The stupidity of "eat local"

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BWV 1080
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The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by BWV 1080 » Fri Aug 20, 2010 1:10 pm

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Math Lessons for Locavores
By STEPHEN BUDIANSKY
Published: August 19, 2010
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Leesburg, Va.

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, basil, corn, squash, brussels sprouts, the occasional celeriac and, once when I was feeling particularly energetic, a couple of small but undeniable artichokes. 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.

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. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.

The result has been all kinds of absurdities. 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.

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food. One popular and oft-repeated statistic is that it takes 36 (sometimes it’s 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast. That’s an apples and oranges (or maybe apples and rocks) comparison to begin with, because you can’t eat petroleum or burn iceberg lettuce.

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.

It takes about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail; that works out to about 100 calories of energy. If it goes by truck, it’s about 300 calories, still a negligible amount in the overall picture. (For those checking the calculations at home, these are “large calories,” or kilocalories, the units used for food value.) Overall, transportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system.

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.

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.

Don’t forget the astonishing fact that the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.

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.

Eating locally grown produce is a fine thing in many ways. But it is not an end in itself, nor is it a virtue in itself. The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being.

Stephen Budiansky is the author of the blog liberalcurmudgeon.com.

jbuck919
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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Aug 20, 2010 2:06 pm

Good article, Steve. Now don't get me started about the myth that organic growing by itself makes any difference in the way vegetables taste or how nutritious or safe they are, or why NAFTA still doesn't mean that I can get cheap Hass avocados from Mexico instead of expensive ones from California.

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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by John F » Fri Aug 20, 2010 2:34 pm

jbuck919 wrote:Now don't get me started about the myth that organic growing by itself makes any difference in the way vegetables taste or how nutritious or safe they are...
Which of course is not a myth at all, and Budiansky is wise to avoid that issue - his piece is entirely about energy costs. Since he doesn't argue the question, and you say you don't want to, I won't either. I just know where to get a tomato that really tastes like a tomato, and it isn't at the supermarket with its factory-farmed produce.
John Francis

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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Aug 20, 2010 3:14 pm

John F wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:Now don't get me started about the myth that organic growing by itself makes any difference in the way vegetables taste or how nutritious or safe they are...
Which of course is not a myth at all, and Budiansky is wise to avoid that issue - his piece is entirely about energy costs. Since he doesn't argue the question, and you say you don't want to, I won't either. I just know where to get a tomato that really tastes like a tomato, and it isn't at the supermarket with its factory-farmed produce.
Yes, but John, the key is not whether it was organically grown per se, but whether it was vine ripened before picking. Tomatoes are a special case because they have such a short season and really must be grown relatively nearby, which actually makes it reasonable for locavores to prefer them irrespective of economic considerations. "Organic growing" is not a synonym for "grown to exactly the right point and sold almost immediately after harvest." I only brought it up because I think people are allowing themselves to be deceived by preferring a variety of vegetables in grocery stores that are identified as "organic" at twice the price when they are indistinguishable in taste, texture, and safety from the cheaper non-organic produce in the next bin.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

lennygoran
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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by lennygoran » Fri Aug 20, 2010 8:16 pm

>energy costs<

My garden forum wants me to grow veggies on my 2.67 acreas but I just don't have the energy or patience--and then you have to compete with the woodchucks and racoons for those fresh veggies. :) I agree that at ShopRite--our big super market you are definitely not going to get the best corn, tomato, peach! Fortunately we have local farms out here--tonight we finished dinner with 2 superb peaches! Regards, Len :)

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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by John F » Fri Aug 20, 2010 11:17 pm

jbuck919 wrote:Yes, but...
So you are getting started after all? :) But I'm not. The USDA's standards for organic foods, and the usual arguments for buying from local producers, are good enough for me, and if they aren't for you, it's your palate and your body.

For those who are interested, here's what the USDA says about its certification and labeling requirements for organic food:

http://usda-fda.com/articles/organic.htm
John Francis

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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by RebLem » Sat Aug 21, 2010 1:47 am

John F wrote:
jbuck919 wrote:Now don't get me started about the myth that organic growing by itself makes any difference in the way vegetables taste or how nutritious or safe they are...
Which of course is not a myth at all, and Budiansky is wise to avoid that issue - his piece is entirely about energy costs. Since he doesn't argue the question, and you say you don't want to, I won't either. I just know where to get a tomato that really tastes like a tomato, and it isn't at the supermarket with its factory-farmed produce.
Most tomatoes are grown for shippability and purposely picked when not yet ripe. And getting oranges or peaches that really taste juicy instead of pulpy is more and more a crap shoot.
Don't drink and drive. You might spill it.--J. Eugene Baker, aka my late father
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"Racism is America's Original Sin."--Francis Cardinal George, former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago.

