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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Budiansky and local food

Nothing is more vulnerable than self-reliance'

Stephen Budiansky's two essays on the `locavore' movement, one in the New York Times and one on his blog, have received quite a bit of attention already. They are remarkably fine rants not least because Steve (an old friend) is not some pontificator. He actually grows a lots of his own food on his small farm in Virginia. He knows what he is talking about. And yet, like me, he concludes that

eating food from a long way off is often the single best thing you can do for the environment, as counterintuitive as that sounds

Steve has three strands to his argument. The first, much the same as I argue in The Rational Optimist, is that

Without modern farming, we literally would have already cut down every acre of rainforest just to grow the staple food crops that feed the world.

The second, whose detailed calculations are new to me, is that 

The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far...

Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for just 2 percent of our nation's energy usage; that energy is mainly devoted to running farm machinery and manufacturing fertilizer. In return for that quite modest energy investment, we have fed hundreds of millions of people, liberated tens of millions from backbreaking manual labor and spared hundreds of millions of acres for nature preserves, forests and parks that otherwise would have come under the plow.

Budiansky's third argument is the one I want to look at in more detail. He says:

we're told that food security depends on local self-reliance. But the locavores have it exactly backwards on this point. Nothing is more vulnerable than self-reliance: one storm that destroys the crop one year, one local outbreak of an insect pest or blight - and if you have no other source to shift to the result is famine. This was the story throughout human history before modern transportation and commerce networks.

One of the most haunting facts I came across in researching my book is that until the last two centuries it was cheaper to move people than food. Local food meant local starvation unless you could move.

In 1692-1694, during the reign of Louis XIV, a devastating famine afflicted France and people surged across the country in search of food. Around 15% of all French people starved to death.

Yet look at this graph, published by John Hearfield last year:

 

Notice that in London the price of bread spikes in 1693 but not by all that much. It was the same in Germany: a modest spike in price, but no great leap. Expensive transport meant that affordable British and German loaves could not alleviate French hunger.

Today, by contrast, a poor harvest in Russia is going to lead to imports, not starvation, and you can already feel the impact of that demand for imports in world wheat prices. If speculators are guessing that there is more of this to come and are bidding up wheat prices further, then good for them. They are accelerating the planting of more wheat, the substitution of other grains and so on -- they are thus lowering the eventual peak in prices.

Twice, while being interviewed about my book I have been told by the interviewer that it is a bad thing that I can buy green beans from Africa `because the food should be kept in Africa to feed people there'. The sheer ignorance of this statement, let alone its patronising tone, left me open-mouthed on both occasions. Think how many calories of wheat an African bean exporter can afford to buy for the price he receives for the few calories in his beans. He is growing the most valuable crop he can so that he can afford to import things of greater value to him than surplus beans.

Distant food is efficient, sustainable, safe and moral.