Quick Note on Food Transportation
It’s a commonplace among some environmentalists that an oil- or carbon-constrained world is one where it’s prohibitively expensive to ship food long distances, and therefore people should eat local. For example, James Kunstler argues that cities will shrink and people will return to locally grown agriculture. For the benefit of society, let me debunk this fantasy with some hard numbers.
Suppose the price of diesel rises by $20 per gallon – $5.25 per liter. This is somewhat higher than the E3 Network‘s 95th-percentile estimate for the economically correct carbon tax in 2050, and twice as high as the estimate for 2010. It could come about due to an apocalyptic oil shock, though such a world and a world with a very high carbon tax are mutually exclusive. Today’s Class I freight trains are capable of moving about 450 short tons of freight one mile on one gallon of diesel – about 170 ton-km per liter. (Large cargo ships are about equally efficient, so this holds equally well over oceans.)
Let’s now look at rice, a very cheap retail food item that can’t be grown in every climate and is thus vulnerable to an increase in price that’s essentially constant per unit of weight. Under the above assumptions, shipping rice from Arkansas to New York, a distance of about 2,000 km, would require an extra $60 per ton. The actual retail price of rice in the US is around $1,700 per ton, so the oil shock would raise the price of transporting rice long-distance about 3.5%. First- and last-mile transportation at both ends uses trucks and would become much more expensive, but this would be equally true of long-distance food shipping and locally grown food.
This actually overstates the supposed problem of shipping food across regions, because high fuel prices lead to both higher efficiency and lower consumption. In 2009 BNSF said it would take $10 billion to electrify its mainline network, including purchasing dual-mode locomotives, and pegged the breakeven point for such a venture at $4/gallon gas. A carbon tax would also cause the source of such electricity to shift to greener sources than coal.
While locavores insist on shaving off the small, small portion of their carbon footprint coming from food transportation, many ignore the much larger issue of what they eat. Not all – the environmental movement is full of vegetarians – but the attitude that buying local is more helpful to the environment than avoiding red meat is sufficiently widespread that it’s important to note that the opposite is the truth.
Everyone should read the study linked in the above paragraph. Even when accounting for the full transportation cycle of food, including fertilizer and other materials, transportation is a small percentage of food emissions. Ruminant animals emit large quantities of methane; large mammals hog feed and thus require more fertilizer and energy to grow; manure adds more emissions of nitrous oxides and methane. As a result, red meat consumed in the US emits 22.1 kg-equivalent of CO2 per kg. The average carbon cost posited by E3 – $400 per ton, one fifth the apocalyptic amount used in the rice transportation calculation – would tax red meat $9 per kg, $4 per pound, roughly doubling its retail price.
I don’t understand Kunstler at all…
His anti-suburban rage, OK, I get that, but … he seems to hate cities almost as much… it’s like he just sort of wants people to evaporate or something…
Not people – just all of modernity. Read this brief takedown, and the much longer article it links to.
Kunstler, at many times, is in his own world. Politically, he’s a liberal-populist hybrid, and on urban theories he’s basically the anti-Kotkin.
He’s an engaging writer on urban affairs, but when it comes to predictions, he’s not much better than a rambling derelict.
Kunstler is wedded to this theory that civilization swings like a pendulum, and a society that enters decline will merely revert to a previous state in history. Nowhere in human history have things happened this way.
The cycle for urban societies has been ascendancy, maturity (the peak), stability (a period where the peak is drawn out over a period of time), decline, nadir and dis-stability (the period where the nadir is drawn out over a period of time).
The period from nadir to ascendancy is the dark age — the time when society has lost the ability to escape its misery.
When industrial cities go into decline, the populations emigrate to another area that offers similar opportunities. Virtually no one from the Rust Belt returned to agriculture as manufacturing went into decline; the populations who left moved to high-growth urban areas.
In the event when a majority of the U.S. enters a secular economic decline — when a majority of U.S. metros will have the descent of a Detroit, Cleveland or upstate New York — what will happen is that the most economically productive Americans in the most economically productive city regions will resettle abroad. The ones who down-skill, as in urbanites who will want to return to subsistence agriculture, will be the worst off economically.
