Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Driverless Cars and Locally Sourced Foods


Why don't locally sourced foods compete successfully with products shipped halfway around the world? Protectionism? Conspiracy?

Well, sometimes. But more likely it is because today's transportation/distribution system is largely indifferent to the distance food items travel to their final destination. This is true not only for foods that can't (or shouldn't) be produced in the markets where they are consumed. A lot of Chilean wine is consumed in San Francisco, and Napa is not far away.


The real reason is containerization - the "magic box" in a system of large scale containerized transport and logistics. Essentially any item in this system is effectively closer to consumers than locally produced products.

For example; a Costa Rican banana enters a supply chain that is as efficient as it is expensive to alter. Each link of that chain from producer to consumer is enmeshed in a tight logistical and financial choreography that straddles borders and continents, with the final one connecting the Safeway distribution center your local Safeway arguably the most difficult to break.

In addition an increasingly congested highway/urban transportation infrastructure means that locally sourced food is at a disadvantage in terms of price and (potentially) environmental impact. Consumers that seek out local alternatives often do so at the cost of a larger carbon footprint derived from small load transport to farmer's markets and the consumers own travel footprint.

Will driverless vehicles change this equation?

Initially only very little. Small businesses will spend less on local transport. Mid-size consumers (restaurants and small markets) will be able to access more local goods more reliably. Food coops will be able to reach customers at lower cost and greater frequency.

But the real change will come very slowly as distributors take advantage of the flexibility of driverless transport. As the labor and congestion costs that drive large, consolidated  loads diminish, the switch to smaller loads and less centralized distribution will give smaller producers greater opportunities to access the supply chain. The ultimate hope is that driverless transport systems are fundamentally more flexible than the ones they replace, creating the space to build an economy that more closely reflects our values and goals as a society.

With all the disruption this change is likely to cause it is important that every positive outcome be pursued. There is a huge opportunity to expand and diversify agricultural employment, to satisfy the growing long tamil of consumer demand, and take advantage of market opportunities wherever they exist.  Locavores everywhere should seize the opportunity when it arises, and focus on the advantages this technology provides them.




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