Study evaluates local agricultural production

This article does not reference meat directly discuss meat, but it does hit on a popular idea that I often think about.  “Locavores.”  In the study that’s discussed in the freelance article I found in Tulare Advance-Register, the accepted distance from a population center for food to be considered “local” is 150 miles.  The distance associated with “local” varies — I have encountered requests that “local” be considered 25o miles, while others would like it to be “in their back yard.”  In my view, the reality of this is that some foods are, in fact, local — regardless of where “home” is, yet not everything we consume is local.  I recall visiting a neighborhood restaurant for breakfast, featuring “local bacon and eggs,” and the “meal deal” also featured a bottomless cup of coffee and a small orange.

NOTE: This article does not address “processed” foods.

Don Curlee: Study evaluates local agricultural production

DON CURLEE • AGRICULTURE • FEBRUARY 22, 2010

The study concludes that the benefits of such a massive shift in such production and distribution methods are not likely to be as substantial as has been asserted. Furthermore, it suggests that the benefits are dwarfed by the costs of less-efficient production and reduced access to nutritious food.

The perspective taken by study author Steve Sexton is global. He cites projections of a world population of 9 billion by 2050, and says feeding a hungry world is a paramount objective. He summarized his findings in the November/December issue of Update, published by the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California, Davis.

“A doubling of food production in the second half of the 20th century saved the world from mass starvation,” he writes, “as population doubled to six billion.” He credits the rise of modern farming propelled by the Green Revolution for that accomplishment.

Producing food near population centers is the dream of locavores, but now it’s also the subject of a serious study by a Ph.D. agricultural resources student at the University of California, Berkeley.

While current food production and distribution systems are criticized by locavores for their consumption of energy, Sexton says such criticism ignores the economies of scale and the gains of moving from a mule-dominated farm economy to the efficiency of tractors and other motorized equipment. He believes those advantages likely will be lost in smaller diversified farm units nestled against the city limits.

The fantasy land Sexton identifies as pseudo-locavorism will require more than 214 million additional acres in farm production, an area twice the size of California. The transition means 40 million additional acres will be required in California, 34 million in Texas and 26 million in Florida.

The additional acreage and loss of efficiencies are calculated by Sexton to demand significant energy-intensive inputs that will likely overwhelm any carbon-emissions reductions coming from decreased transportation and monocropping.

In visualizing food production within 150 miles of all population centers, locavorism must consider the utilization of land that is marginal at best for agricultural production. Production efficiencies on such land can be significantly reduced.

Sexton’s study recognizes that the locavore movement generally views big business as an insincere steward of the environment and a principal cause of rampant obesity in the United States. His data lead him to believe that ending food-market dominance by big agribusiness is only the secondary choice of locavorism.

In regard to a primary claim by locavores that agricultural policy and the resulting production has led to childhood obesity and poor nutrition, Sexton states that the argument is based on a series of assumptions that seem to belie accepted facts researched by agricultural economists.

He concludes that a local food system is not likely to improve American diets for two basic reasons: increased cost of foods from forsaking the gains from scale and trade economies, and restricted access to fresh produce for millions of Americans who live in climates where the items can be grown only in energy-intensive greenhouses.

“If mass starvation is to be avoided in the current century,” Sexton reasons, “then we must either forsake natural land including tropical forests, or renew our commitment to crop science.”

Before clearing thousands, perhaps millions, of acres of tropical forests, the wisest decision might be to abandon locavorism. Sexton’s study takes some positive steps in that direction.

  • Don Curlee is a freelance writer who specializes in agricultural issues. Write to him at Don Curlee — Public Relations, 457 Armstrong Ave., Clovis, CA 93612.
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    5 thoughts on “Study evaluates local agricultural production

    1. Wow! “Abandon locavorism now!” or else! To me, this is another extreme viewpoint, just as extreme as those who believe locavorism is the only option. I’d like to see a study that supports the existence of both systems. I’d also like to see a study that analyzes the benefits of bringing food production closer to the people.

    2. Just a few points. The focus on “local” may not make sense in all cases but here in the Hudson Valley we grow lots of apples yet in our supermarket we find apple products from as far away as China? It seems profit has trumped logic in this case. For me the focus needs to be on freshness, nutrition and taste. Chinese apples are not as good. As far as price is concerned most raw food in the US is pretty cheap. Its the processed stuff that increases price. Pork is less than ever, milk prices continue to bottom out and I can buy a bag of potatoes for $3.00 All from within about 300 miles from where I live. I am in agreement that “locavore” snobs should think about feeding a city of more than 9 million (NYC) and how much land that takes but I do think we can be more regional. Also I think the carbon footprint of the food should be examined. Not just its location.

      • I agree wholeheartedly, Tom, with your points! And in my view, the same goes for PA — we have the opportunity to “locally service” NYC, Philadelphia, and most of NJ with our agricultural products. Even so, all of our food production may not be able to “feed everyone,” relying then on otherwise “imports” to the region. I think this means great premiums for our local farmers.

    3. Most likely true stats and data. 100 % local for 100% of the population is impossible, obviously. If we assume there are some benefits to personal wellness & the local economy, what level of local can be achieve relatively painlessly? That’s the question.

      Some proponents advise just trying for 10 %. So, let’s do that then talk again!

      • I think it can be achieved relatively painlessly, and I also suspect that there are more local foods sold now than we realize (yet it’s still nowhere 10%). Let’s celebrate those products (i.e. [Insert Your State] Proud programs).

        It is exciting to watch local/regional markets grow!

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