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Food and distance - more complex than it seems - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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August 6th, 2007


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01:56 am - Food and distance - more complex than it seems
Here's a fascinating NYT op-ed piece about the actual complexities of buying local:
Instead of measuring a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production — what economists call “factor inputs and externalities” — like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that 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. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.
Back in the mid 1980s when I was studying alternative energy and international development (before I decided that the entire international development effort was largely too horrid for me to deal with) it rapidly became clear that determining energy usage and environmental impact of any activity or device was far from obvious. The most widely known example of this is that the total environmental impact of cloth and disposable diapers is approximately the same. In any case, being someone who greatly enjoys eating produce "out of season" and sampling the exotic culinary wonders of distant portions of the planet, I'm rather pleased that this complexity extends to questions of local vs. non-local food. Obviously minimizing resource and energy usage is good when considering sources for food, but it sounds like complex calculations are actually necessary to do so. As a side-note, as I am increasingly wont to due, I googled the author, and he seems knowledgeable, well-educated, and sufficiently non-conservative that he seems reliable.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

(8 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:andrewducker
Date:August 6th, 2007 10:46 am (UTC)
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Yup - I knew about this. There are two answers, of course.
1) "Huzzah! I may now eat New Zealand lamb without feeling guilty!"
2) "I shouldn't be eating British lamb as it produces so much waste. Vegetarianism for me!"

Decisions decisions :->
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:August 6th, 2007 07:14 pm (UTC)
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For me, this question is easily answered by the fact that meat is delicious, and the vast majority of vegetarian food is improved (for me at least) by the addition of meat.
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From:andrewducker
Date:August 6th, 2007 12:38 pm (UTC)
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1500 pounds of carbon would be a lot. It'll only be about 400 pounds though - because the other 1100 pounds will be oxygen.

And that's per ton, which is 2000 pounds. So overall producing lamb takes 1/5 of its mass in carbon when it's produced in New Zealand and shipped to the UK as opposed to over 3/4 when it's produced in the UK.
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From:antayla
Date:August 6th, 2007 02:26 pm (UTC)
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When considering the energy efficiency of foods, probably price isn't such a bad gauge. Even when you are considering foods shipped from a country with a low standard of living to a high standard of living. After all, people with low standards of living use fewer resources because of their lifestyle. Granted, there are other factors than just straight energy to produce. Seasonal food from anywhere costs less than food from out of season because they have a lot of it and it could cost extra to store it longer.

But you're right, if you don't just pay attention to prices, it does require a great deal of calculation.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:August 6th, 2007 06:52 pm (UTC)
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Price is actually an exceptionally poor measure of energy usage or environmental impact. In addition to government price controls and all manner of corporate price-fixing, a great many international corporations take advantage of the combination of low wages and lax (or non-existent) environmental laws to produce food in 3rd world nations using methods that are both extremely energy intensive and horrible destructive to the environment. Rainforest-grown beef is merely the most obvious example of this sort of thing. Also, far too many factors go into price for it to represent anything at all real about any good.
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From:heronheart
Date:September 8th, 2007 08:19 am (UTC)
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The Bioneers have an interesting critique of this study at http://www.bioneers.org/node/2178
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:September 8th, 2007 09:45 am (UTC)
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While this critique does bring up a few valid points, the primary thrust of their argument against it seem to be comparing New Zealand lamb to largely imaginary alternatives (at least in the sense that local organic farming hasn't a chance of supplying most of the demand for lamb in London. As long as we are talking about theoretical alternatives, I'd much prefer to see global food distribution (naturally from places like New Zealand, instead of rainforest meat) using renewable energy - that's considerably more possible than supplying all of Britain, or even all of London with actual locally grown lamb and seems to me to be a far superior alternative, since does not demand considerable alternation in lifestyle.
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From:heronheart
Date:September 11th, 2007 05:43 am (UTC)
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at least in the sense that local organic farming hasn't a chance of supplying most of the demand for lamb in London

I'm always suspicious of statements like this when they aren't backed up by any numbers. It reminds me of those who said that the automobile would never be practical because the only place you could buy gasoline was in pharmacies.

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