Do locavores really need math lessons?
Our first topic is whether locavores — those who prefer to eat food grown nearby, versus that grown thousands of miles away and trucked or flown in — are misguided in thinking their food choices are helping to save the planet, as argued in a provocative Aug. 20 op-ed, “Math Lessons for Locavores,” by Stephen Budiansky in the New York Times.
Grist’s food editor, Tom Philpott, kicked off the debate. We’ve asked a diverse menu of thinkers to weigh in, and we’ll post their responses in reverse chronological order through Tuesday. Jump to:
- James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly
- Elanor Starmer, Food & Water Watch
- Dave Love, Center for a Livable Future
- Blake Hurst, Missouri farmer
- Jennifer Maiser, founder of Eat Local Challenge
- Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet
- Jill Richardson, author of Recipe for America
- Ken Meter, food-system analyst
- Kerry Trueman, cofounder of EatingLiberally.org
- Tom Philpott, Grist food editor
By James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly
Posted Wednesday, August 25, 2:45 pm PDT
Reading Budiansky’s piece, and the responses to it, and the responses to the responses, and the responses to the responses to the responses, I’m struck with a frustrating sense of déjà vu. Déjà vu because Budiansky’s arguments echo the ones I made in 2007 in the Times, déjà vu because the criticisms of Budiansky’s article are the exact same ones leveled at mine, and déjà vu because the tenor and tone of the debate — from both sides — remains characterized by a sharp dose of vitriol, defensiveness, overstatement, and ad hominem angst. Granted, this might be what passes for discourse in the age of the Internet, but surely, as intelligent people who care about food and agriculture, we can overcome.
I suspect that the entire lexicon of this debate — one which I am as guilty of perpetuating as anyone — is flawed. Our accepted dichotomies — conventional/organic, small/industrial, free range/confined, local/global, etc. — are useful in getting articles published, but they only make sense at the extremes. Most of agricultural life, however, happens between the extremes, and it is for this reason that all of us engaged in these knock-down-drag-outs should start forthrightly acknowledging that the positions we hold so dear actually face enormous challenges, ones that will require genuine compromise in order to solve. How will our food system improve if we smugly embrace our favored positions while dismissing the enemy as either hippie/yuppie-elitists or corporate shills who do little more than build straw men?
Other than nastiness, what’s the point?
Now to Budiansky’s piece. Here’s what I take from it: food miles can be an inaccurate gauge of overall agricultural sustainability. By implication, there’s room for large farms to grow a lot of food responsibly according to the laws of comparative advantage and ship it globally. Seems reasonable enough. But, as Anna Lappe wisely notes, comparative advantage — not to mention market logic in general — rarely happens in the real world. Interest politics inevitably intervenes. Which leaves us with a problem: there are many theoretical advantages to consolidating the food system — food can be cheaper, more accessible, more reliably diverse, and less dependent on extensive land and labor — but the underlying realities — perverse incentives, trade agreements, and subsidies — too often prevent these advantages from being realized.
So what should we do about this problem? A growing contingent of privileged consumers believes we should cut and run, live our culinary lives “beyond the barcode,” and cultivate our own foodsheds. This response also seems sensible. Anyone who has witnessed the tangible benefits of a genuinely regionalized food network will understand the power of its appeal. But, as Elanor Starmer points out, not everyone has the choice to opt out and hit the farmers market. For many reasons, local food choices aren’t a reality for most consumers.
And thus we face yet another problem: the recognized benefits of a local foodshed are numerous, but — while small might be beautiful — small is also expensive and, in turn, prone to exclusivity.
Which makes me wonder: can the economics of local agriculture work for everyone in a global economy? Is there a way to take these well-developed local food systems and multiply them to the point where a significant majority of Americans — not to mention global consumers — can eat a significant majority of their food from local sources? And if so, will consumers be willing to limit their diets to seasonal availability?
