Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Locavore bashing in the NY Times

There's more to being a locavore than just food energy costs and miles travelled.

Yet, the author of the op-ed piece, Math Lessons for Locavores, in the NY Times argues that:
The local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by "locavores," celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like "sustainability" and "food-miles" are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use...

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus.

I would argue the author is using the same math legerdemain to support his case. He's ignoring the "buy fresh" part of the equation. I'd like to see where he's getting his numbers and how his calculations compare to food grown in season, that don't require excess energy inputs (e.g. a hothouse, etc.). You know, the kind of food that locavores generally choose. Yes, growing tomatoes in a hothouse in NY is going to take a tremendous amount of energy inputs, but again, that's not what being a locavore is about.

Being a locavore has a lot to do with supporting local economies, creating a stronger local food security net in addition to eating foods in season. Not just avoiding trucked in tomatoes in the middle of winter.

What do you think? Is being a locavore just about food miles or is it a lot more than that?


Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

The NY contributor makes some interesting points about the relative costs of trucking produce vs. trucking people to the Farmer's Market. However, I think he's just picking a fight, because local food is about a lot more than food miles.

Choosing fresh, locally grown food means that you can choose your farmer, look them in the eye and ask questions about how the food was grown. Herbicides? Pesticides? Biodiversity on their property? Watering practices? Energy use? Topsoil preservation? Labor practices? Ignoring these important issues, which most locavores care about, is a misrepresentation of our values.

Local ranchers will let you visit and see that your eggs are TRULY free range and the cows are TRULY completely grass fed, not fed antibiotics, and that they are slaughtered locally so that they do not have to endure days of travel without food or water.

Eating locally is one step to eating whole foods, in season, which is healthier for the family.

Choosing local food often means buying from smaller farmers who are maintaining a knowledge base and who can offer meaningful choices, rather than consolidating all food into a giant monopolized agribusiness.

Despite assertions to the contrary, local food is where the real innovation is at. We need more than corporate assurances that genetically modified food is going to feed and improve the world, contrary to all evidence and contrary to the plain fact that the only goal of a corporation is to enrich the top corporate officers and the shareholders.

We need the efforts of local farmers to figure out how to grow food regionally - and to be done sustainably, and done in a world of less affordable energy, this requires intelligence and knowledge - not just treating our soil like dirt while we drench it with chemicals and ride over it with machines the size of houses.

And finally, local food offers a return to local resiliency, where communities can trust food that is grown by people they know using just, humane, and sustainable practices that don't degrade our topsoil and our water.

The NY author does make bring up an important issue - it's not JUST about local food. It's about local, sustainable, ethical, food, and that's what any true locavore is looking for.

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Robj98168 said...

I think he is picking a fight. There is more to it than food miles- there is fresh fruit and veggies that are obviously better and packed with more nutrition. That, and I still believe that it is important to know where the hell the food comes from. I want to know that organic methods where favored. I want to know that the animals where treated ethically.

Greenpa said...

Hey Crunch. Yeah, that op ed caught my eye, too. Wow, what a load of uncomposted intercontinental bullshit.

Example. "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."

Um. NO. So, he's been reading the rail industry ads. Good for him.

Folks, we REALLY have to learn to think for ourselves. THINK.

Does that "pound of freight" GET TO the train all by itself? Uh, no. It got their on a truck; or a donkey, or whatever. Uh- more energy, there.

Tell me; did it go from the field right to the train- picked, packed, and off we go? No, it didn't. It went to a packing house, where it was wrapped in plastic, and refrigerated for several days, while enough accumulated to go on the donkey. Then it waited in a refrigerated warehouse, for the train. Then it went on the train- in a refrigerated car. Gosh, more fuel, you think?

And on the other end. Did it leap off the train into the consumers' mouths? Uh, no. More trucks; more refrigerators; usually several before actual distribution to a home or restaurant.

He's an idiot; or a liar, if he's actually able to think past railroad advertising.

The rest of his "points" are similarly shallow and misleading.

ew. So, the editors at the NYT are apparently unable to think, either? Why would they print such blather?

Greenpa said...

oh, god, I can't stand it.

"Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for just 2 percent of our nation’s energy usage; "

Sure, if you're including nuclear, coal, and hydro. ON the other hand, if you're looking at "fossil"; according to the UN, ag uses about 20%. Google it.

"that energy is mainly devoted to running farm machinery and manufacturing fertilizer. In return for that quite modest energy investment, we have fed hundreds of millions of people, liberated tens of millions from backbreaking manual labor"

Uh, check your reality, carefully. Millions are starving, millions are obese, and the biggest problem facing humanity after environmental destruction is... the fact that billions of humans now have not one useful thing to do with their lives.

Unknown said...

I think he's both technically correct and missing the point. "Local" like "organic" used to be short hand for a whole set of complex ideas and techniques. "Organic" used to mean, for example, a farm practicing soil building, ecosystem restoration, integration of domestic animals into the fertility management plan, direct marketing, etc. But now it just means food grow using "organic" inputs and not "chemical" inputs which, at this point, comes down to what is OMRI listed and what is not. Now the term organic does not address any other aspect of food production except what kinds of chemicals touch the food (with a few exceptions, like GMOs... which isn't an issue of chemical inputs but which is restricted, for the moment, under organic certification).

Local has kind of gone the same way. It used to mean people who ate locally and seasonally because no one interested in sustainability thinks it's reasonable to buy tomatoes in Maine during February from greenhouses heated with fossil fuels. (However there might be a way to get tomatoes in Maine in winter using a combination of passive solar, compost generated heat, geothermal priming, and biogas for example). So what was local was seasonal.

