants in Washington, DC or Richmond, that’s not local any more.

    An example of the effective collaborative distribution network is the growth of “Metropolitan Buying Clubs”. This is a co-op of buyers purchasing from a number of growers who use a single distribution network.

    Mr Dunning, I’d like to suggest that a whole post here could be the result of a conversation with Joel Salatin. You interview and consult with lots of biology nerds, physics nerds and astronomy nerds. Joel’s a Farm Nerd. Quite likely the most intelligent farmer in the world.

    • Todd Geist says:

      The descriptions of Polyface farm in the Omnivore’s Dilema, practically made me cry. The contrast between how Joel Salitin manages his farm and how most of our food is produced is so dramatic that it borders on the insane. How did we ever get so far off base?

      I would suggest that we did because of a focus on efficiency at all costs.

      There is no question that a farm fields laden with pesticides and chemical fertilizers is more efficient from a mathematical perspective. However it not sustainable. It destroys the environment, eventually you can’t grow anymore food. This is happening all over the planet as we speak.

      There is no question that today, America today can efficiently feed the vast majority of its people and other parts of the world today. This was not the case even two generations ago. But at what cost? A dramatic rise in obesity, diabetes, and other nutritional heath issues. Why? because people no longer have any idea about what is in their food. They have become completely disconnected from a key part of living. Once again this is not sustainable.

      Here is something to think about. Life is not “efficient”. When a salmon lays 100,000 eggs in river bed, it is not being very efficient, since only a very few will survive. If this was an efficient process it will only lay one egg, since from an efficiency perspective anything more then that is wasted effort. But off all of those eggs that didn’t make to adulthood are not wasted. They contribute to the over all heath of the ecosystem, by providing food for all kinds of other animals.

      Staying with salmon for another example. Some forestry experts believe that salmon that are dragged from river by bears and left in the woods half eaten are a significant contributer to health of those forests. So much so that the decline in bears and salmon is having a negative impact on the health of forests by the streams.

      “Efficient” does not mean “sustainable”. Unless we take that to heart, We might just very efficiently wipe our selves from the face of the earth.

    • Nicole G says:

      I was just about to say… this post makes me rethink about my own reasons for buying locally. I’m part of one of CVille’s “Metropolitan Buying Clubs” myself, and frankly I just thought it would be using less fuel than buying produce from the supermarket that came from, say, California. But as Brian and some commenters are trying to point out here, there are so many factors that go into food production and distribution that have to be weighed before deciding what is the best choice environmentally. This is more important than “feel-good environmentalism” which seems so prevalent.

      Of course, not all of our purchasing choices are entirely rational. I love my produce share because it gets me up for pick up on a Saturday morning, and it forces me to eat more veggies :-)

  9. SionH says:

    Interesting article, albeit for a rather specialised definition of locally grown produce. For me in the UK, locally grown produce tends to mean calling in at a local farm on my way home to buy some eggs or a joint of meat. I think you guys must do things rather differently. When visiting a farmers market over here it tends to be for the variety of produce that you don’t see in the supermarkets, like regional cheeses or uncommon varieties of apples, rather than under the assumption that the environmental costs of distribution are lower.

  10. Maria says:

    Great post, as usual. You certainly have a knack for getting to the facts and laying them out in a way that can’t be argued by anyone capable of thought.

    I don’t see anything wrong with distribution centers to get fresh produce from farm to store. I do, however, have a problem with shipping produce from far-away places like Chile and New Zealand. Sadly, we’ve grown dependent on year-round availability of produce that we simply can’t grow here year-round. Maybe a sharp increase in fuel prices — and thus shipping costs — will make it far less affordable to buy grapes in January. That may boost our own farm economies and help more of our fresh foods more local.

  11. Joe says:

    I agree that much of the “environmentalist” movement is thinly veiled anti-corporatism and Brian’s post does a great job at taking a level headed look at this idea through food production.
    What most self-described wal-mart or supermarket haters don’t ever stop to think about is that businesses run in a model that is most efficient and least costly. If wal-mart could save fuel (and therefore money) getting locally produced foods, then they would be and are already doing it.

  12. eliza says:

    The last time I looked we were not growing coffee beans or tea leaves in Alberta. As a matter of fact we are not growing much fruit here either. I am so sick and tired of the self-righteous elitists and people who live in warm climes telling me I cannot have coffee, fruit or veggies because they are grown far away from me. I always thought that we were helping the economies of countries less well off than ourselves by importing their produce. Go figure the elitists prefer to let those countries go to hell.

    • bob says:

      Have you ever heard of a Banana Republic? What you are helping is the profit margin of the company that owns the land in those far off countries. Companies that ship the cheap food to oblivious western consumers and the profits to themselves usually at the cost of destroying local food economies when people are forced off of land that is sold to multinational conglomerates.

  13. SionH says:

    Of course another advantage of locally produced meat (by which I mean here national rather than international) in the UK is that endangered rainforest habitats haven’t been cut down in order to grow it, and that welfare standards for livestock are more robust than those in many third world countries.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fanatic either way on this topic, but I thought I should point out some other arguments that could be raised. I just don’t think that food miles are the only reason why people buy locally grown products.

  14. bill babishoff says:

    I don’t think you have a clue as to why people by locally grown produce. It has NOTHING to do with saving diesel. HENRY’S IS A BAD EXAMPLE. As you described in your article Henry’s, with its large distribution centers is NOT selling locally grown produce. They are just scamming vulnerable people like so man other businesses.
    People by locally grown produce for various reasons.
    1) to support small farms.
    2) to support local farms.
    3) to keep the money in the local community.
    4) to know where their produce comes from.
    5) to get higher quality vegetables.
    6) many people feel food grown in “local” soil is better for them.
    7) to get different kind of vegetables.
    8) to get away from corporate farming
    9) local farmers can be more easily swayed by local residents as to how they use pesticides, herbicides, etc.
    These are just some of the reasons.
    I’ve never heard of someone buying locally grown produce to save fuel.

    • Uranium235 says:

      Bill:
      Why do you prefer to support locals rather than people who may live thousands of miles away from you? Are locals more deserving of your money? Can you prove the vegetables are higher quality?

      The idea that people “feel” that local grown food is better for them is one of the biggest problems. People are being fooled by the organic marketing, while skeptics are trying to determine whether the local grown food is actually better for you. Personally, I would prefer a real nutritional benefit and not a placebo effect.

      What’s wrong with corporate farming?

      The only point I can agree with is for a different kind of vegetable, but this is purely for luxury and is not a valid reason on its own for supporting local produce.

      • bill babishoff says:

        Buying off local farmers does allow you to check up on them to make sure their farming practices are acceptable.
        Yes, my local economy is more important to me than the economy in lets say, Chile.
        Remember local organic farming was the way it was done for thousands of years. It is normal, not unusual. Corporate farming and mass distribution is a new process, less than 100 years old.
        Organic food and food grown on a small scale almost always tastes significantly better and has been proven by many independent tests to be more nutritious than food grown in chemical shit. Buy a commercial Mexican watermelon, you can actually taste the fertilizer, yuck.