Given these concerns, I think pieces such as “Math Lessons for Locavores” (which, by the way, I generally agree with) have run their course. Instead of making us rethink a common assumption, at this point in the game they do little more than drive the debate deeper into the trenches. As I have tried to point out in this brief response, reforming the way we eat will mean cooperatively addressing a series of very tough questions:
- How can global food be consistently safe and environmentally sound?
- How can local food become more accessible, affordable, and capable of serving a diversity of socio-economic groups?
- How can responsible industrial agriculture (not an oxymoron) and responsible local agriculture work together to serve the myriad interests of a global population expected to reach 9 billion or so by 2005?
I have a few ideas, as I’m sure you do as well. We’d
be wise to start a constructive dialogue rather than reduce the complexities of food and agriculture to yet another unproductive food fight.
James E. McWilliams is currently a fellow in the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University. An associate professor of history at Texas State University, he is the author of three books, most recently Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. His other books include American Pests: Our Futile Attempt to Conquer the Insect Empire from Colonial Times to the Death of DDT (Columbia, 2008) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia, 2005).
By Elanor Starmer, Food & Water Watch
Posted Monday, August 23, 2:45 pm PDT
As it happens, I was already doing some food calculations the day Budiansky’s piece ran — but not of the sort he discussed.
My numbers included the following: As of Friday, 450 million eggs originating from two Iowa egg operations — both of which buy feed and chicks from the same company — had been recalled from stores in 14 states for salmonella contamination. These days, record-breaking food recalls are happening with disturbing frequency. We won’t soon forget the 2009 peanut recall that affected nearly 4,000 products; the 2008 recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef, the largest of its kind in history and which included beef distributed through the National School Lunch Program; or the 2006 recall of E. coli-contaminated bagged spinach that sickened hundreds in 26 states.
There’s a common theme underlying all of these food disasters. Each case involved one company processing or selling an ungodly amount of product to retailers and consumers across the country. This phenomenon is called “concentration,” or the control of a market by a small number of companies. And it’s come to our food system at a pace rivaling the takeover of our airwaves by reality TV shows.
The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what’s grown here and what’s grown elsewhere. It’s about having any sort of choice at all.
I live in the Bay Area, where our year-round growing season and ample supply of farmers markets make it relatively easy for me to access food grown by much smaller, local farmers. I suppose that makes me a locavore. But when I buy local food, energy use is not the driving rationale (no pun intended). I buy from a variety of local farms when at all possible because if I don’t, I will probably be eating from a stream of food that has passed through the hands of a tiny number of massive companies. And if those companies’ hands have salmonella all over them, well — look out, world.
The two companies involved in last week’s egg recall were relatively small as far as these things go, controlling only about 1 percent of the U.S. egg supply. In contrast, virtually our entire meat supply is controlled by four — soon to be three — companies: Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield, and the Brazilian powerhouse JBS, which is vying for a Smithfield takeover. (Grist’s Tom Philpott does the meat math here.) Cargill and two other companies process more than 70 percent of U.S. soybeans, which are in turn fed to livestock and added to processed food products as soy lecithin and other ingredients. And most of our corn — a staple in livestock feed and present in virtually all processed food — is grown from seed developed by one of two companies.
What does it mean when so few companies control so much of our food? It means that unless we happen to live in a place with a lot of local farmers and the infrastructure to process and distribute their products, we have virtually no control over what we’re eating or feeding to our kids. If these companies choose to raise meat using hormones and antibiotics (and they do), or grow corn from genetically-modified seed (and they do), then that’s what we’ll have access to. And if one thing goes wrong at one of those companies, we all risk being affected.
So here’s my message to Mr. Budiansky: The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what’s grown here and what’s grown elsewhere. It’s about having any sort of choice at all.
