30
Jul
12

Comparative advantage: it works, bitches!

So nearly two years ago, Andrew Sullivan scoffed when Matt Yglesias hailed chain restaurants as the tip of the spear for healthy, responsible eating.  In 2010, Sullivan wrote:

Sure, McDonald’s, Chili’s, The Cheesecake Factory, and countless other chains disclose their nutritional information – and their customers ignore it. Meanwhile, they’re serving enormous portions of relatively unhealthy food.

Now he’s citing Mike Roberts, former president of McDonalds, who’s trying to establish a “radically sustainable, healthy brand of fast food”:

The former Golden Archers hope to transform the way the world produces organic ingredients, doing for responsibly grown meat and veggies what McDonald’s did for factory-farmed beef. These days, the utopian vision of responsible agriculture is premised on a return to small and slow. If Roberts is right, though, we’ll have to swallow a paradox as preposterous as a vegan Whopper: The nirvana of eco-gastronomy may at long last be attained, but only thanks to the efficiencies of supply-chain management.

*ahem*

I fuckin’ told you so!

That last sentence — about the efficiencies of supply-chain management — deserves some elaboration, because it’s a key point that most locavores miss.

It seems intuitively obvious that “small and slow” farming and a hundred-mile diet ought to be less resource-intensive than large-scale factory farming.  After all, it’s easy to see the acres of feed corn harvested by diesel-spewing combines and carried by truck and train to mills, thence to be operated upon by enormous machines of cast iron and rust and oil, and then put back on a truck to get to a factory farm and be stuffed (with added antibiotics) into a caged and shackled cow, which is then herded into yet another truck and driven by yet more exploding dinosaurs to a slaughterhouse, stunned, dismembered, ground up, formed, freeze-dried, wrapped in plastic, stuffed into a box, and put onto a truck to get shipped to McDonalds where it gets thawed and cooked and stuffed into a bun before you pick it up from the drive-thru in your truck.  That’s an awful lot of hydrocarbons burned compared to grass-fed Bessie grazing placidly up the road at your local farming co-op.

But all the machinery that goes into making a hamburger patty that costs McD’s well less than the $0.99 they’ll charge you for a hamburger — it doesn’t just go into one burger, or even into the meat of one cow.  It gets amortized over millions of cattle per year.  Hauling, say, fertilizer by the shipping container-load might look less efficient than tossing a few bags in the back of your Prius (and how did it get to wherever you bought it in the first place?), but per kilo of plant food that Mack rig is a lot more efficient.  Were you somehow to produce anywhere near as much food by “small and slow” means as by letting each part of the supply chain focus on doing what it does best — hence the title — you’d need a lot more land and a lot more people devoted to farming.

Even then, good luck producing anywhere near enough food to feed six and a half billion people — and if you manage to do so you’re likely to be feeding most of the population soy and lentils (and, if you get over your fear of GMOs, particularly well-bred potatoes).  So, locavores, up for a return to a time when only the very rich could afford to eat meat on a regular basis and the “lower orders” suffered from chronic nutrient deficiency?  You first.

I have no love for feedlots that pump corn into caged cattle, for which reason I wish Mike Roberts and &c. the very best of luck.  But as Mr. Yglesias said way back when, it’s big chains that can leverage small efficiencies and amortize away transaction costs that’re going to turn healthy, ethical, and sustainable food from a status symbol of the rich into an honest-to-balls staple.

Advertisements

4 Responses to “Comparative advantage: it works, bitches!”


  1. 1 Matthew Walker
    July 31, 2012 at 04:19

    In a civilization where everything involves energy, could the price of your lettuce tend to correlate roughly to the amount of energy that went into it?

    Last time I asked a yuppie-greenie about what that implied about Whole Foods, she said NO NO NO THEY HAVE YOGA MAGAZINES. The one before that explained that it was “sustainable energy”.

    Of course, my hypothesis may be total bullshit. That’s always a strong possibility.

    • August 2, 2012 at 21:01

      I don’t think energy’s the dominant input in terms of price. I like your style, though.

      NO NO NO THEY HAVE YOGA MAGAZINES

      Magazines are pretty dense things, therefore heavy, therefore require a lot of energy to ship around the continent. Those yoga magazines probably have one hell of a carbon footprint.


Leave a reply; use raw HTML for markup. Please blockquote quotations from the post or other comments.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


anarchocapitalist agitprop

Be advised

I say fuck a lot

Categories

Archives

Statistics FTW


%d bloggers like this: