Destroying the earth by buying organic locally produced food?

Harvest season is upon us in New England and with it the opportunity to buy organic locally farmed produce for 2-4X what Costco charges to drag the same vegetable or fruit up from Mexico and dump it into your minivan in Waltham.

A variety of analyses on whether or not locally produced food is truly good for the environment have been made, e.g.,

I wonder if a simpler analysis would not apply. Let’s assume that every dollar we spend does a relatively constant amount of damage to the earth. If I give a person or a business an extra dollar, a fraction of that will be spent to buy gasoline, buy new manufactured products and discard old ones, buy electricity that will result in fossil fuels being burned, etc. There are some minor variations in how much damage will be done depending on the person or business that I give the dollar to, but in nearly all cases the more money spent the more damage will be done to the planet.

Thus if I buy local food for 4X the cost of food produced in Mexico, I am paying for New Englanders to drive around in cars, heat their houses with oil, purchase new smart phones and tablet computers, etc. Had I instead bought the produce from Mexico, I would have supported Mexicans who walk to work, heat just one room of their house and only when necessary, and make do with devices that they already own.

This analysis seems simplistic, but I am not sure that it is wrong. What do readers think? Is someone who buys local food at high prices hastening the destruction of the earth?

[Obviously there are other reasons to buy local food, such as taste, but this posting is purely about environmental damage.]

17 thoughts on “Destroying the earth by buying organic locally produced food?

  1. The fraction of Americans employed in food production is tiny and Mexico’s farms have likewise been emptied in favor of cities. Your marginal choice of origin of produce does little to affect the total environmental impact of your society through the lifestyles of farmers.

    But there are large differences in the actual production methods. Farming with natural fertility instead of petrochemical fertilizers and careful planning instead of pesticides really does leave a better earth for the next season. Note that I did not mention organics. Organic certification has been manipulated and adjusted through the usual process of regulator capture to be impossible for truly sustainable operations to achieve. Likewise, many abusive large scale factory farms can adjust to the technical regulations and paperwork requirements easily. Organic produce is likely to be more abusive to the earth than anything you find at your all-uncertified farmers’ market.

    Even those differences are small compared to the choice of food. Eating tasty fresh vegetables and fruits is fun. Tomatoes and peaches and chiles and exotic greens and eggplants and beets and sweet heirloom summer squashes and fresh melons are best this time of year and the tastiest ones won’t survive the trip from far away. Only your local versions are good enough to enchant you.

    Phil suggests that we’re not talking about taste, but we can’t avoid it. The choice to eat more fruit and vegetables and less meat and processed soy byproducts has a bigger impact on the earth than all the differences between organic and conventional and all the differences between shipping three thousand miles and thirty miles. The mass production of meat and factory soy and corn waste that you don’t pay for when you shift to eating more yummy veggies makes a bigger difference than all that.

    So taste really is a meaningful difference, if you like good food enough to eat more of it and less of everything else.

  2. I’m not sure we can conclude this:
    “There are some minor variations in how much damage will be done depending on the person or business that I give the dollar to, but in nearly all cases the more money spent the more damage will be done to the planet.”
    What is the counterfactual? If you don’t spend the extra 3X on the locally farmed produce, you may very well spend that elsewhere in an equally or more environmentally damaging manner. By this logic, the way to reduce environmental damage would be to simply buy from Mexico and then burn an amount of money equal to the difference in cost between that and the locally grown produce.

  3. I had the happiness of traveling all over the world, and living in five or six different countries over 20 years, all on Uncle Sam’s dime.

    My observation is that the richer a country is, the cleaner the environment.

    In you example, the poor Mexican family is scraping out a living that covers just the bare essentials. As much as this family would like to take the long term view, if it comes to a choice of spraying lots of pesticide today at the cost of degraded health for their family in the future, they’ll spray the heck out of their field today.

    The Mexican farm family probably does have a truck and some machinery, but the truck will probably be an old diesel. Or if it’s a gas powered truck they will have rodded out the catalytic converters.

    It’s not the Mexican family are bad people who hate the earth, its just that they are totally focused on getting through this week. They can’t afford a modern low pollution truck, they can’t afford the extra cost of reducing the use of pesticides.