Here in California, where most of the nation’s retail spinach and lettuce is grown, Fresh Express bagged salad mixes could be considered local, using the metrics laid down by Budiansky. But if I have a choice, I won’t buy their products. With one other company, they control some 80 percent of the market for bagged greens. In the last three months, their products have been recalled on three separate occasions for listeria, salmonella, and E. coli contamination. According to FDA data crunched by the Community Alliance for Family Farmers, nearly 99 percent of all food-safety outbreaks related to leafy greens have come from bagged products like the ones Fresh Express produces: greens that are washed in massive vats with tons of other greens, put in sealed plastic bags, and transported over long distances to supermarkets around the country.
Luckily, I have other choices, so the phrase “vote with your fork” actually applies to me. Elsewhere, consumers are not so lucky. That’s why, as locavores work to re-democratize, diversify, and decentralize the food system, exercising actual democracy — getting involved in the policies that shape our food system — becomes so important. We can’t buy our way out of the problem if we don’t have any choice about what we buy.
This year, for the first time in history, the USDA and the Department of Justice are conducting a series of five hearings on concentration in food and agricultural markets. They’ve heard from farmers, consumers, and industry representatives about whether it’s a problem that so few companies control the seeds we use to grow food, or our poultry or milk supplies. On Friday, they’ll convene in Ft. Collins, Colo., to hear about the meat market. Ranchers from across the West will be there in force, hoping for some respite from the grinding challenge of making a living when you only have one company to sell to and the prices it offers are anything but fair.
Next year, Congress will start debates over the Farm Bill, that legislative behemoth that shapes how our food is grown, processed, and distributed. There’s money in there to revitalize local and regional food systems, to move our food supply from governance by fiat to something more democratic. Will the money be used for these purposes? That’s up to us.
Budiansky laces his op-ed with mischaracterizations of all kinds, but the one I find most egregious is his accusation that the local foods movement is based on “arbitrary rules” and “do-gooder dogmas.” In reality, this movement is not about rules or dogmas, b
ut about values. Last time I checked, democracy was pretty fundamental to this nation’s evolution — a value that all but the most curmudgeonly of us should be able to get behind.
Elanor Starmer is the Western Region Director at Food & Water Watch, a national consumer advocacy group, for which she authored the report “Bridging the GAPS: Strategies to Improve Produce Safety, Preserve Farm Diversity and Strengthen Local Food Systems.” She is also a regular contributor to the Ethicurean, on which a version of this post first appeared.
By Dave Love, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
Posted Monday, August 23, 1:10 pm PDT
I agree with Mr. Budiansky that freight is by some measures cheap, and that the interstate system and trains are convenient conduits from farms to distributors to markets, although this idea is not so new.
A more interesting question to tackle is: what does the desire to be a locavore say about our disjointed food system, and is there room for improvement by developing regional food systems?
Mr. Budiansky’s argument runs thin when we take a hard look at what consolidated industrial farming and food animal production “return to our land,” as he puts it. It is difficult to be in favor of a farming approach that relies upon mono-cropping using genetically modified seeds and synthetic fertilizers. Likewise, food animal production facilities make for poor neighbors when their (virtually unregulated) wastes and associated land application and spray-field sites spread allergens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria throughout farming communities.
So why pick on locavores? Because when they seek local food, they may also be seeking to buy organically grown or raised foods, from small to mid-sized farms, which can impact entrenched agribusiness interests. Changing food preferences and buying habits may be changing the way food is grown, distributed, and consumed.
For example, the American Meat Institute was defensive when the Meatless Monday campaign, for which Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future serves as a scientific advisor, suggested on NPR that reducing meat consumption one day a week could be good for your health, by potentially reducing saturated fat intake. It isn’t surprising: the average American spends about $550 annually on meat. If the conventional food-animal industry improved production methods by removing growth-promoting antibiotics and recognizing animal welfare, both the quality of their products and the perceptions of their customers may increase.
Food decisions carry weight, and so the lesson here is to speak with your fork and the farms will follow!
Dave Love, Ph.D, is a project director at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and regularly contributes to the livablefuture.com blog. He is a microbiologist with a background in public health and environmental science.
