If music be the food of love, play on, says Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night. But if food be the oil you burn, it may be tough to play on. Consider this: The average farm gate-to-store distance rose by about 25 per cent between 1980 and 2001, as Jeff Rubin writes in ‘Why Your World is about to get a Whole lot Smaller’ (www.landmarkonthenet.com).
He describes a food court in the mall of the office building where he works as ‘the United Nations of greasy food’ with Thai, Indian, Chinese, Tex-Mex and Japanese food stalls. “Virtually nothing served in the disposable packaging at any of these booths is grown anywhere remotely close to Toronto.” Even the bottled water, he adds, is flown in across the Atlantic Ocean from some spring in the Black Forest in south-west Germany.
Air travel burns forty-four times as much energy as shipping does; and so, when the lettuce in a British shop comes even from relatively nearby Spain (about 1,000 miles away), it still takes 127 calories worth of aviation fuel for each calorie that salad yields in food energy, Rubin observes.
Down Under, the situation is no different, he finds. “One Australian study found that a basket of twenty-five familiar supermarket goods had travelled over 43,500 miles from farm to table – nearly twice the distance around the earth. (A significant part of that – over 12,400 miles – came just from getting around within Australia.)”
Are these kinds of culinary choices sustainable in an economy of triple-digit oil prices, the author wonders? In the new world of expensive oil and carbon tariffs, global cuisine, with its reliance on exotic imported ingredients, will soon be on the way out, he declares. “Local fare, marketed under a green banner, is already on its way in.”
In a chapter titled ‘coming home,’ Rubin discusses how oil prices can change relative transport costs between China and Mexico, for servicing the North American market. “At $30 per barrel, American importers pay 90 per cent more to ship goods from China than from Mexico. At $100-per-barrel oil, importers pay 150 per cent more to ship from China. At $200 per barrel, it will cost three times as much to ship a container from China than one from Mexico.”
These shipping charges are not trivial no matter how cheap Chinese labour is, he notes. At transport costs that come with triple-digit oil prices, the competitive advantage for a factory in Chengdu in China would be ‘the same as having to pay a 20 per cent tariff on the widgets you export to the US while your Mexican competitor would be free to sell its widgets duty-free in the American market.’
Interestingly, the same cost considerations are behind relocating from Mexico to the US. The example cited in the book is of Crown Battery Manufacturing, which recently relocated jobs from its plant in Reynosa, Mexico, and repatriated them to its Ohio home base. “If you are making a 29,000-pound battery to run underground mining equipment in southern Illinois, even a 2,000-mile trek from a plant in northern Mexico may now be too costly at triple-digit oil prices,” reasons Rubin.