Ed Glaeser cited the same study in a Boston Globe piece about a month ago which generated some defensive rebuttals from the pro-local food advocates. Even more pointedly, I’ve seen it claimed that driving one’s car to the local farmer’s market produces more carbon than the city-dweller who walks to his ordinary supermarket to purchase non-locally sourced food, counting all transportation costs involved. This line of argument wins over some, but part of the pro-localism movement does have an ideological underpinning that gets irritated by pure economic rationalization and won’t concede the argument on those terms alone.
Also — from what I remember of my 11th grade American history, it was the development of refrigeration, not oil-based transportation, that revolutionized food transport. Without it, even free and unlimited oil isn’t going to help much.
I haven’t seen the Glaeser piece, but it wouldn’t surprise me that Glaeser would cite this study. I actually read about the study two years ago in Debitage, whose stance on this issue is closer to Kunstler’s (or, from another direction, John Adams’) than to Glaeser’s, and which cited the study as evidence for environmental benefits of vegetarianism. The general issue there (and, again from a very different direction, on your blog and Nathan’s website) is one of local control: big agribusiness, nuclear power, big developers, etc. are all foreign impositions, and should be replaced by locally grown, democratically controlled alternatives. The problem starts when people take Kunstler’s leap and conclude there is no alternative to this, that shipping food globally is economically and environmentally unsustainable rather than just socially and culturally alienating.
Here’s Glaeser’s article:
He can’t help plugging “high-rise apartments” at the end, but the overall argument is good. By not addressing the local control issue, though, I don’t know how many people’s minds are substantially changed by a piece like this. One gets the sense from reading Michael Pollan, for example, that concerns about net carbon emissions take a back seat to the social benefits of knowing your farmer, seeing where the food comes from and how it is made, etc., even if that’s not directly stated.
The locavore movement makes lots of claims as to its motivation, but fundamentally its motivation is *survivalist*. If the government starts falling apart in civil wars, having your food supply local starts to become really really important. I think this is the sometimes unacknowledged root of the locavore movement, and particularly why it’s taking off mainly in the United States. It’s part of the liberal (community-based) counterpoint to the right-wing (loner) guns-and-canned-food-stockpile movement. Think about it that way and you’ll get where it’s coming from; on those grounds, I can’t say that they’re necessarily wrong, given that the US government and US society have very serious instabilities which do not seem to be easily resolved.
Ah. I see Alon already mentioned this. 🙂
The thing that’s so annoying about the locally grown food movement is that in a situation that demands survivalism, local food networks will be just as disrupted. A mere US government default is not going to disrupt any food network, local or global; the sort of destruction that could disrupt international shipping and the national rail network (remember, the US exports food) would require a nuclear war, and that would destroy local food just as much. Nuclear winter, a huge population of people with cancer, and a huge proportion of the population annihilated are situations that can break any food network, no matter how resilient.
I’m slightly reminded by the idea that if the water level rises, you should buy inland property that will later become valuable waterfront property. It’s the plot in one of the Superman movies, and it’s an admonition business-class global warming skeptics give to environmentalists. The reality is that a sea level rise would make the new waterfront property look more like post-Katrina New Orleans; see point #3 here.
I never got back to you on this, but the fact is that in a non-nuclear civil war, which is a very realistic possibliity, your local food network will be maintained, but your import of oranges from California to New York will probably be disrupted.
“As a result, red meat consumed in the US emits 22.1 kg-equivalent of CO2.” I assume this is per KG? Is that, like, equivalent to half a gallon of gas?
Yes, per kg – updated.
It means it’s equivalent to two and a half gallons of gas. (Remember, the calculation I’m doing at the beginning of the post for rice transportation is an apocalyptic $20/gal scenario, not the average carbon tax of $4/gal one can extract from the body of the E3 study). In a way, it makes sense. Red meat is an exceptionally low-yield crop, counting the resources required to grow feed.
Alon, how can red meat (Beef I presume) be equivalent to 2.5 gallons of gasoline? The gas would cost over 5 dollars now, just based on the price of oil alone, and beef costs a little less than that. Is it because of all the methane released by cattle? Or does beef production use a lot of coal?
First, it’s red meat in general – it’s a little higher for kosher animals because of the methane, and a little lower for pork.
Second, the emissions of red meat are mostly not carbon. The methane is part of it; another part is the N2O released by fertilizer.
That’s if you have feed. I want numbers on purely pasture-grown meat. (I realize that this would be a much smaller meat supply.)
Sensible and reasonable environmental propositions are usually derailed because they get hijacked by those seen on them an opportunity to greenwash otherwise odd, extreme or unreasonable agendas.
For a starter, almost on an anecdotal tone, it was the relentless search for supplies of Asian fine spices to Europe, that had been cut-off with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, that gave an immense boost for European early globetrotter navigators to venture into the unknown in search of the passage to the “India”.
There are other reasons by which people could self-subscribe to or advocate “locavore” lifestyles, but trimming global warming or reducing energy consumption certainly is not one of them, As Alon pointed out, the cost of bulk transportation of food is minimum, negligible if done by rail or boat/ships, and not yet relevant if done by large trucks.
Contrary to what hardcore lovacores propose, food systems heavily based on local supply only leave communities far more exposed to otherwise minor inconveniences for a 4-year long drought in Australia or severe El Niño anomaly on the Great Plains. Then, the whole talk of “getting back to sync with Nature rhythms and seasons, eating only what is grown at that time of the year” gets moot when a swath of land is just starving.
But see what I said above; it leaves local communities *less* exposed to *political* shocks.
The people you’re refering to in your first sentence should learn about story of Dunedin.
Red meat? …the bangladeshis can drown if it means taking away my beef and lamb 🙂
I’m eating beef and pork until it’s too expensive. Then I’ll eat more chicken.
This has always been an irritating bit of counterfactualism to me – especially the people who complain that when gas ‘doubles’, so does the price of ‘everything else’ – which would seem to fail even a sixth-graders’ basic logic check (if that were true, 100% of the current cost of the foodstuff in question would have to be oil – not just transportation, but OIL – and obviously the ONLY good for which that is ever true is oil itself).
Hasn’t stopped anybody, of course.
At least Kunstler’s u/dystopia will be free of those damn long-haul class 8 trucks.
You think it will involve a fuel tanker filled with dirt?
A lto of the soft fruit available in my supermarket comes from California, grown in an irrigarted desert. Pumping water takes energy, and I’d love to see how much of its carbon footprint comes that (rather than transport). (Also, fruit is often chilled, raising the carbon-per-mile).
In California, gravity provides all the energy needed to pump water to most farmers. It is the midwest where you have to deal with greenhouse gases.
I read that something like 30% of California’s electricity is used to pump water. And any water that gets to the southern Central Valley has to pass through the Delta, which is at sea level, and has to be pumped upward from there. But I’d really like to see some hard data.
You don’t have to even think to know this is nonsense!
You can Google “California water gwh”.
At least 19% of electricity consumption and 32% of natural gas in California is used for pumping and/or treating water. It’s an immense cost.
PS 1m^3 of water has a mass of 1t. Think about that.
PPS Commercial fertilizers are pretty much made of pre fossil fuel pure energy. Energy that is immediately washed into the oceans.
Here are the numbers.
All water related stuff is 19% of electricity, 30% of natural gas, and 88 billion gallons of diesel per year. However conveyance pales in comparison to end use energy use (on farm pumping and irrigation, washing machines, hot water heaters, etc.). Keep in mind, however, that hydropower is ~13% of state electrical generation, so pumping, conveyance, distribution, treatment, etc. probably do not suffice to make the state’s water system a net draw on power instead of a net contributor. Certainly the wiki numbers indicate that, although the CSWP is the largest power consumer in the state, it still generates substantially more power than it uses.
So compared to another state or other local farming, getting the water to the farm does not add anything to carbon footprint. Possibly there may be one attributable to the use of irrigation if the other farming had no need for the on farm irrigation and such.