By Blake Hurst, Missouri farmer
Posted Monday, August 23, 10:42 am PDT
Jason and Colleen have started a winery. They’ve planted seven acres of grapes and last year, they made their first batch of wine in their basement.
We bought a bottle, which they had sealed with some sort of hot wax. Took a Swiss Army knife and a bit of farmer ingenuity to get it open. We went back to their winery last week for the grand opening of their new facility. Tasting bench in the front, made out of a beautiful piece of hand-finished native walnut. Their two kids playing in the back. They were so proud of their new business, and so glad to see every customer who came in the door, that it quite literally brought tears to my eyes. The wax seal is gone, the second year of wine is better than the first, and we’ll be customers for life.
I haven’t a clue whether their winery is less of a burden on the environment than a large corporate winery several states away. I’m glad to support a local business, happy to bring some agricultural diversity to our corn and soybean area, proud that my dollars will remain in my extended community.
Local food advocates ought to admit that size often does mean efficiency, that some areas are better suited to the production of some crops than others, that some food will efficiently travel a long ways before it is consumed.
Local food is a worthwhile endeavor without an environmental story, and doesn’t need one to thrive.
In fact, the case for local food is damaged by the stubborn refusal of locavores to admit that buying from local producers don’t necessarily save energy, and local production can often demand more application of pesticides and more intensive management than food grown far away. The humid Midwest and South can raise fruits and vegetables, but there are challenges from pests in the middle part of the country that growers in the arid West don’t face.
I’d rather eat a Missouri apple, but it has had a more perilous life than one from Washington State. Making claims that are so easy to dispute harms what is in most other respects an admirable effort to improve our diets and the farm economy of places like the one where I live.
A final thought, one won with some hard experience. Along with corn and soybeans, we raise flowers. We first started selling them at the farm, and then at a local grocery store, and finally to a regional garden center chain. We have consistently had to go farther in search of sales in order to have a viable business.
We love our local customers, and appreciate them, but our county only has 6,000 people. Without trucks and deliveries over a 250-mile radius, our flower business would not support our family.
In every sense, we’re the kind of family farm that is focus of the local food movement, but we can’t survive without shipping our product. Some crops and some areas just don’t lend themselves to local production, or local markets.
Blake Hurst is a farmer in Missouri and vice-president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation. Last July, he wrote a much-discussed essay, “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals,” countering opponents of industrial farming, for The American magazine, and is the author of the essay collection Real Life.
By Jennifer Maiser, founder of Eat Local Challenge
Posted Monday, August 23, 10:15 am PDT
There are many people more qualified to speak to Mr. Budiansky’s numbers and global economics than I, but I thought I’d remind everyone that food miles are a very small part of the reasons to eating locally.
I came to locavoreanism from a food-lover perspective. When I arrived in San Francisco over 10 years ago, I started going to farmers markets and finding a strong community built around eating food that had been out of the ground for hours instead of weeks, around supporting farmers whose names I knew, and around the seasons. As I watched summer tomatoes give way to autumn figs, then winter greens and — joyfully — spring peas and strawberries, my tastebuds awakened to a whole new way of eating.
It was only later that I started to think about the larger impacts of the way that I was eating. I support a local economy where the dollars stay close and are reinvested into counties near me. I look my farmers in the eye, ask them about their farm inputs and growing practices, and make decisions about who I support with my dollar based on those answers. I buy from farmers markets where foods don’t need to be packaged and few are refrigerated. The farmers who put food on my table generally are trying to have a light impact on the earth, and that shows through the way that they produce food.
As Ken mentions, there are so many factors to eating locally, and we locavores don’t total food miles or energy expended as we are eating our meals. When I am tasting my breakfast of scrambled local eggs with the first good tomatoes of the season, I’m not really doing any math whatsoever — I’m thinking of the farmers and the well-treated workers, and of the amazing flavor of my meal.
