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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

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

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

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

Yet look at this graph, published by John Hearfield last


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.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist