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 already linked to several times from Grist, exploring 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, urban 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.)

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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 many of these questions away.

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