Not insignificantly, when we ask folks to eat locally, we are asking them to eat whole foods that are rarely processed. If the only thing that encouraging eating locally accomplished was getting people to eat more whole, real food, and less processed non-food, we would be taking large strides toward getting our nation healthier. Attacking obesity by getting folks out of the supermarkets and into the farmers markets is an important byproduct of encouraging the consumption of locally grown food.
Does eating locally give us a carbon footprint “out” because it saves so much energy that we don’t have to pay attention to the rest of the lifecycle? Not at all. We need to pay attention to how we get to the farmers market, how we treat our food when we get it home, and how much food we waste. But eating locally is a joyful step in the right direction — for our economy, our community, and our local sustainable farmers.
Jennifer Maiser is the founder of Eat Local Challenge, a website which encourages people from around the country to try eating locally. She will be hosting the sixth annual Eat Local Challenge in October 2010.
Posted Sunday, August 22, 10:45 am PDT
Ditto, ditto, ditto to Ken, Kerry, and Tom’s well-articulated reactions to Budiansky. I thought I would pipe in with a few more points.
Budiansky argues that we should be advocating for raising crops in “places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies.” I remember hearing all about this economic argument in graduate school; it’s called “comparative advantage.”
In principle, all reasonable people — and I put most locavores in this category even if Budiansky doesn’t — would agree that choices farmers make about what foods to grow, and what time of year to grow them, should be informed by place. I haven’t heard of any locavores advocating for Hudson Valley pineapples.
But a food system based on a simplistic notion of “comparative advantage” is far from the reality of industrial agriculture that Budiansky seems to be defending, and much closer to the one we locavores are fighting for.
In the real world, here’s what happens — and what the sustainable food movement, locavores among them, is working to change: North Carolina becomes the second-largest home of pork in the country, not because pigs have some particular penchant for the Outer Banks, but because the state’s lax labor laws appealed to pork producers and so did the government’s incentives to lure companies like Smithfield.
Another example: The United States comes to dominate the global market for corn (we control 71 percent of the market) not because corn is the best crop we could be growing, either for the ecological health of the Midwest or the physical health of consumers, since most of it is used for high-fat feedlot meat, high-fructose corn syrup, exports, or ethanol. No, corn’s “success” in those uses was made possible in large measure by U.S. government policies propping up the biggest industrial corn growers with $73.8 billion in subsidies from 1995 to 2009.
The reality of our food system has never been, and will probably never be, the result of this mythological “comparative advantage” in a free market. And agribusiness insiders know this. Referring to grain, an Archer Daniels Midland executive once said, “The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians.”
What we grow and where we grow it is the predictable result of massive public subsidies to the largest industrial producers. In this context, the question that we locavores are asking is what kind of support and subsidies should we have, directed at which outcomes, and in whose interest? Do we want a food system that subsidizes chemical farming and feedlot meat production — the kind that has given rise to foodborne illnesses sickening hundreds of thousands every year and spreading salmonella causing a 380 million egg recall? Or one that fosters sustainable practices, fairly paid farmers and food workers, clean water and healthy soils, all while bringing us affordable good-tasting food?
If only Budiansky would really listen, these are the questions we locavores are asking.
Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, sustainable food advocate, and mom. The founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund, her latest book is Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It. Anna is also the co-author of Hope’s Edge, with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, with Bryant Terry.
By Jill Richardson, author of Recipe for America
Posted Sunday, August 22, 10:45 am PDT
Stephen Budiansky, author of the appropriately named blog The Liberal Curmudgeon, totally misses the point. He reduces the idea of eating local to a simple question of distance, with no regard for seasonality or growing methods. And he buys into a favorite (false) argument of advocates for industrial ag, that the current food system, in which a tiny percent of the population produces food for us all, frees the rest of us from backbreaking labor, as well as reduces the amount of land required to grow food for the nation. He says that this food system requires a mere 2 percent of our nation’s energy usage, a statistic that appears to come directly from his own butt.