    Go to Germany or New England and the story is different. In those wealthy places the farmers have modern equipment, they follow the strict environmental codes that their jurisdictions have. They have enough wealth to take the long view of land management.

    From an environmental POV you can feel fine about buying your expensive New England food.

    I wish my liberal friends could understand that the best way to make the world cleaner is to make it more wealthy. This fact is clear as bell to anyone who has traveled the world.

    It’s sad that so many environmentalists want to make everyone (else) more poor.

  4. Naseer: If I don’t spend the 3X on the locally farmed produce I would keep the money in the bank and my grandchildren would spend it, perhaps on a solar-powered car.

  5. Fair enough. Since *your* consumption of other goods is inelastic with respect to to your spending on food, I think your argument holds in your case.

    A similarly counter-intuitive take on this same issue is covered here: . Landsburg explains that the cheaper price of produce from elsewhere reflects lower opportunity cost of that land use, which in some ways internalizes the environmental cost.

  6. I suspect that it’s pointless to try to change how other people effect the environment buy giving them less of your business. If they don’t get enough money to heat their house, fuel their car, or splurge on iPads from selling you fresh asparagus, they will likely just find another way to continue making whatever purchases they want to make rather than make due with less (at least in the long-term).

  7. I don’t think the basic assumption that a dollar does a constant amount of damage to the environment is good enough. I would expect many orders of magnitude difference related to what you were choosing to purchase.

    Let’s start simple. I can buy a Macbook Pro or a Linux laptop at about a 3X price difference, right? I think these likely do similar amounts of environmental damage [whatever that even means], and I think 3X is already enough to destroy this line of argument. How about a $50 off the rack suit vs. a $5000 bespoke suit? The off the rack suit probably requires less human labor, but 100X less? What if I’m choosing between buying $1000 worth of Amazon rain forest wood and $1000 of Farmville in-grade upgrades?

    I’m not making any arguments in favor of local foods, I’m just saying I don’t think your constant damage/dollar argument works.

  8. The assumption that the cost of an item is proportional to the environmental damage it causes is not generally valid in free markets. Environmental costs are not borne by the producer and therefore not internalized in an item’s price. The environmental damage done per dollar does indeed vary widely for different economic activities.

    Also, you are comparing prices in a tiny niche market with prices in a commodity (mass) market. It could be that the different price dynamics between these two markets swamp the difference in underlying environmental damage done by the two production systems.

    I think the analysis is too simplistic.

  9. I’ve never been a big fan of “Organic” food. I’d be willing to bet most local producers are probably smart enough to use science-based farming that will give them the biggest yields and healthiest crops. Fertilizers made from cow poo or the latest, tested “chemicals” are, at their heart, basically the same products. The only difference is you’ll use far less of the so-called nasty “chemical”. Even if you run your farm with 40 yr old equipment, if you’re growing (plant or animal) the right kind of food for your area, selling half way across the world may make far more sense than farming less efficient crops so you can sell them to your neighbors.

    I’ve always been a huge fan of this podcast and I will let Brian Dunning do the rest of my arguing.

    To Quote:
    The overall picture is often a lot more complicated than simply “locally grown”. Let’s say you want sheep or dairy products, and you live in New York. Where are those products going to come from? Certainly not from anywhere local. If you get them from a state or two away, which is about as local as possible, what went into their production? A lot of feed, for one thing. But spin the globe and look at New Zealand. New Zealand has the world’s most efficient sheep and dairy industries, and one big reason is their climate and conditions that allow year-round grazing. According to the New York Times:

    Lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard.

  10. I agree. In general, more money spent results in greater insult to the planet. Mitt Romney and other members of his country club burn more fuel simply because they can afford to. Fuel for: air travel, car, boat, electricity, construction of big homes, transport of high end exotic goods to furnish the big homes. Even if the Romneys are a hyper green family and use super-duper efficient methods, they still burn $20 million dollars worth of fuel a year. Poor people don’t spend $20 million dollars a year. Trust me. I’m poor, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve also been in the power business (nuclear) for 40 years. I’ve thought about this, a lot. Unless you are buying art, every dollar you spend can be assigned a fuel cost. And don’t forget, food is fuel.

  11. “What do readers think?”