Discussions of calories used to produce food versus the calories in food was just one of many metrics used to compare old-school, slow, seasonal and often indigenous agriculture with modern, quick, environmentally and socially expensive agriculture.

However people don't want to take time to read the whole discussion. They just want the sound bite... the short, simple instruction they can use to make a decision now. I totally get why people are like this. It is very complex. The sound bite is: "decrease your food miles". Beyond those of us who are specifically interested in the details of agriculture no one discusses the social, political, cultural and environmental costs of local vs organic vs conventional vs seasonal vs combinations of approaches.

So we should probably stop thinking of "food miles" and "local" as equivalent ideas. When we say "food miles" we really mean greenhouse gas pollution. We don't even mean pollution in the larger sense (like eutrophication of streams or the toxic effect of agricultural chemicals on farm workers, children, and animals) . However when we talk about "local" we mean the kind of economic, political, social, and cultural impacts we have in addition to how much our food pollutes.

And to complicate matters further, the answer to the question "what should I eat" is incredibly locally specific. I don't mean that the answer is always local food, rather that the answer varies from location to location.

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Brad K. said...


John Michael Greer (ArchdruidReport, makes the point that there are two complementary approaches to agriculture - intensive (garden) and extensive (field).

With intensive gardening you use lots of labor for the return. Extensive growing is an exercise in economics. Until 2005, it made economic sense to throw money at growing crops, and energy - the return for the energy and money made a profit on the exercise.

Continuing the same agribusiness approach with factory farms, Monsanto "Round Up Ready" corn and soybean seed monopolies, artificial fertilizers, etc. now that we are at the end of the era of cheap energy - is a problem. Ten years ago, by one report, Saudi Arabia broke even with oil at $18 a barrel. In 2009 they needed a price of $68 a barrel to break even. As the rest of the world recovers from the recent economic meltdown, the demand for oil will return to the levels that drove $150 per barrel oil.

The calculations on returns, for cost of seed, fertilizer, equipment, etc. for just a few years ago - may not apply to the 2010 growing season, and likely won't apply next year.

Turning to forms of agriculture that aren't dependent on intercontinental transport of food and fertilizer and chemicals may make a lot more sense today and tomorrow.

Keep in mind that Monsanto has a *lot* of money riding on wringing a few more years out of the current system. Just look at what they are trying to implement with S.510, the "Food Safety Administration" bill, that would enforce, under federal law, prescribed "scientific" methods of raising food for people and animals. Finding out where the writer got the story, and how much money and other resources changed hands, might prove interesting to the story.

Anonymous said...

It's ironic that this article, which seems to be a front job for the big ag companies, appears at the same time as a massive national recall of tainted eggs. We are lucky enough to have easy access through multiple farmers markets, CSA's and stores to truly local producers who give us clean, real food. This article sounded like a put up job. It is about the miles but it's also about eating food in season that tastes like the real deal. Anyone who bought what this guy was selling would probably buy one of those hard pink things that they sell as tomatoes.

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

The author clearly doesn't get it. RE: the tomato... there is no need to truck in tasteless crunchy tomatoes from California! Eat something else and wait for the tomatoes to come in season.

Cynthia said...

The author obviously interviewed only people that share similar views. He has not done an appropriate job in interviewing a wide range of locavores. (Probably why he's in editorials and NOT a real journalist).
It's about SEEING where your food comes from. KNOWLEDGE of the people who grow your food. KNOWLEDGE about how their growing your food.
CASE IN POINT: recent egg recall. Am I worried about MY eggs. NO. I know the person who sells me my eggs. I see the chickens every week, running around a vast pasture with access to clean water.
This author is just some elitist who is afraid to know that his food was alive at one point. He's comfortable believing meat is grown on styrofoam under a plastic wrap rather than knowing a large hair covered creature is the source of that meat. If he doesn't know the source, he can believe himself to be better than those farmers and ranchers who provide his food.

Anonymous said...

Grrrr. The article drives me crazy. I do wonder if it is just fronted by big ag and honestly, I don't care what they say. I like buying my food from a local farmer. I like helping preserve the agricultural land outside our cities. I like how great local food tastes - so fresh! I like knowing that my stuff is not going to be recalled along with the hundreds of thousands of eggs, spinach, tomatoes and whatever's next sold by big supermarkets. I like local. And that's enough.

psmflowerlady said...

I actually didn't read the article, but have read the comments here. Given that the article was in the NYT, I wonder what impact the author's location had? I live in a rural area of OH where local agriculture is an important and vibrant part of the economy. Local here is easy, seasonal doable but by no means easy. My perception of the comments here lead me to believe that perhaps his story isn't particularly representative of a diverse geography. Also, not having read the story, I wonder if he calculated the energy used beyond food miles to include the energy required to make the styrofoam, shrink-wrap, sorbant pad, ink print on sticker, etc. What about the petroleum-based, single-use trays, cardboard packaging, etc. - were these considered? What about the miles to the landfill to haul away all the packaging? It sounds like a very simplistic attack on a very thoughtful movement. I wonder what "inspires" such levels of tunnel vision attacks? I'm sure he never considered the farmer who not only sells REAL food, but knows you well enough to ask how your canning experience with that real food turned out? Wonder if he knows his farmer well enough to take a bushel of beets home on the promise to bring the money by next week cause he forgot his checkbook? And although I've never met the author, I'm CERTAIN he has no idea what the sheep's name is whose fleece he just bought. Poor guy.