Monday, March 19, 2012

In which I bullshit about some things I'm skeptical about in the local food movement

I'm not nearly as well informed on environmental and sustainability issues as I am, for instance, on macroeconomic ones, largely because I know a lot of people who are very well informed on those issues and I can just ask them questions when I'm curious.  Recently, though, I've been finding myself in disagreement with my favorite ecophiles (yes, I did just make that up) on the local food movement.

Basically, I think that local food advocates--especially the organic local small farm variety--are ignoring economies of scale.  The reason organic local food is expensive is that it's made inefficiently.  Some of the stuff that makes local organic farming inefficient also makes its products healthier and more delicious, like eschewing piles'o'antibiotics and using real soil and actual animal food for your plants and animals.  But, there are real economies of scale, both in terms of price negotiations for production inputs like seed and equipment, and also in leveraging advantages from high capital cost - high efficiency machine like automatic milkers, irrigation systems, &c.  The higher-prices-due-to-negotiating-position thing might not make much difference in terms of impact, but any yield increasing efficiency basically means that it takes fewer inputs to make the same amount of output.  Since a big part of sustainability is not using too much stuff to make things, it seems like inefficiency is anathema, or at least at cross purposes, to sustainability.  So why do we sustainability freaks want to do things inefficiently?


  1. (follow up comment)

    Your third error, I think, is equating all inputs and outputs. Obviously inputs come in many sources: oil, gas, coal, sun, wind, money, elbow grease. Ok, it takes fewer oil inputs (Kj) to make the fertilizer and petrochemicals to get more corn outputs (Kj). But oil has costs in the environment, not to mention to the countries where we take it from (social, political). And again, oil runs out, its free for now to extract (basically) but will get more expensive (e.g., tar sands). Its more efficient to blow the mountain top off rather than dig all these tiny tunnels through it to make the mines, but then, no more mountain. Small scale farming run on local solar and wind and elbow grease, maybe takes more Kjules of input per unit corn, but again, its sustainable. There are some kinds of inputs that we have LOADS of and that are kinder to our bodies and planet, and some kinds of inputs that we have few of. So be specific enough about your inputs and outputs.

    Your last question: sustainability is about "not using too much stuff to make things." Again, be careful with your words. Its about using too much of the WRONG stuff, e.g., oil, electricity, the last of the forests and fish etc. We can use LOTS of the stuff we HAVE lots of, like sunlight and manpower. That is why we WANT to do things inefficiently, because they can be done (some of them, somewhat) indefinitely, while the efficient methods will give out real soon. Or they will destroy the system (e.g. climate).

    I think you could have figured that one out too.

    Its also about making less of the (and higher quality) outputs. E.g., only making the vegetables and eggs and not the soft drinks and sugar and everything synthetic. This is a whole different discussion, and one that I am on weaker ground on, but sustainability seems to be about shrinking the whole production machine a bit- less inputs AND outputs.

    But to close, the eco freaks (and humanity in general) have to admit some level of contradictions. I mean, I like efficiency, in my computer programs, writing, etc. But I take great pains, far beyond the actual gains, to re-use, recycle, save every drop of water. Sometimes it gets absurd the lengths that I go to, but I do it on principal, out of a moral calling, because it just feels right. So that is the last, partly illogical, answer to complement the above logical answers... The local/eco methods feel right, maybe because they've been in our bones longer, or because its just nice to eat the tomatoes grown on soil you've seen and to have met your farmer once or twice. (But that has a little logical too, you can trust better the things you've seen, and as bad as some US regulations are, they are much safer than some of the chemicals and working practices used in much of the rest of the world where some of the industrial food comes from.)

    In sum, a part of the ethos (but probably not the defining one) of this sustainable local worldview is not wasting energy or resources, but you shouldnt confuse that with a desire for efficiency above all, if efficiency is as you are defining it, units of energy in and out. Sustainability just isn't about that.

    The rebuttal question is why do the proponents of economies of scale insist on efficiency above all else, efficiency that results in exploitation (of people, land, animals), ruination of our future ability to produce (land, air, water, forests), and eventually, possibly, collapse of the whole system when the resources run out? We are being AWFULLY efficient about using up all those nonrenewable resources... Is the answer short term desire?

  2. (this is spread over two comments because apparently I wrote too much)

    First, I like the term "ecophiles". :)

    But you've made a few mistakes here. The most fundamental is that you assume that sustainability is striving for efficiency. Frankly, its.. not, not in your definition of efficiency, which seems to be units of energy in and units out. Sustainability may embrace that when possible, but its more about having long term maintenance of all our cycles- food, energy, health, production. Anyone with a brain, even eco-philes, must admit that the most efficient energy source is OIL- its almost free energy, put a pipe in the ground. But its not sustainable (duh). The most efficient production, in the short term, involves "piles of" fertilizer and soil degredation and monodiversity fields. But its not sustainable (loss of soil, poisoning the waters, promoting pests and disease). Irrigation systems, yes it is efficient for now to draw on cheap aquifers that take millenia to build up, but the same end result- loss of the resource that underlies the efficiency- look at the drying up of the Colorado River and the salinification/ desertification in Australia. These methods of industrial economies of scale are efficient, until the resource breaks. Then there will be ZERO production. So sustainability is not about efficiency but is rather about sacrificing efficiency in the short run to obtain, well, sustainability. Its about the whole equation. In the long term, it is efficient because it has no time line, while one can argue that the industrial scale has a timeline that is running out.

    I think you could have thought that one through though. Its fairly obvious.

    Now there probably are a number of local-vores who do simply deny the economies of scale and say that local/ organic wins on all counts. I will say that they are wrong, sustainable agriculture is not magic. Sometimes its harder, less efficient, less money-making. But it (often) can win on sustainability and long term (e.g., our grandkids) outcome- roughly compare to the turtle wins the race because the hare at some point just stops. For a long time I was a die hard organic fan but we have to critique it with the same eye we critique the opposite worldview.. its hard to argue with prices, the approximately three times as much that I pay for organic eggs, for example. Ok, economies of scale wins on price at the grocery, all the chickens in tiny cages stuffed full of hormones, they are more efficient. But again in the short term... caged chickens and feedlots produce lots of waste... Which can bring us to point number two... one reason its more economical is because the companies aren't being made to clean up the messes they make- if they had to pay the cost of pollution, those non-organic eggs would cost much more. FURTHER we have to remember the industrial scale production mechanisms are more economical because they are subsidized far more than the local small farmer; a major point in the economies of scale that most people forget is that your taxes pay for a LOT of that big equipment (and the pollution cleanup, and health costs). So actually those non-organic eggs cost your pocket more than the price tag at the store. Maybe so much so that the economies of scale does not win?