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: