Friday, August 20, 2010

Local, schmocal

The New York Times ran my Op-Ed today about the fallacies of the "local food" movement. As I noted in the lede, nobody beats me in the eating-local department: here on Black Sheep Farm we raise our own lambs plus most of our vegetables for three seasons of the year. There's undeniable advantages in freshness, variety, and preservation of open space that accrues from local agriculture.

The problem is the way the food gurus have turned the whole "locavore" thing into one of those doctrinaire, authoritarian, and joyless religions that all too often make environmentalists their own worst enemies.

Their first mistake is one of proportion and context. As I pointed out in my piece, transportation is in fact a trivial component of the total energy inputs that go into our food system. (Among the greatest energy hogs: your home refrigerator.) You may have heard environmental oracle Bill McKibben claim that it takes 97 fossil fuel calories to bring one food calorie of iceberg lettuce across the country. But that's the total energy needed to grow that lettuce, from seed to dinner table. Of that 97 (actually it's probably more like 70) calories, only 1 or 2  was used to haul that lettuce across the country in a train or tractor-trailer. For the same energy expenditure it takes your local organic farmer to haul a load of produce 20 miles from his farm to the farmers' market in a pickup truck, you can send that same amount of food across the whole country in a freight train. Here's the breakdown of energy consumption in the U.S. food system, courtesy of the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems:

The larger point is that not only is it not really bad to eat non-local food: eating food from a long way off is often the single best thing you can do for the environment, as counterintuitive as that sounds. The relative pittance of energy we expend on "industrial" agriculture (agricultural production consumes just 2% of total U.S. energy use) pays huge environmental dividends which the organic and local gurus always ignore: intensive farming via chemical fertilizer and machinery have spared literally hundreds of millions of acres for nature that would otherwise have come under the plow. (For a brilliant analysis of this, see the study by Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the clearest thinkers on the subject of agriculture and land use.) So two cheers for that California lettuce.

More seriously: environmentalism ought to be about pragmatism, not dogmatism.