At least 19% of electricity consumption and 32% of natural gas in California is used for pumping and/or treating water. It’s an immense cost.
You don’t even have to even think to know that you are looking at the wrong end users. Pumping and/or treating water throws in municipal uses, including but not limited to desalination…which is about the biggest waste of energy known to man.
If you had bothered to do the math, you would quickly realize that only 4% of California’s energy use comes from agriculture, despite accounting for 79% of all water use. Now either those farmers are using pumps with absolutely insane efficiencies, or I am absolutely correct when I said: “In California, gravity provides all the energy needed to pump water to most farmers.”
“If you had bothered to do the math, you would quickly realize that only 4% of California’s energy use comes from agriculture, despite accounting for 79% of all water use.”
Note that the electricity, gas, and diesel for pumping water become ’embedded’ once utilized; the 4% of energy used in agriculture contains only the energy directly used for agricultural operations, not energy that has been utilized in producing factor inputs sold to the agricultural sector.
That only makes sense if pumping is done at some centralized station, or if they get it at the tap. In reality, when farms pump water, they pump it at their own farm.
California’s farms have a record of astounding wastefulness with water. I really do think they could be kept operating at substantiallly less in pumping costs if, for instance, they were properly metered and charged — they were completely unmetered back in the 80s while everyone else was being told to “conserve” water. (Advocating a market solution here. 🙂 )
Oh, and Danny, you really don’t know what you’re talking about. In many parts of California, including the Central Valley, farmers are literally getting water pumped to them, by, yes, a central pumping station. Some of it from as far away as the Colorado River. And the energy in pumping it is NOT counted in the “4%” of energy used for agricultural purposes.
That is *weird*, and California is the only state in the Union with this level of agricultural water pumping system, so you’re forgiven for assuming that they were sane. (Speaking of insane, did you know the Chicago River runs uphill?)
The thing I always find interesting is that locally-produced produce, marketed through alternate distribution channels such as co-ops, farmers’ markets, and the like, is frequently more expensive than the trucked-in-from-elsewhere produce found at the typical supermarket chain. And this seems to be true even here in Portland, which enjoys bountiful agricultural production within a short distance of the city (having a UGB and not turning all your farmland into McMansions does pay dividends), and has a significant locavore population and thus enjoys a more developed distribution network for locally-produced foodstuffs than many other places in the US. Of course, Oregon produces many foodcrops for export as well, for which the previous observation about higher prices doesn’t apply.
One wonders to what extent this is because despite the higher levels of infrastructure development, other regions simply enjoy better economies of scale for production of certain crops, and to what extent this is simple price discrimination? Someone who is naive might think that locally-grown produce sold at a farmer’s market would be cheaper than the same stuff sold in a supermarket, having been handled by middlemen, but that’s seldom the case.
In those cases, it is almost always due to transportation utilization. Food distributors can reroute thousands of trucks across the country during harvest times…local distributors have employees and equipment that is mostly idle or underutilized. It isn’t uncommon for a farmer to be able to buy his own produce in a grocery store for less than it would cost the grocery store to buy it directly from him.
Another factor is that much of the distribution chain, by virtue of monopsony power, can force farmers to accept prices far lower that they get when dealing with grocers or the public directly.
In the EU the same phenomenon is largely caused by subsidies discrimination – old EU members have much bigger subsidies for them than new members and within a single country, big farms get subsidies much more easily (because they have people to do the necessary paperwork).
It goes down to economies of scale. Transportation costs area a fraction of total costs of food. Hence, the fact you are growing it at your doorstep doesn’t mean savings in transportation would compensate for increased costs for everything else.
A lot of it is the subsidy system. The Midwest is simply given larger subsidies for producing milk than New York, for a *really* blatant example. The corn subsidies to Iowa (not New York!) are a subtler example.
The embedded subsidies whereby “conventional” chemical agriculture is cheaper than organic agriculture, despite being more destructive environmentally, are a large part of it too. Local farmers’ market food is often produced more responsibly. If you compare local organic with supermarket organic, local organic is usually cheaper.
