There isn’t anything wrong with this, of course. Wanting to improve the environment is quite praiseworthy. However, too often our actions wind up actually harming the environment more than they help.
We are told that the free market necessarily disregards environmental concerns, and that we must alter our choices to do what is truly environmentally sustainable. While this may be sometimes true, it is very difficult to beat the economic or environmental efficiency of a free marketplace.
Nowhere is this truer than in the buy local movement. Proponents, dubbed “locavores,” contend that buying locally is good for the environment. Their arguments rest on the concept of food miles.
The further the distance between the origin of your food and your plate, the more gas has to be burned to get it to you. Local food doesn’t have to travel as far, so emissions and your overall carbon footprint are lower.
The only problem is that this way of thinking can actually be bad for the environment. The very concept of food miles defies the important economic principle of comparative advantage. Not every area can grow everything efficiently.
For instance, Washington is known for its apple production. This is not because Washington farmers arbitrarily decided to plant apple trees. Instead, Washington as a region is particularly suited to grow apples.
Consequently, it is cheaper and more efficient (less of a carbon footprint) to produce apples in Washington and ship them to places that cannot grow apples as efficiently.
As Steve Sexton of Freakonomics explains, “forsaking comparative advantage in agriculture by localizing means it will take more inputs to grow a given quantity of food, including more land and more chemicals, all of which come at a cost of carbon emissions.”
As Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center points out, “focusing solely on the distance the final product travels to market ignores most of the energy and resources used in the growing process.”
Thus, the efficiency of apple growing in Washington outweighs the environmental damage of shipping them to other states.
James McWilliams of Forbes provides a more concrete example. According to him, “a 2006 academic study (funded by the New Zealand government) discovered that it made more environmental sense for a Londoner to buy lamb shipped from New Zealand than to buy lamb raised in the U.K.”
It is simply so much more efficient to raise sheep in New Zealand that it outweighs the environmental cost of shipping it to the U.K. Next time you hear someone urging you to buy local to save the environment, just remember you may actually be doing more harm than good.
Nelsen is a senior majoring in political science. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.