Does being a locavore add up?

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As I’ve argued before (here) there are a number of reasons why buying food locally is probably the least sustainable basis on which to base your food buying preferences.

First, transport is only a small component of the total carbon emissions from agriculture.

Second, most food can’t be grown locally without resorting to potentially environmentally damaging practices like excessive application of fertiliser, irrigation or artificial heating of greenhouses.

Third, even where the local area is suitable for growing certain foods, it might not be the most environmentally efficient location for a particular food.

Fourth, producers in more distant locations might have superior farming practices to local growers. Fifth, the environmental and economic cost of moving people is higher than the cost of transporting their food.

Now Stephen Budiansky has assembled an array of interesting factoids in this NY Times oped, Math lessons for locavores, to show the folly of being a locavore. He’s a stylish writer so you might want to read the full article; otherwise here are a few key quotes:

  • “Whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.
  • It takes about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail; that works out to about 100 calories of energy. If it goes by truck, it’s about 300 calories, still a negligible amount in the overall picture.
  • The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.
  • A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers’ market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy. Just running your refrigerator for a week consumes 9,000 calories of energy. That assumes it’s one of the latest high-efficiency models; otherwise, you can double that figure.
  • The total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.
  • it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.
  • The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy.
  • Eating locally grown produce is a fine thing in many ways. But it is not an end in itself, nor is it a virtue in itself. The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being”.

7 Comments on “Does being a locavore add up?”

  1. Mahyar says:

    Interesting article, as always. I bet many a permaculturist disagrees with you.

    I think the issue of peak oil needs to be addressed at some stage too.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Defenders of the ‘food miles’ argument seem to be declining in number and influence. It seems to be a view that’s increasingly confined to empty-headed status seekers.

      I accept the logic of the peak oil argument. The problem is too many people haven’t factored in the fact that markets will adapt to changing circumstances i.e. to higher prices.

  2. Moss says:

    Good blog, but I suppose one issue that you haven’t considered (and it may be outweighed by all of the negatives you have posted anyway) is the value to the local economy in terms of money circulation, local employment, low entry costs at farmers’ markets for farmers selling produce as a way of alleviating poverty, the pleasure of buying from a person at a market instead of at a supermarket, etc etc.
    Just sayin’…

  3. Mike says:

    Always enjoy the blog, even if I think you are weakest when discussing food and ag. Almost no one argues that consumers should buy whatever is produced locally, without considering how it was produced. That is just silly. And it ignores how people actually shop.

    People buy from farmers’ markets, for example, because they are interested in how the food was produced, how it tastes (that is factored in to the local purchase decision) and who produced it (the narrative adds value to the product). They also want to support farmers, knowing that keeping farmland in production will help to retain green/rural spaces near our cities. Carbon emissions (food miles etc) is the factor that people are least interested in (according to surveys). I think you are demolishing a straw man here really.

    It is inconvenient for developers and those who rail against the UGB and other land use regs, but there are numerous reasons why it makes good sense to grow certain crops or farm certain animals near Melbourne. The climate in the Yarra Valley is ideal for grapes for eg, the soils in Koo Wee Rup are the best in Australia for asparagus, etc etc. Having farming in these areas supports tourism and the local economy. There is tremendous potential (already happening) to recycle waste from the city into agriculture.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Mike, it might be a straw man to people such as yourself who take a keen interest in these issues but I don’t think it is for lots of ‘lay people’. For them, the idea that eating locally is more sustainable is an understandably convenient (but inaccurate) shorthand.

  4. […] effect, as I’ve discussed in various contexts before (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). These are not fundamentally issues of land use […]

  5. Alan Davies says:

    Update: Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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