    I reject out right the unproven assumption that every dollar of economic activity damages the Earth. Likewise I reject the following assumptions:

    * That the state of the Earth without man is somehow “natural” or “good”, and the state of the Earth with man “unnatural” or “bad”. We are not extraterrestrials. This is our home planet. We are every bit as natural as polar bears and pine trees. And we have just as much a right to compete for our survival.

    * That the state of the Earth absent man is in any way static or preservable. (This often unspoken assumption of environmentalists is laughable.)

    * That man is consuming or “using up” the Earth and its resources. Matter cannot be destroyed, and given sufficient energy can always be reused. Energy on Earth is limited in the sense that our sun will eventually use up its hydrogen, but that is beyond our control and on a time scale we cannot imagine. In the mean time, we have more energy from the sun and from our own nuclear sources then we could possibly need. We just refuse to properly harness and use it.

    * That the Earth or life on it, as a whole, is in any real danger due to human activity.

    Quite frankly I’m disturbed that Mexican poverty is held up as somehow less damaging to the Earth and preferable to U.S. living standards. I could care less whether someone buys organic or Costco.

  12. You need to account for how much of the money Costco will keep. Your scenario implies 1 dollar to Mexico vs 4 to US. I have no idea what the actual numbers would be, but most of that money would probably stay with Costco and not go back to Mexico.

  13. I think you have to take into account the velocity of money in order to calculate the damage of money.
    Let’s just take a simple example: On January 1st I pay Freddie Frugal $20 to clean my room. He puts that $20 in the bank and it just sits there.

    On February 1st I pay Sammy Spender $20 to clean my room. On February 2nd he spends it all on _____, _____, and _____ (fill in the blank). On February 3rd the people who sold that stuff to him spend it etc.

    (I am assuming that both cleaners have already paid their bills with income from other customers, so my $20 is profit to them.)

    The $20 I gave Freddy is harmlessly wasting away in the bank earning 0.0001% interest per annum, and the money I gave to Sammy has already criss-crossed the USA fifty times by now, leaving a trail of destruction. Or cleaning up the environment, if you figure that it has passed through the hands of the wealthy residents of the wealthy USA.

  14. Josh – I’m not sure about the quality and validity of the rest of Brian Dunnings’ arguments, but I will say the passage you quoted here is completely incorrect. I live in upstate NY (about 1.5 hours directly north of NYC) and I can tell you that local production of both dairy products and lamb is alive and well.

    Hudson Valley Fresh is an example of one local association of dairy farmers who both produce and process their product locally. It is widely available in chain and independently owned stores.

    I haven’t made any attempt to tally local lamb producers, but I do know of at least three local farms and several local stores the sell local lamb (one example if Adams Fairacre Farms, a widely shopped grocer in most of the mid-hudson valley).

  15. Phil’s argument traces back to the ecologist Howard Odum, who developed a system to trace back all resources to “emergy” or embodied energy from sunlight. He estimates, for instance, that it takes about 2*10^5 joules of sunlight to produce a joule of energy in the form of corn. Electricity and gasoline are of the same “transformity”, but the embedded energy content of meat is 3-10 higher. Pharmaceuticals can get past 10^9.

    When you do this analysis for a product or service, there’s always a component that you don’t know how to trace back, so you use a time-dependent (inflation, etc.) factor that converts emjoules to dollars. Odum showed that the “overhead and administration” bills from a 1970’s photovoltaic project in Texas consumed far more emergy than the system produced.

    With this method you can write down dollar values for endangered species, analyze the economic value of the war, and produce an endless stream of controversial statements.

    The whole thing is an intellectual dead end because there are so many iffy numbers; Pimental makes a career of writing papers where, for 15 numbers, he searches the literature and finds the most pessimistic. Then he proves we’re all doomed. Anybody associated with industry, however, picks out the numbers most favorable for them — so nobody takes this kind of report seriously.

    I’d say that agriculture in the Northeast is a fiercely competitive industry — worth $15 billion a year in New York State alone. You’ll find many hard working North Americans who aren’t getting paid like bankers. And you’ll find agricultural extension is teaching mainstream dairy farmers to adopt selected practices from organic dairy because these practices are cost-effective responses to the challenges of the industry.

