Eat Local, Save Fuel! (True or False?)

We often fall into the trap of acting on emotions, not facts. It certainly makes us feel good to feel like we’re doing something positive. But being a grownup requires discipline, common sense and thinking instead of feeling. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our approach to energy and environmental policy.

One example: the “eat local” movement seems to be getting some traction among concerned urban types. The premise: It must be a horrendous waste, in this post oil-peak world, to transport your strawberries by jet from New Zealand and your haricots-verts and arugula from California, when you can get them at the quaint little Farmer’s Market or a funky co-op in town. Furthermore, industrial farming is not only bad, but doomed by the shortage of energy [link]:

The age of the 3000-mile-caesar salad will soon be over. Food production based on massive petroleum inputs, on intensive irrigation, on gigantic factory farms in just a few parts of the nation, and dependent on cheap trucking will not continue. We will have to produce at least some of our food closer to home.

Not so fast, according to the blog “Peak Oil Debunked”.


The inconvenient truth is that inefficient gasoline guzzling lies at the very heart of the local food model. And, as we’ve seen, this totally defeats the purpose of local food:

In the worst scenario, a UK consumer driving six miles to buy Kenyan green beans emits more carbon per bean than flying them from Kenya to the United Kingdom. Source

Here’s a quick calculation to give you a feel for the problem. Suppose Joe Sixpack gets in his 20 mpg vehicle, and drives 4 miles to pick up a pack of hot dogs at 7-11. This will consume 0.4 gallons of gas per pound of hot dogs (1 pack = 1 pound).

Now, a semi truck gets about 90 net ton-miles/gallon, assuming that it makes the return trip empty. So a semi can deliver a load of hot dogs (20 tons) coast-to-coast and return empty on 1333 gallons. That translates to .03 gallons per pound.

In other word, Joe Sixpack will burn 13 times as much fuel, per dog, driving to 7-11 than the semi which brought those dogs 3000 miles across the country.

Now, I’d be the first to admit to the superiority in taste and texture of locally-grown tomatoes, but in terms of fuel efficiency, that container of trey-balls from California’s Central Valley has them beat by a mile.

Our national policy makers on energy and the environment are thoroughly infected with feeling as opposed to thinking. What could possibly feel better than using a fuel that we grow? Well, it turns out that corn-based ethanol is a sham economically and a disaster environmentally.

What could possibly feel better than staking our energy future to the wind and the sun? Nothing, except maybe using energy sources we have now, at least for the time being, until we see if wind and solar can be efficiently scaled up from the miniscule percentage of the energy pie that they currently provide.

What could possibly feel better than sticking it to Big Oil and Big Coal? Given that the fossil fuels provide 85% of today’s energy picture, it’s mighty foolish to think that we can raise taxes on them, or otherwise alter the economics of their business, without making the bulk of our fuel supply significantly more expensive in the future.

Congress is highly reactive to a short attention span, “feeling vs. thinking” electorate. The typical voter considers herself well-informed on a technical subject if she’s seen a relevant segment on 60 Minutes. Watching an hour of Oprah is likewise tantamount to a PhD. We, as a society, need to stop this nonsense, and get some grownups involved for a change.

P.S. This episode made me remember this anecdote:

The First Arab Oil Embargo hit in 1973, when I was a freshly-minted driver (on weekends I was hell on wheels in my Dad’s three-on-the-tree 1964 Rambler American). For the first time, Americans were conscious of gas mileage and fuel waste.

A letter to the editor of the local newspaper noted: “18 wheelers get only 2 miles to the gallon. A Toyota Corolla can get 35 mpg. It’s outrageous that 18 wheelers get such poor mileage, in the middle of an energy crisis!”

It doesn’t require much ciphering to puncture the letter writer’s logic. Imagine using Toyota Corollas to distribute, say, refrigerators.