Andrew Martin of the New York Times, who last week clumsily questioned the environmental value of eating locally, today puts another stone in the scale with an article titled "Food and Fuel Compete for Land." Martin points out that the cost of food in your local supermarket is rising, thanks to a few factors.
- The diversion of corn crops to ethanol production, which has led to rising prices for animal feeds of all kinds–including a really worrisome competition between farmers who want malt barley for their animals and brewers who want it for beer.
- The rising cost of the oil used to transport food.
- Increasing international demand for what were previously luxuries, like meat, milk, and eggs.
What could possibly ease such a situation? Martin considers energy policies, but comes to no conclusions.
Now, I’m not an economist, but it seems to me fairly obvious that bringing more land into production would help to keep food prices down. And since the entire Northeast is littered with failed dairy farms, why wouldn’t it make infinite sense for somebody to grow food on that wasted land?
Setting aside for the moment all debate about the environmental value of the eat-local movement, there seems to be a powerful economic argument for it.
Indeed, I’ve noticed over the last year that prices at my local farmer’s market have begun to seem downright reasonable compared to the supermarket. This suggests that whatever questions Martin has about the carbon value of growing locally, local farmers are somehow doing something more efficiently. Using less oil?
Meanwhile, another story in today’s Times underlines the argument for localizing food production: "World Food Supply is Shrinking, U.N. Agency Warns." With ever more mouths to feed, global warming threatening agricultural areas, land that once grew crops for people now growing crops for biofuels and feed, and the increasing cost of oil, it is time to rethink, according to Jacques Diouf, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Mr. Diouf suggested that all countries and international agencies would have to “revisit” agricultural and aid policies they adopted “in a different economic environment.” For example, with food and oil prices approaching records, it may not make sense to send food aid to poorer countries, but instead to focus on helping farmers grow food locally.