“A mile travelled by a large truck full of groceries is not the same as a mile travelled by a sport-utility vehicle carrying a bag of salad”
Economist Article, 2006
As a response to this post by nattsang and the increased chatter about protectionism in the world media due to the America first clause in the recent stimulus package, I thought I’d try and add a few thoughts by rebutting the idea that protectionism can ever be a good idea.
To briefly summarise, hopefully correctly, Nats post argues that buying local goods is indeed protectionist but that in this instance it is in fact the right thing to do, as so many costs are hidden from prices that we pay on overseas goods no one can make an informed decision on what they currently buy.
To make this point, she asks us to “Consider this: can a packet of green beans grown and picked in Kenya, flown under refrigeration to China to be washed and trimmed, then flown under refrigeration to the UK to be packaged and distributed to supermarkets really be cheaper than a packet grown, washed, trimmed and packed in the UK, when you factor in the costs of the flights, the air fuel and petrol and the carbon emissions from all that travel? Of course it cannot..”
Although on the face of it this might seem to be obviously the case, it may not actually be quite so clear cut. Assuming that the hidden costs mentioned refer to environmental, social and capital outlays over the longer term caused by the damage of buying global, is it really the case that any of these costs are higher if you go the globalisation route and buy goods produced from wherever it costs the least to do so from an economic stand point?
So is buying local food better for the environment? Surely this is a no brainer as Nat states. However, as usual in the chaotic economic system we inhabit, what seems intuitive and common sense in theory rarely ends up being the whole story in practice. A report carried out by Lincoln Uni in NZ found that producing dairy products, lamb, apples and onions in that country and shipping them to Britain used less energy overall than producing them in Britain. Another study, at Cranfield University, which examined whether it was greener for Britons to buy roses from the Netherlands than ones air freighted from Kenya found that the carbon footprint of the Dutch roses to be six times as large because they had to be grown in heated greenhouses.
Our current supermarket system, when governments don’t interefere, is based on extremely efficient supply chain management systems, centralised depots and transportation in huge bulk which may it seems give us the best environmental (non) bang for our buck. There may even be enviromental economies of scale, to bastardise an economic phrase, when the market decides where something should be produced. This isn’t to say that the market is always right and that there shouldnt be some regulation with regard to emission, worker rights etc but to assume that what amounts to a luddite socalist idea is somehow going to save the planet just seems rather naive.
Similar problems exist within the world of organic food and fair trade as well. To take the former, how can the claim that organic food is better for the environment have taken such hold in the minds of the general public when organic food production is extensive, limits pesticides and bans the use of GM crops, all of which lowers crop yields? Surely the less space used the better for our agriculatural needs (and therefore more space for things such as rainforests), as long as care is taken not to damage the land, or surrounding lands/sea (which isnt something that is beyond farming). Fair trade, which is another protectionist idea wrapped up in an ethical solution, tries to help farmers get a fair price for their goods so that they can make a profit. Although a laudable idea in theory, it ignores the basic problem which is that too much of a commodity is being produced. Indeed, there is also evidence that by offering a guaranteed price, it not only stops farmers from realising this but also attracts other producers into that market, thereby distrupting the demand supply inbalance even further. This then lowers the price of the non fairtrade commodity even further, thereby making the non fair trade producers poorer still. A far better use of pressure groups time would be to attack developed countries subsidies of their own agriculural produce (think CAP in France and the cotton/corn subsidies in the US) or their dumping tactics, which can often be what causes the inbalances in the first place. The freer we make trade and the more interconnected we get as societies, the better off we will all be in the long term.
One final point. A DEFRA report in 2005 examining the supply of food in Britain, showed that half the food vehicle miles associated with food is by the public travelling to and from the shops. Also, it showed that a shift to a local based system away from the supermarket model could actually increase the number of food vehicle miles as produce would be moving around a lot more in less efficient vehicles (not to mention the fact that consumers would have to make more trips to get the same amount of goods).
So if you want to save the planet, get off your arse and walk to your local Tescos. Once you get there buy local or buy foreign, but don’t make the assumption that by doing the former you are making the planet a better place.