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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The “locavore” error

As quoted in James Delingpole’s assault on parts of the Green movement, Watermelons. The writer here he quotes on page 197 is Stephen Budiansky:

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food. One popular and oft-repeated statistic is that it takes 36 (sometimes it’s 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast. That’s an apples and oranges (or maybe apples and rocks) comparison to begin with, because you can’t eat petroleum or burn iceberg lettuce.

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.

It takes about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail; that works out to about 100 calories of energy. If it goes by truck, it’s about 300 calories, still a negligible amount in the overall picture. (For those checking the calculations at home, these are “large calories,” or kilocalories, the units used for food value.) Overall, transportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system.

Read it all. Oh, and buy Delingpole’s book. He is, as Brian Micklethwait says here, a hugely effective voice for our side. And as Brian points out, now that he has got his teeth into junk science, I am looking forward to his take on the current enthusiasm for junk money.

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18 comments to The “locavore” error

  • I’m glad to see Delingpole making the point about “large calories.”

    Many years ago, I worked for Sociological Abstracts. One of the vast number of papers that came across my desk was a study of the energy efficiency of different prime movers, which concluded that human beings were about 1,000 times more energy-efficient that internal combustion engines. It recommended (this was in a journal devoted to economic development issues) that African countries should be steered away from using engines and toward using human labor. That sounded strange to me, so I looked closely, and spotted that the fuel consumption was being measured in chemists’ calories, but the food consumption was being measured in dietitians’ calories, aka kilocalories. That is, the entire different was explained by the author’s use of noncomparable units! Sad to say, by the time I saw this, it had gotten past referees and an editor, who saw nothing wrong with it, and been published for a scholarly and bureaucratic audience who likely saw nothing wrong with it either.

    Such differences may seem too trivial to discuss. But there are people who will fail to grasp them and draw wrong conclusions . . . and then impose policies on us that are based on those wrong conclusions. Exposing them is not wasted effort.

  • Rob H

    Check out Richard Feynmans (noble prize winning physicist) take on “Social Sciences” from about 40 mins in here:


    However, it is worth watching the whole thing through to see how he pulls his whole argument/point together.

  • For that matter since when did anyone eat a lettuce for its energy content?

    Regarding Rob H’s comment: it’s worth consuming every word uttered by Feynman that you can find.

  • Dale Amon

    Personally I use bunny food in small quantities to spice up my blue cheese dressing.

  • Steven Rockwell

    I try to buy local simply because this is my community and I try to support my neighbors. I might pay a little bit more for apples and zuccini at the farmers market in the spring and summer than I would at the national grocery chain, but then again, I also know where it was grown, and picked, can ask what it was treated to chemically, ect. I’m not obsessive about it, but I try to keep my money at home as much as I can.

  • Alisa

    Local also tends to taste better.

  • Local also tends to taste better.

    I am not sure. I think “Less intensively farmed” tends generally to taste better. (This is very definitely not the same thing as “Organic”, and is also a different thing from “healthier”). I think “fresher” tends to taste better, too, although that also varies on the product. There is a correlation between “local” and “fresher” some of the time. So, maybe.

  • Laird

    It depends upon the product, of course, but in general I agree with Alisa that local tends to taste better. This is expecially the case with fruits. Local ones generally ripen in situ, and have a correspondingly higher sugar content, than those picked when only partially ripe and shipped long distances. Where I live, local strawberries are available for only a few weeks, but they’re so much better than “imported” ones that I’ll do without for the rest of the year.

  • Alisa

    There’s such a correlation most of the times – so, yes.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Strange how transportation energy costs are never pointed out when it comes to recycling, etc.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Runcie– At last there’s somebody I can ask! I’ve always wanted to know–did the cow really jump over the moon?

    Very clever! LOL –Well done!

    (OK now, back to the discussion….)

  • revver

    You guys should check out Tyler Cowen’s new book out “An economist gets lunch”. He basically touches on all the misconceptions about local food, from efficiency arguments to quality. Again, the apples-to-apples comparison is key. He points out the meat industry in particular for having myriad inefficiencies and short-comings.

  • bloke in spain

    Something that’s rarely considered is transport being a system rather than a series of isolated movements. A truck carrying goods from A to B has to return to A to collect the next load. Ideally it will carry another load from B to A rather than a trip empty. Very often the reason there is a B to A load is due to there being economical B to A transport so enabling the production of something at B.
    I t would be entirely rational to suppose that it is only economically feasible to ship books on locovorism from the publishers & printers on the East Coast to their readers in environmentally concious California because there is the backload of lettuce going the other way.

  • John McVey

    Bloke in Spain:

    An FYI you may find interesting…

    Attached to the classic space trading game ‘Elite’ was a novella called “The Dark Wheel”. It included the quip “an empty hold means an empty head”, along with how shippers would move and trade goods planet to planet even when on holidays or other personal trips. Surely this must have been inspired by something in reality?

    At the very least, I know that shippers IRL are extremely conscious of fuel and other running costs, and also their hired drivers’ hours and pay. This stuff ain’t cheap, to the point of there being regular safety cost-cutting and insufficient break-time scandals. You can be sure that most, if not all, do keep tight track of the concerns you raise.


  • bloke in spain

    Don’t really need a sci-fi novel to prove the point. It’s how the ‘triangular trade’ worked between Europe, Africa & the Americas.

  • Tedd

    …concluded that human beings were about 1,000 times more energy-efficient that internal combustion engines.

    Jesus, that’s pathetic. I can accept that the editor of a sociological journal wouldn’t know the difference between chemical calories and dietary calories, though I think it throws into question any claim he or she has to being “educated.” But there’s no excuse for not spotting the obvious absurdity of the claim that the human body is a thousand times as efficient as an internal combustion engine. That would mean that, at best, an internal combustion engine is less than 0.1 percent efficient. Who could believe that?

  • Tedd

    To get my engineering degree, I was required to study a small amount of social sciences and humanities, which I consider a good thing. (Good that I was required to study them, not good that it was a small amount!) Are people who get degrees in the social sciences and humanities not required to study at least a small amount of basic science, such as elementary thermodynamics? If not, that seems like a serious shortcoming.

  • mdc

    Naturally they choose lettuce. Fruits and vegetables have almost no nutritional content. They are almost entirely water. The calorie content per mass of lettuce is negligible. As an energy source, they’d do better to look at butter… but that wouldn’t produce a silly dozens-fold greater transport requirement.