        Variety is not a luxury. Lack of food variety is the domain of corporate farming. They could grow other varieties, but they don’t. Because to corporate farmers only profit and loss counts. Quality and variety only matters when it affects the bottom line.
        Some people eat for sustenance only. Some people actually think food is more than a belly stuffer.
        Ever eat an organically grown heirloom tomato?

        Yes, I agree, people are being fooled by organic marketing. Did you know that most organic products including vegetables are actually grown on corporate farms who also produce non organic products as their main source of income?
        The organic food laws, which were designed to allow corporate farmers to profit, require a food to only be 80% organic in order to be called that. This is a huge scam.

        I don’t believe variety is a luxury, or at least it shouldn’t be. Many people believe variety is key to good health. Also eating food in its proper season is important to some.

        Don’t get me wrong I feel corporate farming and mass distribution is very important in todays highly overpopulated world. Without it people would starve(and they still do).
        In my neck of the woods it’s not so important.
        Good day.

      • Eirik M. says:

        “Remember local organic farming was the way it was done for thousands of years”. And why do you think that model was abandoned? Secondly, are you sure “organic” means more nutritional value and not just more “feel good” value?

      • bill babishoff says:

        It was abandoned for corporate profits (prophets?)
        Organic does not mean better nutritional value, I never said that.
        Many organic foods are raised on small farms who practice farming techniques such as the use of cover crops for example, to increase the fertility of their fields. Mass corporate farms rapidly degrade the soil and the food grown there is far less nutritious. This is common knowledge.

      • MadScientist says:

        There is no evidence whatsoever that “organic” is healthier or tastes better. I can grow fruit and vegetables in my back yard and they will taste better than bulk produce from the supermarket? Why? In the case of fruit, supermarket fruit is usually picked while very immature (unripe) in hopes that not as much will perish before it gets onto the shelves. Unfortunately that usually affects the taste; some slightly unripe fruit will ripen well and you will never know the difference but most fruit will not quite ripen the same if you pick it too early. In many cases what you get in the supermarket is picked too early.

        Now for vegetables, the emphasis on the supermarket goods is the yield and the looks. People who really enjoy their food will go out of their way to grow their own vegetables or find a source which grows certain plants for their taste or other nuances but who cannot otherwise compete with the high-yield varieties common in stores.

        All in all, without intensive farming (and all those chemicals people hate) we would not be able to feed our current population.

      • Peter says:

        But that’s not a problem for the hard-core environmentalists (“mental” being the important part of that word!)…they don’t want “us” to be able to feed “our” current population. Some of them say that they actively hope for diseases/disasters to wipe out billions of people, etc.

      • bob says:

        Most locally grown produce are heirloom varieties. The tomato you buy at Wallmart was not bread for flavor. Mass produced fruits and vegetables have been bread into a few strains since the start of the green revolution. There are thousands of different strains of fruits and vegetable grown locally all over the world that can’t stand up to shipping. The tomato is an excellent example of this. There are hundreds of heirloom varieties yet in every grocery store across the country there is just one type sold.

        Look at the history of tomato picking sometime. Large scale growing and shipping of tomatoes was a non starter of a business until a machine was invented that could mechanically harvest the fruits. Once that technology was in place tomatoes were bread for the qualities of being tough enough to stand up to mechanical harvesting and lasting long enough to be shipped cross country. Mechanical harvesting is only more efficient for a given value of efficient. And part of judging the efficiency of a procedure should be looking at the side effects.

        Just try it for yourself. Go to your local farmers market buy a pound of organically raised, grass fed beef and then go to Wallmart and get pound of antibiotic and growth hormone injected beef raised on corn in what used to be a rain forest. Make some burgers with both and taste the difference.

      • bob says:

        Peter and Mad Scientist. No mainstream environmentalist really wants a massive die off of the human population. The people who talk about things like that are the fringe that any large movement develops.

        The fact of the matter is that our current population and the chemicals/methods of industrial agriculture developed hand in hand. I’m not interested in a debate about man’s dominion over the earth but we have to consider just how many people this plant can support with any kind of agriculutre. Industrial agriculutre requires massive inputs of fossil fuels for fertilizer and mechanization and transportation. It relies on a increasingly small variety of produce raise in monoculture that leads vulnerability to blights and drought. It concentrates production of food to the control of businesses and countries that are interested more in profit that peoples well being. Maybe the local farmers market isn’t the answer to our problems but simply dismissing locally grown produce using one bad example is no help either.

        People don’t just blindly hate the chemicals. Look at the dead zone around the mouth of any river that runs through major farm land and you can easily see the impact fertilizer and pesticide have on our environment.

      • Bandsaw says:

        One other good reason to support local farming is to provide an economic disincentive for sprawl. Many of the farms near large urban areas are being sold to developers to put in tracts of housing, as the farmers can make more money this way than by selling on the international market.
        As for the encouragement of different varieties of vegetable, it is not a luxury. I encourage you to look at the history of the potato famine in Ireland and the complete loss of the Gros Michel variety of banana. Monoculture farming significantly increases the risk to our food supply because a single disease can rapidly destroy a larger overall percentage of the food supply.

      • bill babishoff says:

        Right on Bandsaw, I hope you still have all your fingers!

      • KWT says:

        Supporting the local economy is very important. Money spent on local production is spent locally.
        Being someone who worked in the “local organic produce” business for several years I understand the inefficiencies, and I know many farmers and companies are working together to solve that problem – and has for many years.
        I do believe, however, that there are many other benefits to buying local. And we’re not only talking produce ~ jelly, cheese, processed food from overseas, etc are big culprits as well.

      • Peter says:

        Supporting the local economy is very important. Money spent on local production is spent locally.

        A tautology and a non sequitur…good for you!

      • Roy Edmunds says:

        I think he meant the money tends to circulate within the community, purchaser from farmer, farmer from purchaser in return etc. Money going offshore, or out of the town or county doesn’t automatically return. Hence Americas astronomical trade imbalance and other debts.

      • Peter says:

        I know, but the “circulates locally” argument is just economic ignorance. And money going offshore can only do two things: (1) return onshore, or (2) sit in some foreigner’s bank account. In the former case, the effect is no different than if it was spent “onshore”, and in the latter, that’s a gift from the foreigner — you got his goods (for which he got the money), and he gets nothing in exchange (doesn’t spend the money).

        Most people think it’s a good thing when they receive gifts :)

      • tmac57 says:

        Peter- If all of the money in a local community were spent overseas, then what work would the residents be doing in order for them to make that money? That’s the problem that the U.S. is now facing with massive loss of jobs. The more jobs that we lose the less money we have to buy goods which causes people to spend less, which causes further loss of jobs. I’m all for competition, but there are dangers in losing manufacturing and food production capabilities, not the least of is an idle work force that becomes a drag on a societies resources, and leads to civil unrest.

    • Max says:

      Brian has to focus on fuel to argue that “a smaller environmental footprint is the natural result of improved efficiency” because fuel clearly links the two.
      Then, the argument simplifies to: save money -> save fuel -> save environment.

      Ironically, Brian thinks he’s looked at the issue in greater depth than others, but ends with a simplistic single-parameter model.
      Although it could be that he has looked at all the other factors and is just dumbing it down for us.

