Ken Meter.Going loco: A locavore does the real math

By Ken Meter, executive director of the Crossroads Resource Center

Posted Friday, August 20, 3:30 pm PDT

Like Stephen Budiansky, I can walk a few steps outside my front door for some of my food. I did so last night, in fact, racing the impending darkness to pluck a few roma tomatoes and about 20 basil leaves, to combine with fresh garlic I had procured on a farm visit last week. It made a simple, and deeply satisfying pasta sauce.

Unlike Mr. Budiansky, however, I was not calculating food miles — I thought of the farm where I worked 30 years ago, which raised the tomato sets I planted in late May. I relished the full flavor of ripe tomatoes that were sweet and deep red. I remembered the friend who gave me basil seeds this year, and I recalled the economic wisdom the Iowa farmer imparted as he sold me ten garlic cloves for me to take on my journey home. As I watched the darkness settle, I thought of all the ways my meal had connected me to others — in ways I could never imagine had I purchased this meal at a restaurant, or bought the ingredients at the grocery store.

Waking with these memories, I was happy to notice in this morning’s Times that Mr. Budiansky referred to data I have used many times as I speak around the U.S. Indeed, as he points out, the largest portion of energy used in my food chain is my domestic use — which starts with the fact I drive a heavy car for miles just so I can carry home a few paper bags full of fresh foods to store in my cupboard, refrigerator, and freezer, and continues as I cook for myself on an electric range. Each of these steps consumes energy inefficiently.

Yet this is precisely why I raise some of my food very locally, and buy or barter what I can from nearby farms. I am well aware that this vast system of energy consumption we call my food supply chain consumes 17 percent of all the energy used in the U.S. each year. As a nation, this energy use costs $139 billion.

Yet unlike Mr. Budiansky, who appears to have consumed himself in counting calories and food miles to tell me things I already know, thereby puffing up his own imagined sense that I need “math lessons,” I have noticed that oil supplies are peaking. In 20 years, I have no reason to assume that this massive fossil-fuel-based system will be able to find the oil it needs to bring foods to local stores, let alone whether I will be able to afford price of that energy. I want to bring those sources of uncertainty a little closer to home, where I can see them.

I have also thought quite a bit about why my home use is the most expensive part of the energy equation. It’s a matter of infrastructure: the food system has externalized the costs of its operation onto my shoulders. If I lived in Paris, for instance, I would be able to walk to a fresh produce market at least one day each week, because public policy long ago determined that fresh foods should be brought close to where people live. This creates efficiencies I do not enjoy in Minneapolis. On the other hand, if a large tomato grower in California decides to mechanize, they can write some of these costs off against their taxes. If I wanted to build a root cellar, I would have to pay full fare.

The U.S. has invested in infrastructure that conveys relatively inert foods long distances with remarkable efficiency, at least as long as external costs such as leaking oil wells, oil wars in the Middle East, and depreciation allowances are not considered in the equation. As a result of this remarkable technical prowess, U.S. farmers have doubled productivity over the past 40 years — and now earn $40 billion less by farming than they did in 1969 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).

Meanwhile, our nation pays $174 billion to treat the medical impacts of obesity, and another $152 billion to cover the costs of food poisoning, which claims the lives of 5,000 Americans each year. If those two costs seem like a lot of money, they are — they total more than all the money earned by all the nation’s farmers each year selling all the crops and livestock they produce. But that’s not all. Farmers have paid $600 billion more paying in
terest on loans over the past 96 years than they have received in federal subsidies. Most of that money went to the financial system, which is to say that farmers shouldered the costs of the recent bank bailout by subsidizing the banking system. Meanwhile, 89 percent of all farm family income comes from off-farm sources.

Make no mistake about it, Mr. Budiansky’s essay is an act of propaganda, meant to discourage what has become the largest social movement of my lifetime, using pseudo science. Many of the facts he chooses have a rational basis. Yet they don’t add up to the story he attempts to tell. He urges us to calculate costs on the basis of the “larger picture of energy and land use,” and then narrows his own base of evidence to close calculations of specific food items by various modes of transport. Indeed, he seems not to know the larger picture.

I raise tomatoes in my garden, not so much to save on food miles, but because raising food is an aggravating and intensely rewarding way of learning about nature, and of connecting to people on my block. I get my fingernails dirty in part so I have more skills to survive in uncertain times. Since I don’t know what is coming down, I want to foster local food businesses that create local economic efficiencies. All I really know for sure is that the answers that are local are the ones I have more chance to affect, and that the answers that build connections with other people are the ones most likely to last.

I build a new food system because the one we have is so fundamentally broken, even at low oil prices, and because we have no choice but to build a new one.

Food-system analyst Ken Meter is the executive director of Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis and a former independent journalist covering food and trade issues. His “Finding Food in Farm Country” studies galvanized local foods activity in 45 regions in 20 states and in one Canadian province.

Next: Kerry Trueman, cofounder of EatingLiberally.org