Guest post: Michael Shuman parries the latest local-versus-global lunge

"Lamb in the Shire" by Sixintheworld on Flickr

"Lamb in the Shire" by Sixintheworld on Flickr.

On August 6 the New York Times published an op-ed by James E. McWilliams, a self-described passionate "eat local advocate" and the author of “A Revolution in Eating,” that made the most-emailed list and inspired many a blog post. (Gristmill’s comments section has the best debate.)

Basically, McWilliams asserted that local food in many cases is not better for the environment than its globally sourced equivalent, but actually worse; his main point is that the eat-local movement needs to take more than food-miles into account. Reader Melanie pointed us to a longer, more nuanced version of McWilliams’ argument in the Texas Observer. Meanwhile, lots of bloggers have fixed on the study McWilliams cited about New Zealand lamb having a smaller carbon hoofprint than U.K.-raised.

Lucky for us, Michael H. Shuman, the author of "The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition" (Berrett-Koehler, 2006), doesn’t have his own blog, and he’s sent The Ethicurean his unraveling of the lamb conundrum to publish.

On the lamb

By Michael Shuman

Congratulations to the New Zealand lamb-export industry for getting a gullible New York Times to publish an op-ed recycling its claim that its product is better for the global environment than locally produced lamb.

The argument, however, is more than a little bit woolly. The industry-sponsored study cited turns out to be dressing up an environmentally dreadful product in benign sheep’s clothing.

Here’s what James McWilliams wrote on August 6:

Researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand…recently published a study challenging the premise that more food miles automatically mean greater fossil fuel consumption….[T]hey found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard.

Who were these esteemed researchers? One, Caroline Saunders, heads The Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit at Lincoln University. Assisting her was Andrew Barber, an Agriculture Engineering Consultant with a private consulting firm called The AgriBusiness Group. I don’t begrudge New Zealand’s desire to protect its export industries, but these researchers are hardly agenda-free.

The July 2006 study [PDF download] compared the typical industrially grown sheep in the two countries, and showed that New Zealand’s agribusiness players are a bit better in their ecological practices than their British counterparts. It’s a little like saying that a new SUV contributes less to global warming than an old gas-guzzling Cadillac.

The explanation of most of the difference in the two country’s carbon emissions turns out to be coal. Typical British farmers use more electricity – both directly and indirectly for the processing of its fertilizers, feeds, and additives – and are thereby saddled with the emissions from lots of dirty coal plants. New Zealand has lots of hydroelectric dams. So those poor bionic sheep in the United Kingdom inherit a huge carbon price tag. This also means that as the British move toward renewable energy sources, as they plan to do, the New Zealand carbon advantage will vanish.

What the New Zealand study really stands for is how awful industrial agriculture is for the environment in both countries. James McWilliams says that “poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed.” Force? The use of industrially produced feeds, chemicals, and electricity is a choice. And, again, the movement toward organic and natural alternatives can erase New Zealand’s carbon advantage.

Then there’s a little accounting problem. Buried in page 19 of Dr. Saunders’ report is the qualifier that “the transport of the finished product within New Zealand, the UK and any other country involved is not included….” This covers up one of the big disadvantages of New Zealand lamb, since it has to be trucked twice, once from the farm to a New Zealand port, and then again from a British port to the supermarket. On pages 43-44 we learn, moreover, that trucking transport emits four times more carbon per ton than the sea transport assumed by the researchers. Correction of this mistake would eliminate about a quarter of the Kiwi advantage. (Assuming air transport, as is necessary for fresh food, also would have totally undermined the study’s conclusion.)

More importantly, what has any of this to do with buying from, in McWilliams’ words, “a producer in the backyard?” This study did not compare a locally and organically grown lamb in, say, Sheffield, with an exported Kiwi lamb – though that’s what the study’s authors and McWilliams suggest.

Real localization would eliminate most of the carbon emitted by product transportation – and erases more than half the carbon advantage claimed by New Zealand’s exporters.

Transportation, moreover, is only small piece of the waste inherent in a conventional nonlocal food system. Analysis of a typical food dollar spent in the United States by Stewart Smith, former Secretary of Agriculture in Maine, suggests that 73 cents go to distribution, 20 cents for inputs, and 7 cents to the farmer. Only a small part of distribution is transportation. Most of it is refrigeration, packaging, wholesalers, advertisers, and so forth.

In other words, the Lincoln University team in New Zealand analyzed only about a third of industrial agriculture system, and ignored the two thirds of the system that can be substantially cut down through localization.