  15. Eric says:

    While I agree that distribution systems can be more efficient once you reach a certain size, I disagree that mega stores are the most efficient model.

    One reason mega stores can have lower prices is that simply because of their size, they can demand lower prices, forcing farmers/producers to cut corners and pay lower wages to meet demands, lowering the standards of what is produced.

    Do you really want to eat the cheapest food, produced by the lowest paid workers? Spend money on what’s truly important, what you put in your body!

    • Peter says:

      One reason mega stores can have lower prices is that simply because of their size, they can demand lower prices

      Are you kidding?

      • MadScientist says:

        Unfortunately he’s not. Big chains do that and smaller farms can really be screwed over if they miss out on selling a few batches of produce. This is especially true when there is a surplus of supply. The farmer ultimately has to trade off a big loss vs a smaller loss by selling very cheaply to the big guys, and no – savings are not necessarily passed on to consumers, it becomes a larger profit for the retailers. That’s just the way the free market works. Now ideally the producers come up with clever ideas and become more productive and offer larger volumes of produce for lower profits, but that game cannot go on forever and you ultimately end up with the case of multiple small players competing undercutting eachother and also being undercut by large players who can afford an occasional large loss. When farms get to be enormous they are partially shielded by virtue of their share of the supply – if you can only get produce from Joe or Jack and neither can supply all you need, you’re forced to work with their terms. Strictly speaking there’s nothing morally wrong with that either, even though many people might complain about how the little guy gets stomped upon.

    • MadScientist says:

      Oh, I forgot to say, many people have no choice but to go for the cheapest food produced with the cheapest labor. And now for Economics 101: if you have two choices of food, A and B, and they are actually exactly the same except for the price, the fool would choose the more expensive option. Now people’s tastes come in; sometimes the difference is not only in price but in taste, but different people have a different sense of taste so some might not discern any difference between A and B and will go for cheapest (if they’re sensible) while someone who can taste the difference might go for the more pleasant option (at least some of the time) even if it is more expensive. Now to really confuse things, throw in some advertising and you can sell any crap for a fortune.

      • tmac57 says:

        Mad- I personally would pay 3 times as much for a tomato that actually tastes like a tomato. Most of what passes for tomatoes in the U.S. are pale, mealy, flavorless crap, that were developed for their shipping characteristics,rather than how they taste. If I was only able to afford the cheaper ones, then I would pass altogether. I routinely pick off tomatoes from my hamburgers,and pick them out of my salads,whenever I see that sickly,pale, pink thing that they try to serve.That to me is sensible.

      • donna says:

        Grow your own — it’s even cheaper!

      • tmac57 says:

        donna, when it comes to growing tomatoes, I am cursed with a brown thumb. :(

  16. Charlie says:

    I’m not sure that this discussion is really a comprehensive argument against the idea of locally grown. If I was a skeptic (and I am) I would accuse you of cherry picking your data and setting up straw-men. I have no argument with the specific examples you describe, only that the title “The Fallacy of Locally Grown Produce” isn’t warranted.

    I’m not an expert in food distribution or nutrition, although I have tried to educate myself on the subject (there, I’ve just handed you a loaded gun) but my understanding of the benefits ascribed to “locally grown” foods boil down to two arguments: First, locally grown foods are more likely to be fresher than foods that come from further away (ceteris paribus) and second, there are greater energy and infrastructure costs to delivering foods from far away compared to foods from near-by (free-ware traveling salesmen modeling programs notwithstanding).

    Does this mean that locally grown foods are better for you? Maybe not, it will vary on a case by case basis, but for many foods such as fruits and vegetables that usually are best eaten fresh from the fields (you haven’t lived until you eaten fresh picked corn, minutes off the plant) I think that argument can be made. Whether or not these vegetables are “better” for the consumer is a matter for a more comprehensive discussion. I’m know that pro-local advocates will also bring up processing, pesticides, non-organicly grown as potential arguments but in my mind these are separate issues that stand or fall on their own regardless of whether vegetables are grown locally or not.

    The second energy argument is a bit more difficult. Most likely the Chilean cherries in my refrigerator and the Brazilian OJ in my freezer took more energy to get to me than cherries from California or orange juice from the tree in my backyard but I enjoy fruits out of season. Based in my own experience running the trading and logistics operations for an international non-food commodity company there are huge structural inefficiencies in the global movement of goods that lead me to the conclusion that there is, on average, more energy wasted moving goods a long distance than is wasted moving goods a shorter distance. When energy is cheap or there are other efficiencies this may not be an issue. Now we come to the point of considering whether the energy markets are properly valuing the cost of carbon in the price of energy. I think the answer is no, but again we can have that separate discussion.

    In the end, I think that the farmer’s market has come to represent the local food movement in the minds of many simply because people believe that they can reliably obtain locally grown produce at a farmer’s market but not at a typical supermarket. Locally grown is really a much broader subject: What is the best (most healthful, most efficient, least impact) way of producing food for the worlds growing population. I’m not convinced that the current system is “the best of all possible worlds.”

    • Fred says:

      Your second argument may be true in some instances but you make the assumption it is true because it sounds logical. This article is one that shows the initial impressions you would expect to have about an issue are incorrect when closely examined. There are numerous counterexamples, mainly due to the efficiency of farming practices, which, incidentally, vary tremendously around the world. Your argument completely ignore this fact.

    • Roy Edmunds says:

      when I was a boy my Dad pointed out a local Chinamen asleep on his market garden wagon as his Clydesdale horse trotted along its habitual way to market in the early morn. Thats a long time ago. I imagine the Chinaman would have probably used horse manure to grow his vegetables. I know my Dad used cow manure from a nearby paddock for our vegetables. Dad used a milk churn to mix water and cow manure and left it to ‘mature’. He then ladled this dark colored ‘pleasant’ smelling liquid around a growing vegetable. Ah, what vegetables, what fruit!!! A simple life gone with the wind.

  17. Frank says:

    Being an Operations Researcher (read more on OR here and here), I thought this post was very interesting. The subsequent comments reminded me of a workshop I attended here in South Africa back in 2002.

    It was given by a highly-respected forest engineer from Oregon State University. He told us that they used to calculate optimal forest layouts and harvesting schedules on a purely profit/cost basis (single criteria), but that they had improved their methods to include other factors such as social issues and the environment.

    In order to do this they made use of Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (see also here) in an attempt to find the optimal solution that, for example, maximises profit, maximises social benefit and either minimises the environmental impact or maximises the effectiveness of the space that they allocate to natural vegetation.

    It would not surprise me if the more socially-responsible companies use MCDA to make better decisions than were possible with single-criteria models. Or they may now add more constraints to their models that take environmental or social issues into account. More case-studies of OR in practice may be found on the Science of Better website.

    • Peter says:

      … maximises social benefit …

      The only problem being that “social benefit” is a meaningless political term. Whatever they define as “maximizing” is, someone else is bound to define it differently.

      • Max says:

        Take a survey.

      • Peter says:

        How would that help?

      • Max says:

        Conduct a survey to find out what social benefits matter to people, so you can maximize them.