There’s also the organic issue–although I don’t know any dedicated locavores, I get the impression most are also steadfast consumers of organic food, which raises a premium.
Beyond that, I’d guess that it’s mostly that the alternative distribution system is just less productive than your average supermarket (which is a problem with pretty much all small-is-beautiful type green economy thinking).
The idea of a small farmer being able to live on the hype of “oh-so-cool-I-have-an-organic-farm-yet-I-hang-out-with-the-techies-and-the-cool-guys-in-town” is just not feasible if they are to compete in price.
There is an economic reason why mega specialized farms became the norm for staple food production. They are just damn efficient, even when controlled for their use of “oil-based” fertilizers and the like.
Part of the argument of the locavore advocates is that, for most families, the cost of food is not that high in relate of total income, usually hovering below 20% for families with incomes abode the median. They then make an argument that “modest” increase in food costs coped with changes in things like waste or “spending in overly processed foods” could make smaller-scaled local production viable.
Similar arguments are used to those on the “fair trade” hype, arguing that “paying few cents more on your coffee beans could completely change the life of the Colombian farmer growing coffee in the Andean slope if those few cents are channeled to them”.
The problem is that costumers, or most of them, are irremediably in love with the idea of lower prices. Or at least they have been for many decades. This leaves the “premium” paid for locavore food, organic food and the likes vulnerable to economic downturns, as it has been shown by the hard hit organic products took on the ongoing recession. This, in turn, leads some activists to demand the imposition of their standards by means of law, more-or-less like minimum wage laws forbid one to work below a defined threshold even if one wants.
Long distance freight shipping (shipping in particular, rail secondarily, trucking to a limited extent) is extraordinarily efficient. Anybody who goes after this segment of global resource consumption first is simply ignorant, uninformed, or fundamentally innumerate — one way of another, unable to comprehend orders of magnitude.
Here’s an OK brief newspaper opinion piece on the subject: “Math lessons for locavores
The worst thing about being a leftie greenie is associating with mushbrained lefties and greenies.
“The worst thing about being a leftie greenie is associating with mushbrained lefties and greenies.”
Whenever I get into conversations about energy policy, I often bring up stuff about cost/kW of various methods of power generation and how we can’t expect the likes of solar to seriously compete with coal until it’s cheaper than coal. Even when I mention things like externalities and carbon pricing I’m excoriated for thinking in narrow economic terms instead of thinking about the well-being of the planet and society (and ironically enough my support for measures like cap-and-trade and carbon taxes–instead of switching to solar because it’s “what’s right”–has convinced a few people that I’m a Republican).
IIRC, if we implemented a reasonably low but appropriate (based on the science) price on carbon emissions, solar would *already* be cheaper than coal.
Solar is dropping in price per KW at an astounding rate. New tech should make it cheaper than coal within a decade (I’m actually speaking of specific tech some people I know are working on, if we can get it built). Since governments won’t act on carbon taxation, I’m now pinning my hopes on this.
Wait, BNSF says it could electrify its entire mainline network for $10 billion? Does anyone know how many mainline miles they have? I found a figure of 24,000 single-track total system miles (including some short lines) and 50,000 total track-miles. Even if there were only 10,000 mainline miles electrified (which seems low), that’s a cost of only $1 million per mile – the same as the cost of repaving one lane-mile of road, and less then 1/3 the cost of electrification I’ve heard suggested for transit and passenger rail projects like Caltrain or HSR from Portland to Eugene.
It’s just mainlines; it could just be the two Transcons and a few major connecting lines. Spending a little more than $1 million per km (much more than $1 million per mile, I know) is not unheard of in developed countries with reasonable construction costs. That would imply BNSF is thinking of electrifying around 10,000 km, 6,000 miles, which is about a quarter of the network, and would probably be just the highest-trafficked main lines. Note BNSF is looking for dual-mode locos rather than all-electric locos, so there would still remain large gaps in electrification.
That still makes BNSF’s costs 1/2 of those projected by the Oregon intercity projects, and much lower than the costs of electrifying Caltrain.
