Archive for August 20th, 2010

An Op-Ed yesterday by Stephen Budiansky in the NYT argues that the local food movement is not necessarily as green as it seems:

Studies have shown that 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…

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. (For those checking the calculations at home, these are “large calories,” or kilocalories, the units used for food value.) Overall, transportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system…

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…

Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for just 2 percent of our nation’s energy usage; that energy is mainly devoted to running farm machinery and manufacture fertilizer…

Don’t forget the astonishing fact that 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.

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.

Budiansky argues that there is nothing good per se about locally grown food. I really don’t know where I stand on this. I’m also unsure whether the industrial farming yields cannot be matched by best-practice organic techniques. It is certain that fertilizer and pesticides have a range of environmental costs. Either way, I think Budiansky has a point. The broader abstraction from this story is that consumers are easily fooled by green buzzwords. Redefining values on positive, reality-based terms is certainly the way forward. Anna Lappe provides some in Grist.

When we talk about our ecological food values, we’re focusing on the importance of interconnections and of the complexity of a truly sustainable food system. As agroecological farmers like to remind us, sustainable food is not just defined by the absence of chemicals — it’s about the creation of a healthy ecosystem, especially healthy, carbon-rich soils.

As for the locally-grown movement,

The answer, Kim explained, has to do with values — community values. “Our producers see themselves as responsible for the health and well-being of the consumers. And the consumers, they know the farmers and see very clearly how they’re responsible for their well-being,” he said.

I think there’s real value in people being closer to what they eat for this reason. Rather than being alienated from food that we buy in a grocery store, we can have a relationship with something that is grown in our backyard or a community garden down the street. Focusing on misleading energy-use statistics, as Budiansky rightly points out, is not the way forward. Neither, though, is dimissing the locavore movement out of hand. There are very real and meaningful values behind these shifts in consumer preferences. It’s best that they be harnessed for good and not co-opted by Monsanto and Wal-Mart.

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