Grist vs. New York Times: Debating Local Food

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A tomato from California or from a nearby city garden? For the local food movement, there's no question—cut those food miles.

But journalist and self-described "liberal curmudgeon" Stephen Budiansky challenged this wisdom in a New York Times op-ed last week, declaring that local food is "not an end in itself, nor is it a virtue in itself." His article, titled "Math Lessons for Locavores," set off a wildfire of debate online about what it really means to eat local as well as the other aspects of sustainability, from seasonality to community.

Budiansky himself cultivates a backyard garden, but he cautions against locavore sermonizing and reminds us that the tomatoes traveling from California to our houses mean little compared to the refrigerators humming in our kitchens 24/7:

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.

A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers' market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy. Just running your refrigerator for a week consumes 9,000 calories of energy. That assumes it's one of the latest high-efficiency models; otherwise, you can double that figure. Cooking and running dishwashers, freezers and second or third refrigerators (more than 25 percent of American households have more than one) all add major hits. Indeed, households make up for 22 percent of all the energy expenditures in the United States.

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 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 and spared hundreds of millions of acres for nature preserves, forests and parks that otherwise would have come under the plow.

Budiansky's editorial provoked a particularly compelling set of responses this week from Grist, the environmental online magazine, which featured nine responses from food writers, farmers, and activists. Grist's essays emphasized the depth and breadth of the advantages of eating local—often going beyond a tally of food miles. As Kerry Trueman, founder of EatingLiberally.org, wrote:

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.

A review of Grist's responses reveals four major complications of industrial agricultural that Budiansky missed—problems that going local might be able to help solve. These problems include:

Industry-Grown Obesity. Two-thirds of Americans have grown overweight or obese because of our half-century of industrial agriculture. Jennifer Maiser, founder of Eat Local Challenge, proposes that local eating is part of the solution to the obesity crisis:

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.

The Environmental Toll of Industrial Farming. Dave Love, project director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, criticizes Budiansky's suggestion that industrial agriculture ultimately preserves our resources through its efficient use of land. How we use our farmland also matters, Hopkins insists:

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.

Inefficient Agricultural Subsidies. Budiansky emphasized industrial agriculture's efficiency and suggested that we grow food "in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies." Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet, argues that government subsidies actually prop up inefficient monoculture crops rather than encouraging the comparative advantages inherent to small-scale farming, in which each region grows what it grows best:

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?

Our Finite Oil Supply and Rising Fuel Costs. Sure, transporting food long distances works great ... but for how long? Cross-country transportation may only account for "14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system," as Budiansky wrote, but it also requires oil. Ken Meter, executive director of the Crossroads Resource Center, calls Budiansky's analysis "pseudo-science" as he brings up the complicating factor of rising fossil fuel costs :

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.

Grist's nine responses often touch on similar themes—community, flavor, the ability to look local farmers in the eye, and the health threats of having only a concentrated few that process our food. But multiple responses acknowledged the validity of Budiansky's data (which Budiansky has since provided additional sourcing for on his blog). Missouri farmer Blake Hurst went as far as to write:

In fact, the case for local food is damaged by the stubborn refusal of locavores to admit that buying from local producers don't [sic] necessarily save energy, and local production can often demand more application of pesticides and more intensive management than food grown far away.

If there is any single takeaway, it is that the dimensions of our food system transcend any one lens of analysis. Stephen Budiansky has blown open a truly thoughtful debate on what "local" means, and that dialogue is never a bad thing.

Presented by

John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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