The problem with locavores — the breed of environmentalists who tout locally grown food, partly to minimize energy costs — is that they’re insensitive to the quality of the environment. A New York locavore spurns California tomatoes because of the energy spent trucking them across the country. But to focus on a small number of factors, like energy consumption, is to ignore a vast number of others: Do California tomatos, grown in locations where there might have been vineyards, displace California grapes? Do New York tomatos, grown in greenhouses where there might have been housing developments, lengthen morning commutes? What other useful services might California or New York workers provide if they weren’t growing tomatos? What are the alternative uses in each location for fertilizers, or farming equipment, or the resources that go into producing fertilizers and farming equipment?
Last August, Steven Budiansky, the self-described “Liberal Curmudgeon”, wrote a New York Times piece that I criticized on this blog for, essentially, making 1% of the right point and ignoring the other 99%. Now, having reread Budiansky, I think I was unfair to him. He had this right all the way through.
My complaint was this: Budiansky starts off by talking about all the energy costs that are ignored in the usual locavorian calculations — the energy consumed in heating that New York greenhouse, for example. But energy costs are not the only costs that matter. Therefore, any calculation that focuses strictly on energy costs leaves out a lot of stuff we ought to care about. Man does not live by BTUs alone.
I now see that, contrary to my over-hasty reading, this was exactly Budiansky’s point. He started off by looking at energy costs ignored by the locavores, and I mistakenly took that for his main point. But he goes on to argue (quite correctly) that all of those various energy costs are quite small compared to the many other social costs involved with growing a tomato.
The key economic point is that in practice, there is one and only one way to account for all those costs (or at least most of them) and that is to look at the price of each tomato, which largely reflects the opportunity costs of the land, the workers, the farm equipment, the resources that produce that farm equipment, and much more that matters very much but that you and I probably won’t think of on our own. This is the point I thought Budiansky had missed. But in fact, he concludes:
The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy.
Bingo. He had this right and I’m sorry I said otherwise. D’oh.