The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

Alex Tiller - Wednesday, July 25, 2012

There’s a new book out by academic economists Pierre Desrochers and Hiroku Shimizu called “The Locavore’s Dilemma”, arguing an interesting premise: they say that the benefits of eating locally-grown food have been oversold by food activists, and that in fact we should be pursuing a “10,000 mile diet” – food grown industrially where it’s efficient to grow it, and then shipped to markets.

I haven’t gotten my copy yet, and when I do I’ll have to give it a carefully analytic read, but for now I’m going off what I’ve seen in the (fairly extensive) reviews and reactions to the book. I have to say I have my suspicions about the premise. Desrochers and Shimizu argue that local self-sufficiency is bad for the environment because (since people will demand certain foods whether they are well-suited for local agriculture or not) the crops will be grown in the wrong places, with bad consequences for the ecological balance. They do point out some historical examples of this, like the Colonial-era growing of wheat in the Shenandoah Valley, which did cause terrible erosion problems. And to that degree, I think their point is valid: there are some crops that just shouldn’t be grown in some places. But for the most part, we DON’T grow crops in those places.

Again, I’ll have to give the whole book a read because from what I’ve seen, the authors do make some good points about going overboard in the pursuit of local food, and I’d like to see those points firsthand. In the meantime, it looks like a very interesting read, and perhaps one with some useful challenges to conventional thinking, for anyone interested in the local-food movement. It’s always a good idea to give the other guys’ ideas a hearing – it helps us to understand our own concepts better, and to make them more defensible in the marketplace of ideas.

Drought Conditions Worsen as Corn Prices Skyrocket

Alex Tiller - Thursday, July 19, 2012

The US drought is intensifying, with almost 55% of the land area within the contiguous United States experiencing drought conditions – the sixth most widespread drought on record, second only to the 1930s “Dust Bowl” and the less well-known droughts of the mid-1950s. Satellite imagery confirms what common sense would predict; crop yields and plant health in the affected areas look very grim.

Farmers and ranchers are bracing for a bad year; corn and bean farmers will see high prices at the silo but will have poor yields. Ranchers are especially concerned because feed prices are going up while their own pasturage is brown and crumbling; early-season stock reports from major cattle centers indicate a large surge in animal sales as ranchers attempt to get out from under the looming feed bill.

In the short run, I would not expect to see huge fallout in the grocery store. Because corn is inexpensive to begin with, even a 50% increase in the price of corn translates into a 1% bump in a typical shopper’s grocery bill. (The increase this summer so far is 45%.) Meat prices are likely to be more volatile; there may be a bit of a bonanza for steak lovers in early days as a glutted beef market clears its stock, but later in the season and next year there may be less beef in the pipeline.

The drought exemplifies the need for prompt action on the 2011 farm bill, in my view – agricultural experts already estimate there will be more than $1 billion in crop insurance payouts in 2012. If those insurance programs aren’t renewed, it could leave a lot of farmers holding a very expensive bag.

Farm Bill Struggles in House of Representatives

Alex Tiller - Saturday, July 07, 2012

US Department of Agriculture head Tom Vilsack is pressing the House of Representatives to pass the farm bill that recently was approved by the Senate. The farm bill, a monster piece of legislation that is handled by Congress twice in each decade, is the basis of US agricultural policy, setting priorities for USDA research grants, crop and farm subsidies, food stamp and other food security program budgets, and disaster insurance coverage for farmers and ranchers.

Vilsack warned that without a bill, current disaster coverage provisions which are set to expire on September 30, 2012, would not be renewed, potentially leaving farmers and ranchers without government-provided coverage in the event of a natural disaster, crop failure, or other catastrophe. Republican leaders in the House express concern over the size of the farm bill (more than $500 billion) and fear that they might not have the votes to pass the omnibus spending measure in the current deficit-wary environment. The measure passed in the Senate by 64-35.

If the bill does not pass, an extension to the previous bill would be a likely compromise measure, but such an extension would not automatically extend disaster coverage. The new bill ends direct payments to farmers who do not plant any crops, redesigns a number of existing crop support programs, and is expected to cut the Federal deficit by modest amount over the next ten years.

House conservatives want cuts in the food stamp program, which by itself makes up about 80 percent of the farm bill’s $100 billion in annual spending. The Senate bill cuts about $4 billion over ten years, but Republicans want a larger cut in a program which has become controversial because of efforts by the Obama administration to actively recruit lower-income Americans onto the food stamp rolls. Republicans want the cuts increased to $14 or $15 billion over ten years.

An Agriculture committee vote on the bill is scheduled for July 11, 2012, and the Republican chair of the committee says he will try to get floor time for the bill following that meeting. Some GOP leaders want the bill delayed because if it is not enacted quickly it would likely become part of the year-end negotiations on budgetary issues, and at that time larger cuts would be easier to win at the bargaining table.