I wonder if BNSF wants to get back into the passenger business. They can build and maintain the track, and the operator can pay trackage rights, as in Europe. 😉
There are economies of scale in electrifying large sections at once — look up what the British government found when studying the Great Western electrification. If you can run an “electrification train” down the line it saves a lot compared to doing it “by hand”.
Junctions, bridges, and tunnels always end up costing more than anything else, too, and in-city lines generally have a lot of junctions, bridges, and tunnels.
Per-mile cost is not meaningful unless you have similar “sorts” of miles.
Well, the bit about urban cost is one reason to look more closely into New Zealand electrification costs. However, as far as I can tell those are dominated by rolling stock cost, not infrastructure cost, and as I said I do not know what the cost of infrastructure other than the electrification itself (e.g. raising bridges) is.
Electrification of a mainline without dozens of stations is also cheaper than electrifying a passenger network. In the case of the latter, electrification usually involves a lot of construction around stations to accommodate the wires and so.
There is also an issue of scale: BNSF wouldn’t engage in electrification of a few hundred miles. It would need a large program with various work fronts, which can dilute, to a point, certain costs.
By comparison, Caltrain is planning to spend almost $500 million to electrify 50 double-track miles from San Francisco to San Jose. This may include a new signaling system, but does not include the cost of new trains. That’s $10 million per mile.
What’s going on there?
Incompetence quite possibly, but part of it is that extending electrification is much cheaper than creating it anew (since there is so much base and supporting infrastructure that must be built). For what it is worth, however, SCRRA was looking to electrify 806 miles of freight and commuter rail in SoCal for 4.5 billion over 18 years (study in 1992, there was a 300 million dollar funding cap, otherwise it would be less than a decade). There was also a 2008 SCAG study I’m trying to track down which would have electrified 460 miles and purchased 775 locomotives for a total price of 6.4 billion and the track electrification cost of $5 million per mile (about what it costs to double track or build an extension for freight).
Correction:11.25 million per mile. Not sure how I messed up the math as badly as I did there.
I don’t see 11.25 anywhere. At the 1992 cost estimate, it was a little over 5.
Anyway, data points outside California point to lower costs than those of Caltrain. The electrification of the New Haven-Boston segment in preparation for the Acela cost $600 million, i.e. about $4 million per mile, 2.5 per km. The Auckland electrification project does not have any overall cost estimates that I’ve seen, but the actual electrification, excluding bridge raising, is NZ$80 million for 80 km of route, i.e. $1 million per km.
Pages40-46. Not a full engineering study and it looks like they just used the 1992 numbers with 6% annual inflation (no idea why that much). Also has some possible explanations for why Caltrain’s electrification is costing so much.
One thing not immediately apparent that might affect the carbon or oil calculations is the diesel used in each individual refrigerated car to power the equipment. That might not easily accommodate itself to electrification. On the other hand, I suspect the total addition to cost would be fairly minuscule.
Properly insulated refrigerated cars are fairly efficient. Once they get cooled to the proper temperature, it is not difficult to maintain it. They spend much less energy than, say, a freezer display in a “small, neighborhood-oriented, family-owned” grocery store where you open the door to get a product and in the process let much of the cool air to escape.
Not only that, but also the items requiring refrigeration tend to be more expensive per unit weight, making the extra fuel costs less relevant to them. $60 per metric ton of rice is 3.5% of retail price; $60 per metric ton of vegetables or meat is 1%.
Alon, I can’t find a cite for the claim that sustained $4/gallon gas was the breakeven level for Matt Rose’s BNSF electrification plan.
We know the plan was scheduled to cost $10 billion, we know the breakeven point comes at *some* oil price, but I’ve seen all manner of different ways of estimating what oil price. Apparently people are really unclear on 1, what the electricity cost would be, and 2, what proportion of current BNSF diesel usage would be displaced (80%? 60%?).
The BNSF alternative scheme documented involved the electricity cost cancelling out rent costs paid to BNSF for private power lines over the tracks, which would obviously make the thing a slam dunk.