      • Peter says:

        I understood that. But it’s merely glossing over the immeasurability of what you’re trying to determine. If one person answering your survey says “yes, good idea” and another says “no, that stinks”, you can’t determine that, let’s say, the first person thinks it’s worth “50 social benefit units” and the second thinks its worth “-732 social benefit units” – in which case you could perhaps assign it “-682 social benefit units” (and so on for all the other respondents) and come up with some possibly-useful overall score. All you can do with your survey is “+1/-1″, which doesn’t reflect the reality. So you can end up doing something of overall negative social “benefit” that you mistakenly think is positive. [I mean, you can't even ask people to assign "social benefit units", because there's no way for them to measure it either.]

        The only meaningful way to determine whether or not there is a gain in social benefit using the so-called Pareto criterion: that at least one person is made better off and nobody is made worse off. So run your survey (and somehow ensure that everyone responds!) and if even a single person says “bad idea”, there’s no gain to be had!

      • Max says:

        The so-called Pareto criterion sounds like a cop-out: “If you can’t please everyone, please no one.”

        Market researchers and pollsters survey public opinion all the time.
        Sure, you might end up doing more harm than good, but chances are you’ll find some common-sense solutions, like donating spare stuff to charity instead of throwing it away.

      • Peter says:

        Sure, you might end up doing more harm than good

        But that doesn’t matter? Never mind the results, just as long as all the creepy touchy-feely types get to feel good about “doing something”?

      • Max says:

        My completion of my sentence was just fine without your perversion.
        Any action has a chance of doing more harm than good. Taking social and environmental consequences into account increases the chance of doing good, as long as you really do assess the results instead of just PR.

  18. SeanJJordan says:

    It’s an interesting argument that makes a lot of sense from an efficiency point of view. I don’t understand why people have issues with distribution centers, personally; to me, they seem like a necessary means of serving a regional market.

    I would love to see the same logic applied to so-called “organic” goods, which are often far less efficient (and more environmentally destructive!) than their counterparts.

  19. old white guy says:

    as someone who spent a good chunk of his life controlling distribution for several large companies i can say the only thing that matters is getting the product to the point of sale as inexpensively as possible. if that makes the cheapest wine in the store come from another continent, so be it.

    • Roy Edmunds says:

      the problem is when cheap labor in another country puts your own people out of work and more of your tax money goes to supporting the unemployed locally. Factor that in for efficiency.
      Also, its difficult to oversee quality control in other countries. How do you know what the effects of using human faeces as fertiliser does to the food, as one country is know to do.

      • g4m3th30ry says:

        Where did this myth come from that buying internationally hurts jobs? I think it’s been proven many time over that countries with less trade restrictions are richer (IE less people dying from starvation and lack of housing) and have less unemployment.

        It seems to me under this stupid idea that we should only buy locally because the money stays local would result in boycotting local farmers who decide to vacation in France. After all, that’s your money they’re spending some place else.

        This is not to mention the fact that lower food prices not only help the poorer countries by giving them the only thing they can export, but also helps our lower income be able to afford to eat.

        & enough with the banana republic crap – we buy tons of food from Brazil and I don’t view them as a totalitarian regime.

        Remember, all countries by necessity start out as farming communities and as they gain efficiencies other businesses sprout around the existing farming communities. Then as living standards begin to increase, they start asking for things like cleaner water, police, freedoms, etc, etc, etc – it’s hard to ask to be free when you don’t know where your next meal comes from.

        It seems your “buy local” is nothing more than xenophobic tribalism being masked as intellect.

      • g4m3th30ry says:

        Just to add one thing – this was all said regardless of the efficiencies mentioned in the post itself. I agree that those efficiencies exist and are the reason we can feed such a large world population as it is.

        There simply isn’t another model available today to handle the pressure of feeding so many people – & one thing is for certain, organic farming will not feed the world in its current incantation.

      • Roy Edmunds says:

        There are many good reasons to choose carefully with whom you trade. To begin with, by trading with countries who exploit their own labour you are guilty of exploitation by default by buying the product. If you are a Christian you are damned. Being a Skeptic you are merely compromised in your personal standards. You cannot look yourself directly in the mirror and say, “I am innocent of exploiting poor people for cheap goods”.
        Try and argue that workers in countries like communist china with its strictly controlled market economy and army to be used against any protest for democracy, could possibly find freedom to bargain. They do as they are told for what they are given. End of story.
        Secondly, for a start, China controls the USA through having an enormous surplus, and buying American bonds, and you guys have an enormous deficit and your Dollar is fast approaching the end of its world currency standard .
        The collapse of General Motors is an indication of how different is the approach to social structure and evolution of your society as opposed to the Japanese society. The Japanese do as they are told. As I have been personally told, “in Japan if you do not do as you are told, in Japan you do not work”.. told to me by a Japanese director. In America there was the emergence of the ‘dignity’ of the common worker through struggles during the 20thC where your workers were sometimes shot for protesting their wages and working conditions.
        You forget history at your peril my friend.

      • Peter says:

        There are many good reasons to choose carefully with whom you trade. To begin with, by trading with countries who exploit their own labour you are guilty of exploitation by default by buying the product.

        Really? If you don’t trade with those (poor) countries, the people who live their will die. Surely saving their lives is a good thing, isn’t it?

  20. jdcllns says:

    Once again it simply amazes me what little understanding skeptics have of economics. Buying local is nothing more than progressive superstition. Go to http://www.cafehayek.com or blog.mises.org. Type “buy local” into the search box and start reading articles.

    • Fred says:

      Qualify why we don’t seem to be grasping economics? Trust me, we are more open to critique than most :)

    • MadScientist says:

      Huh? Are you implying that people here think “buying local” is the unqualified best thing ever? Do you have problems with your english comprehension skills?

    • jdcllns says:

      I’m sorry that my post sounded like I was bashing skeptics and skepticism. I recognize that many commenters were defending the article’s notion again ts buying local. I really think anyone who believes that buying local is better should use their bullshit detection skills and do a little more research. The links I gave have plenty of articles against it.

  21. Fred says:

    The “Food Miles” advertising campaign in the UK (advocating supporting local farmers) singled out my country (New Zealand) aying that the miles our produce has to travel clearly is more expensive. The maths was done and it was comprehensively shown that, because of the relative efficiency of New Zealand farming, it is far better to buy the imported product than the local equivalent, if one is environmentally concerned.

    A recent analysis concluded:
    For four years now some UK shops, like Tesco, have been promoting the food miles concept, meaning the closer to home something is produced the more sustainable it is. Now, the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research says it can prove that theory wrong.

    “Our cattle are grazed on grass rather than grain, and they’re housed outside most of the year rather than being in heated sheds,” says John Ballingall, “so the energy used in producing New Zealand food is often lower than the UK.”

    In fact, the research shows that an average trip by car to the supermarket in Britain, 6.4km, to buy the weekly groceries uses the same amount of energy as shipping that food 8500km.

    • Max says:

      “In fact, the research shows that an average trip by car to the supermarket in Britain, 6.4km, to buy the weekly groceries uses the same amount of energy as shipping that food 8500km.”

      Huh? Is that just trivia, or are they actually arguing that shipping food 8500km over land and sea uses less energy than shipping it a short distance over land?

      • tmac57 says:

        Max- I think that the idea is that it is possible to use efficiencies of scale to move things much cheaper,which is true, but I think that great of a difference deserves a skeptical look.

      • Fred says:

        No… do the maths… if you divide the fuel usage of the entire shipment by the number of units you get figure x (which I don’t have on hand). When you add up the fuel usage to buy said units (a huge number of vehicles) you get figure y. All the claim represents here is that the cost per unit when shipped (x) is much less than the cost to go pick it up (when you tally it up). They are not saying a shipload of goods costs less energy than a short car trip.

      • tmac57 says:

        Fred, I understand the principle. But I would have to see the actual numbers, and look at the methodology and assumptions before I would accept that such a huge increase in efficiency is true. I wouldn’t be surprised that it would be more efficient, but those numbers raise a red flag in my mind.

      • Stuey says:

        I think this is the paper here

        2006 http://hdl.handle.net/10182/125
        and a 2007 paper written by similar authors
        http://hdl.handle.net/10182/144

        I suspect there is a little bit of nationalism bias in the paper. I.e the papers have been written to lift New Zealands status in the food miles debate, and probably are not a completly objective study (I.e where do you draw the line).

        BTW most of NZ agricultureal production is not by big farmer coporate, they tend to be small operations who sell into a producer co-op for the processing and marketing.

      • tmac57 says:

        Thanks for the link Stuey. Just looking at the executive summary they show:
        1.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
        2.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.
        3.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.
        4.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.
        So if we take this one study from Lincoln University of New Zealand at it’s word, it does seem to show that they can produce and ship those 4 items more efficiently. However, Fred’s statement that “In fact, the research shows that an average trip by car to the supermarket in Britain, 6.4km, to buy the weekly groceries uses the same amount of energy as shipping that food 8500km” would be 1,328 times as much energy. I cannot for the life of me see how that would be possible. But I am willing to listen.Fred?

      • Stuey says:

        some quick back of the envelope numbers
        and some very rough assumptions
        The Emma Maersk burns roughly 300 MT of fuel a day
        http://www.bunkerworld.com/forum/Ask+Dr.+Vis/thread_22/
        and can carry about 11000 containers
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Maersk
        and it probably about a 30 day voyage, so that means a container burns about 800 kilograms of fuel (assumeing full ship etc)
        max containder payloads are about 23mt http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermodal_freight_shipping_container. But the container is a reefer and will carry lots of air to lets quarter the max it to 6MT (metric ton).

        So a kilo of meat burns 800kg/6kg or 132 grams of fuel. But there are a swag of assumptions that may not hold. i.e fuel burn rates, capacity of vessel (the emma maresk doesn’t do this journey). How much air is shipped in the container.

        but on the surface it **may** be plausable

      • tmac57 says:

        Now if they could just get those ships to deliver the food to your doorstep, well that would be efficient indeed!

  22. Brian M says:

    There is a new ABC show out that does a fantastic job of mocking popular environmentalists. Where one person does something, and everyone else just follows.

    • Roy Edmunds says:

      Yeh, us Aussies ought to know all about that. We followed the USA, all the way. And look at the mess we are in. Our farmers simply stopped growing stuff that was ‘uncompetitive’ with imported produce. If the trend continues we will be a net importer of food in years to come. Globalisation is just a greedy grab for cheap labour and production where ever it may be found. And multi national food distributors care not where the product came from provided the margin for profit is good. It is the reason that food can be grown cheaper in foreign countries that is the key factor. It has everything to do with impoverished people who work for a ‘dollar’ a day making fortunes for the landlords who own the farms who in turn are easily able to undercut US or Aussie producers. Efficiency has absolutely nothing to do with it. When there is one currency in the world, and the value of that currency is exactly the same in every country, and all the real and hidden costs of production (like taxes) are the same, then, and only then will you be able to truly measure ‘efficiency’. Hell, it doesn’t even exist between neighbouring states in the one country, how on earth do you ever think it could exist in the world. So don’t tell me a Chinese peasant who earns less than US$100 per annum (Time Mag.)is more ‘efficient’ than an Australian or an American working in the field. Its just that in China when they demonstrated for democracy the govt. brought in the army to quell the disturbance. How ‘efficient’ is that? Who wants that kind of efficiency built into the carrot on your plate? We just don’t think about it.

      • Peter says:

        If the trend continues we will be a net importer of food in years to come

        And that would be bad, because …. er, no, I must have missed that; why is it bad, again?

        [Do you grow most of your own food? If not, you're a net importer of food already!]

      • Roy Edmunds says:

        We grew everything. And exported meat and other products. We export a lot of bees to the USA from Australia which keeps your country able to grow anything at all.

      • Peter says:

        Who’s this “we” you speak of? You and your wife/children/parents? Or do you mean “Australia” (other people who have more connection to you than merely happening to live in an area claimed by the same gang)?

        I’m talking about you, personally — if you, Roy Edmunds, personally buy food (inter alia) from the supermarket (or from farmer’s markets, etc.) rather than growing/raising it yourself, you’re a net importer of food. Why is OK for you, but not OK for the fairly arbitrary line on a map that defines your national identity?

  23. Mike says:

    I have recently got 3 hens to provide me with eggs = this is about as local as you can get as they live in my garden. Neverthe less they are the most eggpensive (sorry) eggs I have ever eaten!

    Whilst I reused my dog’s old kennel as a hen house and made a run from old bits of wood and wire, I have had to buy an automatic door to let them in and out at dawn and dusk. I also have to drive occasinally to the store to buy feed for them. When we go away someone has to come in and look after them.

    Whilst I can convince myself they may taste better than shop eggs, it’s also fun to look after them I have little doubt that shop eggs are produced much more efficiently if not as humanely – but the ethics of factory farming is another issue.

  24. SicPreFix says:

    There have been some interesting posts in this thread on both sides of the fence, so to speak.

    It had been pointed to before, but it really must be emphasized: Efficiency at what cost?

    Yes, such things as quality of life, social benefit, and so on are difficult to quantify and qualify — and this is especially true for accountants, economists, and other absolutists — but they are inarguably essential parts of the larger equation. If left out, the risk of damage to the amorphous and difficult to define greater good of social well being is far too great to be let run free.

  25. uksceptic says:

    There are two issues here, whether you should support your local farm/producers and how that helps support the local infrastructure/economy. Then there is the issue of the most environmentally friendly way of growing and distributing food to the masses. The two are not necessarily compatible.

    I think the whole notion of “food miles” is unhelpful and far too simplistic. Which is exactly the point this article is making and doing it rather well. Food miles do not take into account the process/time taken to grow the food in the first place. For example in Kenya they don’t use tractors, they use cow muck as fertiliser; and they have low-tech irrigation systems. Compared to the UK where we use tractors and oil based fertilisers. So even with the carbon cost of shipping them over where is it more environmentally friendly to grow your green beans? Turns out its probably better getting them shipped in.

    There is more on this in a decent Guardian article here

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/mar/23/food.ethicalliving

    If you really are worried about taking that trip to the supermarket to buy your veggies that came from thousands of miles away then why don’t you grow your own? I started last year, admittedly not for any great environmental reason, and have really enjoyed tucking into a roast dinner with my potatoes and carrots on the side.

