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November 18, 2008

Some of My Best Friends Are Locavores
Locavores, watch your backs! There have been a spate of articles recently about the minimal contribution transportation plays in food production, ergo eating locally won't solve the climate crisis.

And not only are conservative bloggers like Andrew Sullivan chiming in, but even environmentalists like Dave Roberts want the world to know that locavorism is not the answer. To climate change, that is. Even Ezra Klein takes a shot.

Right. As loyal readers of The Shuttle are well aware, this little corner of the blogosphere has known about the problematic nature of food miles for a while now. I'm quoting now from the June 2008 issue (pdf only):
Indeed, research detailed by [Michael] Specter [of The New Yorker] on this subject has led to some unexpected discoveries. It's becoming clear, for example, that a common statistic used by many to estimate a product's carbon footprint - food miles - can sometimes be misleading. Food miles are, of course, a shorthand rather than a true measure: we assume that the fewer miles a product must travel to market the smaller the carbon footprint. But it turns out that transportation costs - even taking into account the outsize contribution to global warming by air travel due to burning fuel at high altitudes - are not always the determining factor in calculating a food product's carbon footprint.

Specter revealed that a product's mode of transport is as important, if not more so, than miles traveled. Shipping by sea, for example, involves one-sixtieth the emissions of airfreight and even has a significant carbon advantage over trucking the equivalent distance. As a result, East Coast wine drinkers concerned about wine's carbon footprint may be better off drinking French wine delivered to New York by boat than California wine trucked across the country.

But Specter's prime example of this phenomenon is New Zealand apples. According to Specter, apple production in New Zealand is so efficient (due to factors like its exceptionally high crop yield and the ample supply of renewable power) that New Zealand apples transported to a market on the East Coast of the United States have a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown as little as 50 miles away from that same market. That's counter-intuitive to say the least. It should thus come as no surprise that, though Specter does not reveal the study's source, the research was produced - like the apples themselves - in New Zealand.

But other examples seem more compelling, such as beans and cut flowers sent from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. These African products have a much smaller footprint (on the order of six times smaller in the case of beans) than do the same products grown in Europe for European consumption. It turns out that African export-oriented farms still tend to be small, don't use tractors and fertilize mostly with manure. So it is possible that the right combination of local agricultural practices and land use issues can trump transport costs as a basis for determining carbon "efficiency".

All of which defies the concept that closer is better.
Old news, folks (that means you, Mr. Bailey). Speaking of Reason, it's worth noting that the carbon footprint of the US agricultural sector is more like 19% - or even higher if you include the carbon released by the simple act of tilling the soil. That said, I go back to Michael Pollan's resolarization concept. So yes, focus on food miles = bad. But focus on total hydrocarbon use in the agricultural sector = good.

Frankly, I think this is really about a concern in some corners that talking about things like locavorism will confuse the issues surrounding climate change priorities, as if climate change is a bandwagon upon which every group should not be allowed to jump. And I don't think foodies would disagree with the formulation that any reduction in carbon footprint is a fringe benefit of locavorism, rather than a central motivating factor.

We do have some hard questions to ask about food production and its total carbon footprint. If anything, the local food movement has moved that conversation forward quite a bit. How about a thank you, instead?

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Blogger charliereece said...

For our family, eating local food is not an issue of food miles. We eat local food because local growers are more accessible and thus accountable to consumers, they use more sustainable agricultural methods, they raise their livestock using methods that are more humane, and the food is just better. Also, supporting local agriculture helps our local economy -- screw you, Monsanto! Then there's the whole seasonality thing, which my wife assures me is important and about which she can talk much more intelligently than I.

Needless to say, I'm not sure food miles have ever entered the equation. Then again, we have one of the nation's best farmers' markets next door in Carrboro, so maybe we're spoiled.

Which is ALL to say that you are absolutely right -- the use of the food miles fallacy to paint locavores as ecological dimwits is a oversimplification of a set of choices that are made for a wider variety of reasons than the critics want to admit.

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