[Editor’s note: Budiansky has a post on his blog today giving sources for all his numbers.]
To begin rebutting this pack of B.S., I must correct his notion of locavory. Despite attempts by national retailers to reduce “local food” to a mere question of miles (i.e. Lay’s potato chips claiming they come from locally grown potatoes), true locavores are after more than just miles. At its heart, the movement is about relationships. When you buy food at the store, your purchasing decision rests mainly on marketing claims. But when I pick up my weekly box of produce from Farmer Phil, I know exactly how and where he grew my food, and that his values are consistent with mine. Organic certification alone does not certify anything other than a minimum bar of standards; by buying from farmers who are part of my community, whose farms I’ve visited, I am contributing to my local economy, supporting my friends’ businesses, and getting great, fresh food. And the farmers from whom I buy are taking care of the land right near where I live.
And Budiansky’s idea that the current food system, in which a tiny percentage grows food for the many, saving the rest of us from this dirty job? Farming is hard, physical work, true, but it’s work that many people — although not all — enjoy. Being your own boss and working outdoors with nature are rewards one can’t get from an office cubicle. Also, small, sustainable farms are often much more productive on a per-acre basis than large industrialized farms. Just look at the Dervaes family farm in urban Pasadena, CA. Or, better yet, look at Cuba, which grows a majority of the nation’s produce on highly productive, organic farms located near population centers.
As Budiansky proves, it’s always easy to build a straw man and knock it down. But a look at the facts does not support his claims.
Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.
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.
By Kerry Trueman, cofounder of EatingLiberally.org
Posted Friday, August 20, 3 pm PDT
Stephen Budiansky, self-proclaimed “liberal curmudgeon,” has stuffed together another flimsy, flammable straw man out of boilerplate anti-locavore rhetoric.
As Tom Philpott writes below, it’s a familiar formula, one that Budiansky spiffs up with dubious and/or irrelevant statistics that appear to be truly locally sourced — i.e. pulled out of his behind; a few disingenuous claims about the environmental benefits of industrial agriculture; and a wrap-up statement so ludicrous that he had to publish it on his own website because hey, the New York Times is only willing to go so far:
… eating food from a long way off is often the single best thing you can do for the environment, as counterintuitive as that sounds.
Budiansky’s argument tars all eat-local proponents with the same broad brush, warning us that we’re turning into a bunch of joyless, sanctimonious schmucks who are flimflamming an unsuspecting public:
For instance, 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.
Sinful according to whom? As I wrote on page 27 of Rodale’s Whole Green Catalog:
Bear in mind that buying local is often the most low-impact choice — but not always: an out-of-season local tomato grown in a fossil fuel-heated greenhouse could consume more energy than one that’s been field grown and shipped from Mexico.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just one of those local-food advocates who brandishes statistics that are “always selective, usually misleading and often bogus” to back up our “doctrinaire assertions.”
That describes Budiansky’s own modus operandi in a nutshell. His op-ed focuses almost exclusively on the question of how much fossil fuel is used to grow and ship food, and concludes that the amount of energy used is negligible in the grand scheme of things.
Sure, and because eggs weigh less than the grain it costs to feed the factory farm hens that produce them, it was presumably quite energy efficient to ship those 380 million factory-farmed, salmonella-tainted eggs from Iowa to 14 other states.
But energy efficiency is only one small part of the equation when you add up the reasons to buy local. Other factors include: flavor and nutrition; support for more ecological farming practices; reduction of excess packaging; avoidance of pesticides and other toxins; more humane treatment of livestock and workers; preservation of local farmland; spending one’s dollars closer to home; the farmers market as community center, and so on.
Budiansky totally ignores these issues, except to challenge the assumption that sustainable agriculture is better for the environment than industrial agriculture. After establishing the folly of food miles, he goes on to note:
Other favorite targets of sustainability advocates include the fertilizers and chemicals used in modern farming. But their share of the food system’s energy use is even lower, about 8 percent.
Again with the energy usage! Geez. As if that were our big beef with fertilizers and chemicals. What about soil erosion, pollution, loss of biodiversity, the rise of superweeds and antibiotic-resistant infections, the dead zones in our oceans and rivers, exposure to contaminants, and all the other environmentally disastrous consequences of ‘conventional’ farming?
According to Budiansky, the real culprit, when it comes to squandering energy, is us:
Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.
He cites the miles we drive to do our grocery shopping and the energy it takes to run our fridges, dishwashers, stoves, etc. But what do any of these things have to do with whether you choose to buy food locally? Your fridge uses the same amount of energy regardless of where the food you put in it came from.
If Budiansky sincerely cares to examine what constitutes a truly low-impact diet, why does he ignore one of the biggest sources of food-related wasted energy in the average American household? As New Scientist recently noted:
More energy is wasted in the perfectly edible food discarded by people in the U.S. each year than is extracted annually from the oil and gas reserves off the nation’s coastlines.
What’s so maddening about sloppy op-eds like this is that they give fodder to folks who hate the very notion that their food choices have any consequences beyond their own waistlines and bank balances. At a time when global warming is surely fueling fires, floods, and drought all over the world, we need to have an honest conversation about how the way we eat contributes to climate change.
What we don’t need are dishonest misrepresentations and tiresome stereotypes about the eat local movement. If you actually read what us good food folks have to say about eating ecologically, you’ll see that the emphasis is on adopting a
predominantly plant-based diet, eating foods when they’re in season, limiting your consumption of animal products and processed convenience foods, and avoiding the chemicals and pesticides that are used in conventional farming.
Buying local produce is obviously a part of the equation. But to portray it as the sole consideration of sustainable food advocates is to adopt a lazy contrarian position that is guaranteed to generate controversy, and just as sure to do absolutely nothing to engender a meaningful discussion about these issues. Budiansky needs to be taken out to the foodshed and pummeled with his own lousy logic.
Kerry Trueman is cofounder of EatingLiberally.org, a netroots website & organization that advocates sustainable agriculture, progressive politics, and a less-consumption-driven way of life. Trueman currently writes about climate change, low-impact living and sustainable agriculture for the Huffington Post, Civil Eats, and EatingLiberally, and authored a chapter on ecological eating for Rodale’s Whole Green Catalog. CREDO Mobile awarded her their “Activist Blogger of the Year” award for 2009. Her most recent projects are Retrovore.com, a website for farmers, gardeners and eaters who favor conservation over consumption; and The MudRoom, a weekly webcast in development that blends muckraking and cultural commentary. A version of this post first appeared on Huffington Post; used with permission.
By Tom Philpott, Grist food editor and Maverick Farms cofounder
Posted Friday, August 20, 1:30 pm PDT
I’m not sure exactly why — whether it’s happenstance, the fashion for contrarianism in media circles, or something else — but occasionally, the New York Times op-ed page sees fit to deliver the following message to its readers: Hey, industrial-food-system critic: I hate to break this to you, but you’re wrong. Sure, there are nice things about local, seasonal produce — I like it myself! — but if you take a hard-headed look at food production, you’ll find that pretty much the best food system we could possibly have stands right in front of us. Nothing to reform here; everything’s fine. Eat up … and don’t worry about where it comes from or how it’s grown!
The person delivering the message, mind you, is actually quite sympathetic to local food; often even grows his own. It’s the dogma and the arbitrary rules around it that the writer finds galling, that and the presumption that local food can somehow save the world. Because the world does not need saving, the writer thinks — at least not from the food system.
In a 2007 New York Times op-ed called “Food That Travels Well,” Texas State University historian James McWilliams laid down the pattern. First, he established his I-heart-local bona fides: “There are many good reasons for eating local,” he declares; “freshness, purity, taste, community cohesion, and preserving open space.” Then he points out the flaw:
… but none of these benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces fossil fuel consumption. In this respect eating local joins recycling, biking to work and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.
Soon enough, we get the hammer blow:
We must also be prepared to accept that buying local is not necessarily beneficial for the environment. As much as this claim violates one of our most sacred assumptions, life cycle assessments offer far more valuable measurements to gauge the environmental impact of eating.
Today’s “Math Lessons for Locavores” Times op-ed by Stephen Budiansky amounts to an echo of the McWilliams piece. Budiansky opens with a bucolic paean to his own locavore tendencies:
It’s 42 steps from my back door to the garden that keeps my family supplied nine months of the year with a modest cornucopia of lettuce, beets, spinach, beans, tomatoes … You’ll get no argument from me about the pleasures and advantages to the palate and the spirit of eating what’s local, fresh, and in season.
Followed by the big “but”:
But 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.
And then the calm, patient explanation of hard-headed reality:
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. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica.
In other words, on the whole, things are great just the way they are.
The first thing to note here — editors and would-be media moguls, listen up — is that contrarians, too, can lapse into formulaic and repetitive arguments. McWilliams in 2007 and Budiansky in 2010 both went hunting for the exact same game: the shrill locavore who demands that everyone eat only food grown within a hundred miles, in order to save transportation energy. And both flatten that hapless specimen with a shotgun blast of impeccable logic.
The second thing to note is that the unfortunate locavore now splayed out before us is a phantom, a specter, what logicians call a straw man.
“Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by locavores,’ celebrity chefs, and mainstream environmental organizations,” complains Budiansky. But he fails to spell out even one of those onerous rules, or name a single locavore, celebrity chef, or organization preaching it.
You know why? Because they don’t really exist; or if they do, they exert no discernible influence on the sustainable food movement. All of the leading lights in the movement who I know think in terms of regional, not strictly local, food economies. Fred Kirschenmann, surely one of the movement’s most influential thinkers, has been advocating for regional food economies, and the importance of mid-sized farms, for at least 15 years.
And if you talk to leaders in the urban-agriculture movement, you’ll get the same thing. Will Allen of Milwaukee’s Growing Power is
famous for turning his city’s food waste into rich compost, and using that compost to grow top-quality food in Milwaukee. But if you talk to him, you’ll find that his main commitment is to bring a robust variety of accessibly priced food into Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods in a way that adds, and doesn’t drain, economic vibrancy. That means growing food in Milwaukee; but it also means working with farms in the greater upper Midwest region, and even beyond. McWilliams and Budiansky might be surprised to see bananas on sale at Growing Power’s grocery store, alongside Milwaukee-grown tomatoes and tilapia.
I recently talked to Malik Yakini, leader of the Detroit Black Food Security Network and a leading light in that city’s urban-ag revival. He, too, stressed the importance of thinking regionally, of working with farmers from Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois to recreate a functioning food system in Detroit.
So McWilliams and Budiansky can stop wringing their hands. No one is going to cajole them — much less force them — to subsist on a 100-mile diet.
Now, there are some specific things I want to take on in Budiansky’s essay, such as his defense of a food system based on comparative advantage, which favors vast monocrops concentrated in certain regions. But I’ll get to that next week, after some of our invited guests have had their say.
More stories in this series:
We’ve invited an array of food-policy experts along with a few Grist readers to debate whether there is indeed a food-safety crisis and if so, whether the current legislation before the Senate will protect eaters and punish the right producers.
In this first installment in our debate over the Food Safety Modernization Act, our experts lock horns over food-borne-illness data and whether the problems we have with the food system are about dirty, bumpy vegetables — or dirty, buggy cattle.
Our invited panel of experts — and two scrappy Grist readers — debate whether the bill now before the Senate will decrease large-scale food-borne illness outbreaks of the type we’ve recently seen in eggs and peanut butter.
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