  16. Well, I’m not an economist, ecologist, environmentalist or whatever other -ist you might think of, but I live in Mexico and have the fortune to talk with many farm workers in my job and I want to share with you my thoughts in hope that this broadens the frame.

    According to this particular analysis you found, the earth will suffer a lot more damage if I give 8 dollars to a farm close to me than if I give 2 dollars to Costco. If we look straight into a farm-benefit economic I agree with Patrick, because I know that those $8 I gave to my local farmer will be destined entirely to his farm, his family and his necessities. But when I pay Costco $2 I can be certain that this money will be split mainly by and for Costco, transportation, and finally the mexican farm. Meaning that from those $2 only $0.3 will be profit for the farm itself.
    It is a widely known fact that these large chain markets work at a low-cost method in order to have low prices themselves, but at what cost? I know first hand that here in Mexico chain markets like Walmart get a minimum profit of x4 times (if not more) what they originally paid, but to make things worse they also fight with the producer in order to get a discount and sometimes the farm has to sell their produce at a price well below it’s value because the chain market will not buy otherwise and the farm would end up with a worse economical scenario.
    This of course is a problem from my country, I cannot tell whether the same type of issues happen in the USA. But I understand that if the farmer only gets a dismally low wage from his produce, and he has an old truck from 1985 that uses 10 litres of petrol to work his land. He will make a worse environmental impact than if he used a new truck that only uses 3 litres of petrol (these aren’t real numbers of course, just an example) because he doesn’t have the means to cost a new truck. But this will not be his fault, since he doesn’t have enough money to improve his business into a more environmentally conscious one. And it will be more costly environmentally speaking to pay $2 to Walmart than paying $8 to the farm.
    That said, I believe it is also a matter of how you use those dollars and the energy you have to artificially produce. If you have a land that naturally produces potatoes but not corn and you want to forcefully produce corn, you will end up with a greater impact because you will have to consume other products like fertilizers. If you produce potatoes in such land then because it’s a natural thing for the land, then the impact is lower. Which is the particular case with the New Zealand lambs Josh Volchko talks about. And it will not matter if the lambs travel to the other side of the world because there had been an energy saving beforehand when the produce was made.
    I believe that this article mostly talks about an efficiency issue, making it unacceptable as an absolute answer to reality. Since not all farms produce just lambs, or corn, or potatoes. If we want to make a positive choice that benefits our world, then we should know where all our food comes from and buy accordingly. So that we buy lamb from New Zealand and tomatoes from the farm close by thinking on how low is the impact they make when they get to our tables.
    About buying the iPhones and iPads stuff in the farm, it could be worrysome but again it is not applyable to reality, because even if the farmer gets an iPad for each of their sons, unless he had eight sons and changed their pads every three months, he wouldn’t be making as much of an impact as you or me. I find it a truly idle argument that would put us into another discussion on the impact of electronic items, or rather, it seems like an argument to make it look worse help the farmer get an iPad than help the faceless chain market get more money.

  17. I too disagree with the constant dollar/Env. Damage assumption. I am also surprised at the 2-4X increased expenditure for local produce. You must be shopping at Whole Foods? I spent a decade in Alaska were most food is imported, and I can tell you from my current perspective in Northern VA that local food is most certainly of better quality. Quality is a factor conspicuously absent from most economic theory, and Steve Sexton certainly makes no effort of factor quality into his “Inefficiency of Local Food” analysis. Another term for local food is seasonal food, and this is an important concept in a society were we always expect to find bright red tomatoes in the supermarket every day of the year, never mind they taste like crap, and require a great deal of energy inputs and require a gasification treatment to provide the red color. Availability and low cost does not equal quality.

    In the United States, the percentage of personal income spent on food has fallen from 23.4% in 1929 to 9.4% in 2010 (USDA Data, while food imports have more than doubled in the past decade ( India by contrast spends 35% of household income on food. I think it is wrong to assume that eating more locally produced food will increase environmental damage given the fact that imported goods including food are not subjected to the same environmental restrictions as domestic goods. An economist such as Sexton would point to the theory of comparative advantage to justify the increase of imported food, but when these foreign producers are can pollute and use toxic chemical with few restrictions, the advantage is absolute and inherently unfair.

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