Friday, October 10, 2008

The Cost of Eating Locally

I love the idea of eating locally and sustainably.

On the other hand, we've had roast chicken for dinner twice in the last two weeks. The first was produced by a neighbor of ours who has a farm somewhere in upstate New York, Washington County I think. The chicken was organic and free range. It was delicious, far, far superior to a Perdue chicken (which we haven't eaten in years) and better than a Bell & Evans. It cost about $22.

The second was from Trader Joe's, which is based in California and has a store in Darien. I have no idea where the chicken was produced but I doubt it was anywhere near here. The chicken was organic and free range. It was delicious, far, far superior to a Perdue chicken and better than a Bell & Evans. It cost about $11.

In other words the local chicken -- presumably the more "sustainable" chicken -- carried an $11 premium over the comparable Trader Joe's chicken.

Unfortunately in this case, sustainable for the environment does equal sustainable for our budget.



Blogger Sam said...

Isn't that something? Then, think that the cheaper chicken probably was trucked in from a great distance, which much more greenhouse gases and air pollution. Seems odd.

Oh well, just be glad you didn't have a to tour a real industrial chicken slaughtering operation. That is probably the most disgusting thing you will ever see. You will much prefer the man with a chicken coop and an ax, trust me!

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

I'm not sure about the GHG/trucking issue. Consider a ton of processed chicken shipped by truck, or any other freight for that matter. I submit it takes about the same amount of fuel (and the same amount of GHG) to transport the ton of product 600 miles (from the processing plant to the grocery store) as it does for 20 cars to make a six-mile round trip the grocery store with 100lb of groceries. If 20 people drove to a local chicken farm to buy chicken and then drove to the grocery store for the rest of their groceries, they could conceivably double their GHG emissions.

It's based on a back-of-the-envelope calculation I did that hasn't been vetted. In brief, trucks are about 100 times more efficient per ton of load than cars, presuming cars are limited to 100-lb loads.

I'm not making the argument (presuming its correct) to put local food sources in a bad light. Rather, I want to show the impact of our individual habits and car trips have on GHG emissions. In this case, the "envelope" is the limited to transportation only. I expect that if the envelope were expanded to include the GHG emissions (or savings) of the local producers vs. food factories, the local chicken may come out ahead GHG-wise. But that analysis is beyond my abilities.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Good points, Bryan. But with GHG you have to take into consideration not only the direct and shipping costs of all those chicken, but their feed as well. The feed take tractors, fertilizer, more trucks, another industry to process feed, and another truck. Free range chickens that eat bugs and are allowed to consume some old grain fields for any seed don't have this problem.

Then those organic "industrial" chickens are blast frozen, which take a tons of electricity. You get your local chicken cooled in the refrigerator, never frozen (I hope).

I know there is an economy of scale when shipping by ship, train, and truck, at least 30,000 pound loads. But at the end of the day, you still have people having to take a car or mass transit to the store - unless you like in a city with a supply of fresh killed chickens around the corner.

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

I can see where all those things would favor the locally produced/grown food product with lower GHG emissions, for all the reasons you state. It would be an interesting exercise to see it figured out, egg-to-plate, so to speak. Maybe Michael Pollan has already tackled it. I'll have to check.

Of course, we could both end up surprised at the answer. My calculations for trucking vs. cars actually came about from a discussion on another blog that started with the GHG emissions of large container ships. It's easy to imagine the sight of a large ship with a stack spewing smoke from diesel or residual. What I was surprised to find out, again, based on my unvetted calculations, was that a super-container ship sailing from Hong Kong to Long Beach emits as much (as little?) GHG per unit weight of cargo as 20 cars hauling 100lb of groceries for six miles.

You're much more familiar with things maritime than I am, so maybe this isn't counter-intuitive to you, but it was to me.

It also explains why a bottle of French wine might represent less GHG emissions if bought in NYC than a bottle California wine. Shipping the wine (literally) from France to NYC might very well emit less GHG than trucking it from Napa to NYC. This isn't an original thought of mine. I've read it elsewhere; perhaps on Sphere.

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

Coincidentally, there was a recent article in the WSJ that addressed other household goods. I just read about it on the TerraPass blog.
It seems that intuition can get in the way sometimes.

3:01 PM  

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