  26. Dax says:

    But if you look at the EU-enforced model, in which (using EU subsidies) products can only be labelled “italian” (or any other country or region) if it actually came from there (i.e. Parmesan is from Parma, no matter if you make the cheese the same way in Liverpool), and the transport sector is forced to be international, this all breaks down.

    We grow tomatoes in Dutch green houses that are then transported to Spain, while the Dutch import tomatoes from Spain, ship them to Italy to be pureed, ship it to a factory in Belgium to be canned while labels are stuck on the cans back in the Netherlands. Efficient? Not at all. Another example is German beef, shipped to the Netherlands, while the Dutch ship their beef to Germany!

    In this case, “local” (as in within the state) would work great: you produce, package, and sell within your country, and what is left is shipped outside.

    Only here in the UK you see quite a big push for British products, but my guess is that this is more because of the UK being an Island (you have to ship by boat or train, which, in this case, adds extra costs) then a social-environmental awareness.

  27. bill babishoff says:

    Much of this discussion has to do with where you live. If you are fortunate to live in northern California or western Oregon, you have an incredible amount of quality grown food, picked fresh and delivered to your store. If you live in LA or somewhere like that, the food HAS to be shipped in from far away. The food here in northern california is so much better than in socal you can’t even compare it. So is the water. The farmers markets here are far superior.
    I believe that many of the people commenting here must shop at safeway and eat fast food because the comments often reflect someone who has never experienced good food.
    I also don’t understand the conflict.
    Currently we have both organic and commercially grown food available to most people here in America. We have the freedom to choose. Why try and take away that freedom?
    Both commercial and organic foods have benefits. We are very fortunate to have them both.

    • uksceptic says:

      Let’s keep scathing assumptions about the people that post on here to a minimum before we descend into a host of ad hominem attacks. eh?

    • Max says:

      “We have the freedom to choose. Why try and take away that freedom?”

      Who said anything about taking away freedom? This discussion is about making informed choices.

  28. Anonymous Coward says:

    Although this story is illustrative, you could have arrived at the conclusion without involving the actual mechanics. Fuel costs money. As do raw materials. As long as people are greedy enough, or there are enough shops in town, the alternative ones will be outdone by the regular supermarkets, also because the latter have more experience at doing essentially the same thing and doing it well.

    • Max says:

      As I said before, this assumes that saving money = saving environment. That may be true when it comes to saving on fuel, but it’s not true in general. For example, suppose the cheapest route avoids a toll road but burns more fuel.

      • g4m3th30ry says:

        Then it’s possible the toll road is too expensive. If the makers of the toll road price the ability to drive on that road to the point that people have a cheaper, if longer alternative, then what you point out is inevitable.

  29. Kevin Carson says:

    The problem is, you take too much of the current corporate agribusiness system for granted, and compare “efficiencies” of modes of production operating with those background conditions.

    Remember that scene in The Honeymooners where Ralph Kramden imagined life as it would be if one of his schemes paid off: “Norton, when I’m a rich man, I’ll put a phone line on the fire escape, so I can conduct my big business deals when I have to sleep out there in the summer.”

    Local food would be much more efficient if production were sited closer to the point of consumption (neighborhood market gardeners producing for barter networks, truck farmers on the urban fringe serving neighborhood grocers in pedestrian- and bike-friendly communities, etc.). The fact that production isn’t sited closer to the point of production reflects a crowding out effect of decades of massive subsidies to factory farming and to long-distance transportation. The background conditions you’re using to calculate efficiency aren’t the spontaneous conditions of a free market; they’re about as spontaneous as the centralization of the old Soviet economy, only in this case the state capialists masquerade as “market” advocates.

    • g4m3th30ry says:

      How is the current distribution of food not “spontaneous”? It seems to me it arose out of a need to move past a simple farming community and into other pursuits – such as manufacturing, medical research, education, etc, etc, etc…

      It’s seems an obvious and natural byproduct of an evolving society.

      We do all recognize that even the Greeks and Persians bought food that wasn’t grown “locally” right? & they did this because in some places it was much more efficient to grow certain types of foods than in other places. This in turn, results in specialization which starts to increase those efficiencies… and so on, and so on…

  30. There are “boutique” farmers markets but the old-fashioned, real deal still exists:
    Centrally located urban farmers markets, where growers from the surrounding countryside bring their produce to the people in the city.
    We are one such market. We’ve been here since 1876 serving the people of Minneapolis.
    We are not a johnny-come-lately disneyfied boutique.
    We are real farmers coming to market, 7 days a week.

  31. Uncle B says:

    There is one big folly in every argument on this page – We assume (ass out of you and me) that the motor-car and its ownership and inexpensive operation will continue forever, even as the mighty GM falls! Soon, sooner than we want, we will be faced with astronomical gasoline prices, they are on the rise, rising exponentially as we speak, and are driven by greed, and blackmail and shortages, not necessarily market demand! In the era coming upon us, we will travel shorter, electric car, distances! Think 75 miles, return! A hell of a lot of people are soon going to turn yards paddocks vacant lots and even highway medians into gardens, sell the produce locally, live in shanties near-by and search for part-time and service industry jobs to boost meager circumstances. Fertilizers, expensive now, will soar in price, making composting mandatory, humanure hidden but acceptable, manure valuable and factory farms will sell this now wasted resource flow, by the pound for profit! Fission-fires cannot save us! We don’t know what to do with their waste, and we cannot put them out, we are simply not equipped! We need a biological answer that yields oil, and fertilizers to replace the oil we import now. (bio-diesel?) It wastes time to prattle on about situations measured by the equations and logic of yesteryear’s business colleges – the basics are about to change and sweep all we have developed away, and we will have to start again, a new paradigm, not the old past methods of calculating! Life, as we know it, is being swept away by the folly of the unregulated Bush vulture capitalist debts, and a new American Dream is being force upon the people by the facts of the modern world! A sign of these massive changes? Iraq didn’t really matter, win or lose! Chrysler no longer builds cars! GM is bankrupt and loosing its last ground fast! Ford are shaking in their boots! Financial Derivatives have yet to be dealt with, China has served notice on the dollar! China has served notice on future loans! This is the modern paradigm!

    • g4m3th30ry says:

      we will be faced with astronomical gasoline prices, they are on the rise, rising exponentially as we speak, and are driven by greed, and blackmail and shortages, not necessarily market demand

      citation please

    • Roy Edmunds says:

      Just becaue an American or an Australian has citizenship in no way ascribes any national conscience to the business man who is by definition interested in profit. The first objective of any business is to make a profit. No profit, no business.
      The more of that profit you can keep for yourself through saving on wages the more you get to spend on yourself. In many industries the single biggest cost unless you employ robotic process is labour, and even then someone has to manufacture the robot. And service it.
      The next task is to manufacture according to market and legal standards. The product. The methods of production.
      The difference between countries, societies, is enormous. You cannot improve someone elses living standards simply by reducing your own. In the USA and Australia there are growing poor. Simply because our expectations and standards are different and the opportunity arose for ‘enterprising’ local manufacturers to take advantage of cheap wages and working conditions outside of America and Australia and import that product previously produced in the US or Aus. back at an increased profit. Meanwhile we allowed manufacturing from any other country who could exploit cheap wages anywhere in the world to export to Australia and America. We did this for many years while our debt ran up to buy the stuff we couldn’t really afford. In Australia our GDP ratio to expenditure has been 175%. Meaning that for every dollar we earned we spent $1.75. Our trade deficit is around $600 billion. China buys our bonds.
      Our household and business debt, for a country with a small population, around 22 to 23 million is a massive $2 trillion dollars Aus. That is nigh on impossible to get my head to understand. That is two thousand billion. Two hundred thousand million. And America dwarfs that with Federal debt and trade deficit. Australia is into recession, and recently we had a trade surplus!! The first I have heard for decades. It will only takes up fifty years at this rate to balance our trade. While we can anticipate a million unemployed this time next year, with people already living under the poverty line through being pensioned off or poorly paid etc. Like the forty million odd working poor in the USA. Tough times, and all of our own making. But just like the great depression, those with cash will gobble up the bargains and have wealth for succeeding generations as we emerge from this sad mess over the next 25 to 30 years.

  32. sailor says:

    Brian Dunning does an excellent job of showing that any “buy locally” scheme is likely to be a fallacy when it comes to transport costs. But I think many people have pointed out that this is not the only reason people like to buy locally. One plus side of local buying (especially farm stands) is that you know who you are buying from and the transaction is direct to them, there are no middle men, so at least the price you are paying goes to the farmer, not the shipping company, the middlemen and the store. This is the simplest and best system of “fair trade”. With store bought produce you have no idea how it came to be there. Is is some big company owning thousands of acres in South America, paying local labor (that they displaced off the land int he first place) inadequate wages? Fair trade labels help a bit, but like the label organic, I imagine they could be quickly corrupted by big corporations in their search of profits. There is certainly a “feel good” element to direct local trade.

    • g4m3th30ry says:

      Please define “inadequate wages”

      • sailor says:

        Wages most Americans and Europeans would refuse to work for

      • SicPreFix says:

        How about …

        inadequate wages: wage level that fails to provide enough income for an employee to provide themselves with a sufficient quantity of quality nutrition, a safe and secure dwelling, clean water, clothing, and medicines….

        For a start.

        Though somehow, call me psychic, I get that old niggly feeling that this will not satisfy you.

      • sailor says:

        That would certainly satisfy me!

      • Roy Edmunds says:

        “inadequate wages” means any wage where the worker has absolutely no input into establishing. In other words a slave. There are millions in China and India and around the world the slave trade is greater in number now than ever before in history.

  33. Gordo says:

    Though I agree that an orthodoxy of “locally grown produce” has a problem, it is also a fallacy to attack “locally grown produce” as a concept from a single bad implementation. Clearly, using a distribution network to gather up, then re-distribute produce is much more efficient than making hundreds of trips. But that simply means that local distributors are more efficient than doing individual trips from every supermarket to every farm.

    You should know better than to attack a concept by attacking a bad implementation.

    So though I think the whole ‘locally grown produce’ is an easily exploited catchphrase that fails to capture the complexity. I would say that instead of being a fallacy, it is simply an incomplete measure. I.e ‘locally grown produce’ is a good thing, all other things equal.

    • zayzayem says:

      I do not see this post as an attack.

      The “fallacy” is not that local produce is good; the fallacy is that locally grown produce greatly differes from large chain supermarkets in their practices.

      In the end as a business grows, its practices will inevitably end up mimicking those of big business. The question to discuss is: is this really a poor practice after all?

      • Roy Edmunds says:

        No, the locally produced product does not ultimately mimick the multi national supermarket in its practice unless it in turn becomes a multi national supermarket which is less likely today in a de regulated world where we imagine that trade can be ‘free’ while the worker who produces the product is not. Prior to this de regulation you may have made a point. The only way a ‘local’ can make it big is buy offshore.
        It is a poor practice where slavery is embraced by people who once cried “give me liberty or give me death”. So you reckon you can look yourself in the mirror and say, yes, I’m ok with exploiting cheap slave labour in other countries because I can afford it and it simply doesn’t bother me. I turn a blind eye to exploitation because I get cheap goods. Well, hooray for America the land of the free. Is that too skeptical for you? And hooray for Australia who have done exactly the same morally impoverished decision. One of Australias current politicians, now in opposition, commented that he was proud that Australia had brought some 250 million Chinese out of poverty. Costello. What an incredibly stupid comment. Australia didn’t do that. We got out bargained, out manoeuvred, out traded, by a smarter more cunning and ruthless competitor. We are in deficit despite mining the guts out our country, and China has a surplus and a huge input into our future decision making through its ownership of bonds and our debt. It even now makes huge political donations to ensure we know who is being looked after. The current govt. accepts our position because they are fundamentally socialist. Hawke, Keating, both fabian socialists, or of that ilk, have long thought that a market economy (along the lines that Lenin planned for the USSR befor Stalin took over) such as we see in China, strictly controlled by a non democratic, authoritarian junta is the country to have ‘free’ trade with. And Costello a conservative went along with it. Strange if it were not for the fact that we are tied to Americas coat tails and virtually followed Clintons lead. We have our own sub prime problem which is emerging. Govt. sponsored would you believe!!! Lets face it, we are run by people who have forgotten the basics. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry…” said by a villain in Hamlet. But it is true today of a country which borrows on the exploitation of others for the sake of consumption at a price which puts your next door neighbour out of a job. Maybe we don’t just care about the next door neighbour anymore because we don’t really see how we relate to each other. The connection is not as clear as it used to be in the past. But it is still there.
        My connection to a slave worker in another country is not to buy the product he/she makes but to seek to get that govt to become democratic and allow the formation of worker unions. Otherwise the product they produce should be tarriffed. My argument is to do the obvious, return to tarriffs. There is no other option.

      • Peter says:

        So you’d hurt locals by forcing them to pay a higher price for their goods, while at the same time hurting the foreign producers by taking away their livelihoods? Nice guy! (It’d be kinder to advocate bombing them or something…at least they’d die quickly)

      • Gordo says:

        There is a fallacy in your argument… Providing a foreign market for food does not imply that people will directly suffer. In fact, it might provide a way of exporting food to make one set of people rich, while denying others food to survive (because they can’t pay enough). Foreign markets are not necessarily bad, but they are not necessarily good either.

  34. Danila says:

    Economic and mathematical efficiency are an easy way to give something meaning, but they often don’t take into account a slew of hidden costs. Take for instance the quality and nutrition of the soil. Many large-scale commercial farms absolutely destroy the soil after a certain period of time. In my area of upstate new york, some farmers simply grow gigantic fields of corn every year until the soil is absolutely depleted and will not grow anything any more. The fields are then abandoned or sold off.

    Wal-Mart doesn’t give a crap about where their food is coming from, how poorly the growers are treated, what kind of chemicals were sprayed, or any number of issues. They just want the lowest price and for the goods to be delivered on time. In the rush towards the cheapest possible produce, even the principles of organic farming have been perverted. Organic has changed from describing sustainable small farms to monocultures that rival those of non-organic farms.

    There are a lot more environmental costs to food than the fuel used to bring it to market. When you buy locally, especially from an organic farm following sustainable practices, some of these issues are dealt with in a more sustainable way.

    But even better than buying from a farm stand or market.. start a freaking garden, compost as much of your waste as you can, and make at least one source of your food walking distance.

    • Where did this pop-culture notion come from that soil management is not something that farmers are aware of?

      The main purpose served by both conventional AND ORGANIC fertilizers is to keep the soil full of the proper nutrients, thus increasing the number of crops that can be harvested between rotations. Soil management has been practiced for thousands of years and continues to be refined and improved. Remind me what’s so immoral about this??

  35. Meg says:

    Locally grown or produced food will remain a fantasy without a huge change in local and federal laws. Right now, family farms cannot compete with huge mega-farms employing illegal alien labor. Unless our government decides to consistently and firmly enforce the immigration laws (as Great Britain does) against these corporate farms and the aliens, there will be only token efforts to use truly locally produced food. In effect, the country’s taxpayers subsidize corporate farming by paying for health care, food entitlement programs, and schooling (including special education and translators) for the illegal alien workers and their families.

  36. Kirsi Louhelainen says:

    Great article and good insight in what makes distribution efficient. I also do not agree with your title (probably a tad too “yellow press” compared to the meat in the article) and do not think your article was in any way dismissing small farms or local produce per se.

    Rather, you gave a good point in pointing out that even small farms gain from cooperation. As someone pointed out quite early in the comments, joint transport and similar options will help greatly in reducing the fuel usage. I myself believe firmly that we should get away from the monocultures of today in which small farms will help – however, also large farms could do this, if the subsidies would finally be distributed right.

    Anyway, your article was pointing out only a single point of view. As plenty of people have already mentioned here, there are many other things to consider – and some of them have very strong arguments both pro and con. I’d like to bring out one more: here in Europe (as well as in US) most of distribution is due to a handful of large corporations. Now, regardless of whatever each thinks of the large corporations, there is one definite downside: they have the monopoly of prices. In Europe, the milk prices in store have been stable or rising for years. What farmers get, however, is less and less due to small overproduce and large chains’ ability to dictate prices. Currently taxpayers basically subsidize these corporations’ profits.

    This is one of the reasons I prefer to by directly from farmers. Having Henry’s type distribution center does not ruin the concept of local food: it still has considerably less middlemen. We can afford a little efficiency here, and I really advocate the idea of “all farmers unite” at least in transportation. As always (and as missed by many commentators here), middle route is often one that is the most comprehensive and takes into account most aspects, be it cost, fuel-efficiency, ecology or whatever you wish.

  37. Tegan says:

    The Most important challenge GM faces is to win back the trust of the tax payers. Giving away billions of tax payer money is not going to go under good sights of the consumers

  38. Ken R says:

    My take from this is that when you choose to buy, whether from a farmer’s market or from Wal Mart, make informed decisions. It frustrating to see so such strong support for ‘locally grown’ based on the environmental impact of long-distance transport of produce when about twice as much fuel (per pound) for the farmer to transport the produce to a farmer’s market that to transport that pound of produce 1500 miles. For heaven’s sake, if you have to go 6 miles round trip further than your Safeway store in a 35mpg hybrid to pick up 10 lbs of produce you have just used 5 times as much fuel per pound as it would take to transport the same produce 1500 miles!!!*

    If people really believe they are helping the environment when, in fact, they are damaging it more, the what have we accomplished?

    I am a small food producer. We simply cannot produce or transport our product without burning more fuel that the big guys. We don’t have the access to capital or the need for the big, fuel efficient, GPS guided tractors or other efficient equipment. It is not even a close call….

    But, we can produce a better tasting niche product. If that is what you want, go to your farmer’s market and buy-up (but first make sure you know what you want and are getting what you want). If you want to save the environment, as much as it hurts to say it, buy from the big, efficient producers and retailers.

    *Big trucks can transport 80,000 lbs @ around 5mpg: For 1500 miles that equates to .4 oz of diesel fuel per pound; Driving your 35mpg hybrid 5 miles with your 10 lbs of produce will use 2.2 oz of gasoline per lb.

  39. Kevin says:

    Most of the families in my neighborhood subscribe to a community supported agriculture. We pay a flat rate at the start of the season for a box of fresh organic vegetables once a week from early spring to late fall. Once week I drive my truck out to the farm and load up the shares for twenty families. The shares sit in my kitchen until they are all picked up by the families. Every family walks to my house to pick up their share. Locally grown produce doesn’t have to be inefficient. Once you add a community aspect things begin to change rapidly.

  40. lvleph says:

    I see the problem being the store. If everyone had a grow co-op in their local neighborhood then there would be no issue with fuel usage. The only problem is getting it started.

  41. investments says:

    What template are you running on this site ? I really like it. Could you post where you got it from ?

  42. Wendy says:

    I try to support local growers because I enjoy living in a community with small farms and green fields.

    It probably is more energy efficient to import asparagus in January than to grow it in local green houses, but it’s even more efficient to eat foods when they are in season.

  43. JMM says:

    Why don’t we just eat what tastes good? Find some good heirloom tomatoes at a farmer’s market? Buy them and eat them. Find good apples at Walmart? By all means, buy them.

  44. illumin8 says:

    This is an interesting post. It reconfirms to me that focusing on how food is grown is more important that where food is grown. It also seems that the local model is just not scalable. At least if you want to build an empire of chain stores it isnt. If the projections on growing city populations is correct, we would do well to focus on growing methods, and efficient distribution.

  45. Brika says:

    I found this post while searching key terms “the buy local fallacy” and this couldn’t have been more dead-on! Thank you for this, especially the last 2 paragraphs. I’m linking you to my small-time blog.

    http://brika.wordpress.com/2009/11/19/no-farms-no-food-no-logic/

    Thanks!

  46. tre says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farm_subsidies

    Any article on the ‘fallacy of farming’ with out talking about Farming subsidies provided by US tax dollars is a fallacy unto itself, because people are never paying for what the food would actually be worth if the farmer’s didn’t get subsidies. If governments didn’t give farmer’s subsidies, farmers would be at the beck and call of the same market forces that drive other types of businesses. By giving them subsidies, it also insulates them from making rataional choices, because they are getting paid to do whatever the government tells them. Rather than respond to changes in demand as neccesary, they respond when the government tells them what they should or shouldn’t grow. For example, corn farmers are given subsidies to grow corn solely for ethanol manufactuing for fuel, and the government places tarrifs on importing fuel from other countries to curtail competition. This ensures a steady supply of cheap fuel, paid for by US taxpayers to pay for fuel used by other US tax payers.

  47. Donna says:

    The difference being that the money you spend at your local farmers market goes right back into your local economy when the local farmer spends it, thus giving the local economy a double boost, not to mention that that weekly trip into town from the farm was very likely to have been made anyhow to somewhere for other purchases. Now, the farmer will be making those purchases in the town where the market is, which is yet a bigger boost to the local economy with no waste of fuel since the trip would be made anyhow. Gee, now I have to copy this and comment it to the original.

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