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'Sustainable' & superficial

| Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The pervasive proclamations issued by government officials, college professors, U.N. bureaucrats and Hollywood entertainers in favor of “sustainability” sound nice. But slogans aren't solutions. Merely declaring support for a good result hardly amounts to a serious analysis of how to make that result a reality.

The “sustainability” movement is populated with too many people who commit the classic offense against good economics: They assume that nothing exists except that which is immediately visible to the untrained eye.

Consider a favorite cause of the sustainability movement: locavorism. Champions of “sustainability” assert that, because local foods don't have to be shipped very far to their final consumers, such foods are more “sustainable” than are foods grown and raised at great distances from where they are consumed.

This analysis appears sound to people who are blind to all but the resources used to transport foods from farms to dining tables. Yet transportation consumes only a small portion of the resources required to feed us. Labor, fuel, water, irrigation equipment, tractors and other farm tools, fertilizers, pesticides, packaging and (of course) land must also be used.

What effect would eating only locally grown foods have on the use of these other resources? Locavores seldom ask this question.

Fortunately, this question has been asked by sensible economists.In their splendid 2012 book, “The Locavore's Dilemma,” Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu conclude that the ecologically and economically best diet is one with foods from all across the globe. Among the most important reasons is that the amount of resources required to eat only locally grown foods would be stupendous.

Some lands and local environments are better suited than are other lands and local environments to growing particular kinds of crops. Obviously, South Florida is better suited to growing citrus than is Western Pennsylvania. This fact, however, doesn't mean that Pennsylvanians couldn't grow all of their own citrus. They could indeed do so if they were to build many huge hothouses.

Yet not only would such hothouses divert land in Pennsylvania from other valuable uses, these hothouses would have to be heated — a very energy-intensive procedure. We can be reasonably certain that the fuel costs of heating such hothouses are greater than the fuel costs of shipping oranges from Florida to Pennsylvania. The reason for our certainty is that if the transportation costs were greater than the costs of heating the hothouses, Pennsylvania farmers could earn profits by growing citrus in hothouses. These farmers would be able to sell their crops to Pennsylvania supermarkets at prices lower than the prices that those supermarkets now pay to stock their shelves with citrus fruits from Florida.

But in reality, no farmers in Pennsylvania grow citrus in hothouses — a pretty good sign that the amount of resources required to operate citrus hothouses there is greater than the amount of resources used to ship citrus to Pennsylvania from Florida.

What's true for citrus is true for wheat, peas, beef, pork, you name it. The lowest-cost place for producing any particular type of food is seldom close to home.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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