In the long emergency, how far will we ship our lettuce?

A couple of months ago, Coco raised a great question when I was riffing about the amusing implications of shipping lettuce from the Imperial Valley to Albuquerque so I could feed it to ants:

Not enough water to grow lettuce in the Middle Rio Grande? Maybe someday. Depends.

Someday, not enough cheap oil for schlepping lettuce from the imperial Valley. That’s more certain.



So here’s my lazyweb question. What portion of the cost of a head of lettuce at the local UberMart can be attributed to the fuel needed to ship it from California to Albuquerque? And how sensitive, therefore, is the cost of that lettuce to, say, a doubling of the cost of that fuel?

(image courtesy U.S. Department of Energy)


  1. I worked this out once. I think an upper bound on the cost of shipping a tomato from California to Maine is a penny and a half.

    A head of lettuce from California to New Mexico? Less than a half cent I guess.

    There are good reasons to eat local but the Long Emergency/Peak Oil isn’t one of them.

    What tripling transportation prices will do will be to make heavy low-value-added products local, not light high-value-added products. If you have no local source of lumber, construction prices will go up. No gravel? Roadbuilding prices go up. No peach trees? Don’t worry about it.

    However, your lettuce might not come from California, because California agriculture depends on water shipped uphill. Water itself is a heavy low-value-added product, so it doesn’t ship well, particularly when it has to cross a mountain range. In a peak oil scenario, the strange set of subsidies that prop up the Imperial Valley will probably fail in some strange way involving lots of lawyers.

  2. Michael –

    Thanks, your comment does a great job of usefully reframing the question. It’s really a question of all the energy inputs, not just the energy needed to ship it. So my little thought experiment also needs to consider the energy for tractors, fertilizer, etc.

    Re the energy needed for irrigation, in fact the Imperial Valley is one place that doesn’t require water pumped uphill. Its strange history, in fact, depends on that fact. But in that regard it’s an aberration, so the fact does not negate your point, which nevertheless applies to a great deal of California and Arizona ag. In fact, I was just typing up some notes from interviews I did while I was in Arizona last month, and was reminded that the Central Arizona Project, which was founded as an ag water supply system, is Arizona’s largest electricity consumer – 2.8 million mwh per year.

  3. Eventually rail lines in the US will be electrified, which is capital intensive but energy efficient. Even for CO2, Eli appears to recall that you do better with electrified lines than diesel electric (diesel loks generate the electricity on site as it were).

    However, one thing that is on the edge is sea transport, the low cost of which has driven off shoring. That goes over the edge at $100 oil.

    Better ask whether we can then afford Chinese mushrooms and garlic to go with the salad.

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