The Saunders’ study is a nice promo for the New Zealand lamb industry, but it’s a lousy piece of analysis. It’s an embarrassment that the New York Times so sheepishly republished this disinformation about local food systems. Real localization means avoiding environmentally unsound inputs of outside fertilizer, feed, and additives. It means pruning away the vast economic waste associated with ad agencies and middle people. It means avoiding trucking food around either nationally or internationally. Account for these items comprehensively and fairly, and local food wins out environmentally over global food almost every time.

Michael Shuman ( is Vice President for Enterprise Development at the Training & Development Corporation of Bucksport, Maine. In addition to "The Small-Mart Revolution," he is the author of "Going Local."



5 Responsesto “Guest post: Michael Shuman parries the latest local-versus-global lunge”

  1. Melanie says:

    Thank you, Michael, for the deeper analysis and for the link to the original study.

  2. Jillian says:

    The concept of “local” in New Zealand and Australia is something I’m grappling with, bieng in Australia, so this story is fascinating to me. These are both remote, sparsely populated countries with a heavy reliance on export agriculture, with our food supply — in Australia at least — concentrated into a few areas that supply the whole country.

    Perhaps it’s because I’m looking for it, but I’ve noticed a number of stories that begin as agriculture features and end up promoting agribusiness exports: this one on the live export of sheep from Australia, for instance, for Middle Eastern markets.

    The Australian livestock industry says live exports cannot be replaced by slaughter in Australia because refrigeration infrastructure is so poor in many export markets. The RSPCA is opposed to live exports because of the suffering of animals on ships and because authorities have no control over how the animals are treated after landing. Mrs Dundon [a meat industry representative from Australia, moving to the Middle East to oversee the live exports for industry groups in Australia} travelled on a live export ship last year and said “the sheep are just so happy. They are just sitting down chewing their cuds and the standards are excellent.”

  3. Sasha says:

    I am going to posit another local-global dilemma that perhaps will reframe this a bit. What about flooding parts of the sacramento delta with soon-to-be-even-more precious water to grow high priced americanized basmati rice? How about intensive irrigation to grow local produce in the 110 degree Phoenix desert? It IS important to think about what the implications of local-first food policies can be. Selling through farmers markets can mean that wealthy, white consumers get access to heirloom tomatoes and pastured eggs, while their poor black neighbors are forced to take 3 buses across town or perhaps just resort to “community gardens” on sites saturated with toxic runoff. Local-oriented food can be just as unjust and laden with power as industrial food. That isn’t to say it is necessarily negative, but just that focusing on food miles as the most important criteria in judging a food system IS dangerous. One of the lessons of the local food revolution that we are in is that ecological, systems-oriented solutions are often better in the long term than linear solutions. The food miles solution / argument borders on the linear. Less miles = better and more socially / environmentally responsible food. It’s a great PR strategy to engage those who have never thought of these issues, but they leave the movement open to co-option. Instead we should focus on promoting an argument that is about social and environmental justice, not just a one-dimensional proxy.

  4. Grondahl says:

    Mr. Shuman -

    Thank you for your analysis in response to the NYT article. The Economist printed a similarly critical article several months ago.

    As would be expected from an agribusiness voice, the very question of ‘which lamb has a smaller carbon footprint’ is somewhat misleading because it contains the assumption ‘we should be able to eat lamb anytime we want to’. As the analysis reveals that lamb from both sources are poor choices environmentally, it seems we should consider eating little to none of it regardless of the source until better options arise.

    Morally, do we have a responsibility to give up a personal habit if it proves to be harmful to others? Its a concept thats hard for well-off westerners to swallow, but we need to start getting by on less.

  5. nigel says:

    That is hardly a deconstruction. And good luck feeding the Population of the UK from locally sourced produce. I also advocate locally sourced produce, but it may not be the best option in every situation.
    Unlike NZ’s dairy industry, NZ lamb production is still  based on a low intensity pastoral system, i.e. much of the energy comes from the sun – not hydroelectric! and the nitrogen component comes from clover, not energy intensive synthetic nitrogen. That is the difference. Also it is largely produced on hill country not suitable for crops (good luck finding much of that locally in the UK).
    Lamb production in NZ is efficient, and is also a viable utilization of hill country. Lamb will always be more efficient than beef, and people are going to eat primary protein (lets hope they will eat less though) so lets encourage them to do it efficiently.