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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by RebLem » Sat Aug 21, 2010 1:51 am

lennygoran wrote:>energy costs<

My garden forum wants me to grow veggies on my 2.67 acreas but I just don't have the energy or patience--and then you have to compete with the woodchucks and racoons for those fresh veggies. :) I agree that at ShopRite--our big super market you are definitely not going to get the best corn, tomato, peach! Fortunately we have local farms out here--tonight we finished dinner with 2 superb peaches! Regards, Len :)
My parents had a vegetable garden @ their home in Elmhurst, Il back in the 70's and 80's. They were plagued by a woodchuck for a while who was eating all their vegies, so they sought the advice of the proprietor or a local garden supply store. He recommended spreading dried animal blood around the garden, which is available is large bags very cheaply @ most garden supply stores. This treatment completely eliminated the problem. The woodchuck stayed away after the blood was applied.
Don't drink and drive. You might spill it.--J. Eugene Baker, aka my late father
"We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."--Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S. Carolina.
"Racism is America's Original Sin."--Francis Cardinal George, former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago.

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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by lennygoran » Sat Aug 21, 2010 6:14 am

>This treatment completely eliminated the problem. The woodchuck stayed away after the blood was applied.<

Thanks for the tip--still we probably will stay away from veggie gardening--just too many other plants the interest us--right now our big craze is Heucheras--they've been developing newer stronger variteis that have beautiful leaves. We used to have a woodchuck who must have been health conscious--he kept eating our lovely coneflowers--Echinacea-- down to the ground. Regards, Len :)

BWV 1080
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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by BWV 1080 » Mon Aug 23, 2010 11:16 am

« Weekend Roundup
Loco-Vores
Published by Steve Landsburg on August 23, 2010 in Bad Reasoning and Economics. 17 Comments
Steven Budiansky, the self-described Liberal Curmudgeon, thinks there’s something wrong with the locavore movement, and says so in the New York Times. But he misses the point just as badly as the locavores themselves.

The locavores, in case you don’t follow this kind of thing, are an environmentalist sect who make a moral issue out of where your food is grown — preferring that which is local to that which comes from afar. For example, as Budiansky puts it, “it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in California because of the energy spent to truck it across the country”.

Ah, says Budiansky, but let’s look deeper — the alternative to that California tomato might be one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in the Hudson Valley, and at a higher energy cost. This leads him off on a merry chase through what he calls a series of math lessons, adding up the energy costs of growing and transporting food in different locations. The implicit recommendation seems to be that when you’re choosing a tomato, you should care about all the energy costs.


Well, yes. You should. You should care about all those costs. And here are some other things you should care about: How many grapes were sacrificed by growing that California tomato in a place where there might have been a vineyard? How many morning commutes are increased, and by how much, because that New York greenhouse displaces a conveniently located housing development? What useful tasks could those California workers perform if they weren’t busy growing tomatoes? What about the New York workers? What alternative uses were there for the fertilizers and the farming equipment — or better yet, the resources that went into producing those fertilizers and farming equipment — in each location?

Budiansky ignores all that to focus strictly on energy consumpion. But the quality of our lives depends on a lot more than energy consumption, so Budiansky’s narrow-minded computations are strictly loco.

How, then, could one ever hope to do the right computation? How can we possibly gather enough information to compare the opportunity costs of land, fertlizers, equipment, workers, transportation and energy costs (among many others) and reach a conclusion about which tomato imposes the fewest costs on our neighbors?

Well, it turns out there’s actually a way to do that. You do it by looking at a single number that does an excellent job of reflecting all those costs. That number is known as the price of the tomato. When more New York land is needed for a housing development or a vineyard or a sports complex, the price of New York land goes up and the price of New York tomatos follows. When California workers are needed to build an aquarium or put out a forest fire, the price of California labor goes up, and the price of California tomatos follows.

Markets are not perfect, so the price of a tomato does not, with 100% accuracy, reflect the social cost of acquiring that tomato. But in most circumstances it comes damn close, and in virtually all circumstances it comes a lot closer than Budiansky’s sort of crabbed accounting.

The other quite marvelous thing about the price is that it gives you a reason to care about all those costs. Not directly, of course — few tomato consumers stop to think about the grapes that were sacrificed for their pleasure — but indirectly, and that’s just as good. The more valuable those grapes, the more you’ll pay for your tomato, and the more likely you are to pause and ask yourself whether this particular tomato is really necessary.

There’s only one downside to using prices as the primary indicator of social cost — everyone already accounts for them. This robs the locavores of an opportunity to flaunt their moral superiority, and Steven Budiansky of an opportunity to flaunt his math skills. Meanwhile, the rest of us go right on solving the right problem the right way.

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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by smitty1931 » Wed Aug 25, 2010 10:00 am

Down here in SW Florida the soil is almost pure sand. The local tomatoes are tasteless. I grew a couple of Heirloom type tomato plants in large pots and let them ripen on the vine. When I gave extras to the neighbors they were amazed at the taste and remarked on the fact that the tomatoes tasted like the ones they remembered from their youth. A real tomato will have that sweet acidic bite this is unmistakeable.

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Re: The stupidity of "eat local"

Post by Cyril Ignatius » Tue Aug 31, 2010 4:39 pm

The real problem here is not the local food movement per se, or the organic movement. Both are outstanding developments. The problem, would be trying to take their benefits out of context. And the stupidity would be proposing public policies that either discourage or outlaw the movements, or alternatively, proposing policies that force these food strategies on people who either don't want them, whose circumstances don't make them economically intelligent.

For many people much of the time, the eat local/grow local/grow organic movements are a really nice thing that is worth looking into. I'm an at-home chef, and I use these strategies when I can - when it makes sense. But as in all things - DON'T BE STUPID!
Cyril Ignatius

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