Even better than vertical farms

Two articles you should read if you’re interested in eating local, growing local, building local, buying local, or any of the other ways that geography, economy, and environment intersect:

* The first is an article from a few weeks ago, detailing the destruction of the domestic catfish industry due to rising prices for oil, corn, soybeans, and other commodities. All meat is getting more expensive, but catfish doesn’t have the advantage of being a dietary staple.
* The second is a long article on the ways in which rising fuel costs have started to unravel some of the global supply chains that were built on the premise of cheap transport. Shipping chicken to China to have it processed before being shipped back to the U.S. for consumption doesn’t make quite as much sense when shipping costs have almost tripled in the past decade.

Both articles provide as good an excuse as any to make an obvious point: prices matter. If you’ve got a problem with a lot of moving parts, price is often the best way to push change through a complex system.

Maybe you think that, say, vertical farms could be a great solution to various environmental problems. But you worry that vertical farms come with their own environmental costs (construction, heating, lighting, etc.), and you also know that other solutions might just be cheaper or more technically feasible.

So rather than trying to figure out how to “fix” the food production system, you should just favor a global carbon price. Then the difficult environmental math will neatly resolve into easy financial math. Like the catfish farmers, furniture makers, appliance manufacturers, and everyone else, growers will figure out the best way to get produce to market, whether by vertical farm, zeppelin, dune buggy, or whatever. (Carbon is not, of course, the only environmental problem, but let’s keep this somewhat simple.)

It’s easy to despair over the sheer complexity of choices in a globally integrated world. Is pasture-raised New Zealand beef better or worse than factory-farmed American burgers? How do locally grown hothouse tomatoes stack up against the field-ripened varieties from farther away? To a decent approximation, carbon pricing really is the universal acid that dissolves these questions away.

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  1. Samantha - August 6, 2008

    This is the first time I feel like I really understand carbon pricing at all. Thank you, Adam. And astute of you, I think, to allow that people will work out the most efficient way to realize the advances.

  2. James - August 6, 2008

    I agree with your points and thank you for them. One of the social aspects of lifestyle change now occurring with higher energy costs is that people will change their long established behaviors to minimize rising expenses. As long as these are understood to occur as a consequence of energy use and carbon-generation, people will change. In this way, I believe a carbon “tax” or carbon-offset surcharge will move society along faster toward using renewables and diminishing our reliance on fossil fuels.

  3. Ben - August 6, 2008

    When companies pay taxes, customers actually pay that tax in the risen price of the commodity. Middle class yuppies can afford this, but food prices are already skyrocketing and the poor will be unable to afford food. Many Middle and South Americans are starving because corn prices are making the corn tortilla unaffordable. We may be able to pay a little extra carbon tax and have to skip out on one aspect of affluence, but there are people in the world that are dependent on low food prices.

  4. James - August 6, 2008

    I could not agree more, Ben. As the grandson of Southern farmers and a gardener, it is evident that distribution of resources related to food and water are grossly inequitable across the planet, even across the USA. I think what is needed is a reevaluation and reimplementation of food and resource distribution. Having said that, a lesson learned from hiking the tax on tobacco is that people stop buying them. The media is reporting that more people in the USA are growing their own food and this looks to be a great way for all of us to raise our awareness regarding food and water resources distribution. Hopefully, our own country will see that the major challenge of the early 21st century is not fightiing wars over fossil fuels, but is to rather create a just and sustainable civil society.