Local Food: Consider the Consequences

From: http://bit.ly/v3hH2c

Eat local? Eat organic? Eat meat? Eat imported?

The food choices that we make can have long-term — and often unintended – consequences. Simply look to the history of agriculture, rife with examples of (occasionally) well-intentioned policy gone bad. Farm subsidies in America, for example, began during the Depression era and were meant to help farmers stay in business during years when supply was low. The producers of America’s food supply would stay in business even during a drought and the government could have a hand in keeping consumer prices in check. Seems like a good idea, right? Unfortunately, government subsidies do not work miracles; instead of their intended effect, subsidies have given us our current food production system. Subsidies have fostered the emergence of crony capitalists —  lobbyists from agriculture companies who snuggle up with Congressmen to ensure continued financial support —  in the food system. Subsidies allow for artificially low-cost junk food, the burning of food for fuel (which could lead to food shortages), and the damaging practice of growing monocultures on the same acreage, year after year, with no thought given to the long-term viability of the land.

With the serious consequences of food choices and the policies that we advocate, it’s vital to think critically about any potential food philosophy. So how does the locavaore view hold up?

The followers of the “Eat Local” philosophy are often environmentalists looking to do their part to contribute to a healthier planet. They want to cut back on the use of oil and fossil fuels, reduce their “carbon footprint,” and control the pollution that often comes from large-scale farms and CAFO’s. While this certainly isn’t representative of everyone who buys their groceries from local farms and business, it is the prevailing view of the activists of the movement. Those with their eyes set on the future and involved in policy initiatives. They envisage a smog-less skyline and healthy, nutrient-rich soil. They pine for the food that our grandparents ate and the days when nature could be free to be nature, free from human intervention.

Two of their platforms may, ironically, be two of the least environmentally friendly. The concept of “food miles” and the anti-GMO stance.  I’ll look at food miles in this post and save a discussion of GMO for my next.

From: http://bit.ly/th7guF

The idea of food miles goes like this: if our food has to travel fewer miles, it will use fewer fossil fuels and expel less pollution. Seems obvious, right? Well, wrong. It’s not quite that simple. In fact, many studies find that eating locally actually requires more energy for several reasons. First, consumers who pick up their CSA boxes at the local farm often have to make more than one trip to supply their home. First, they drive to the farm, which is usually further away than their local supermarket, then they drive to another market to get the rest of the goods they need – paper towels, salt and pepper, diapers – and any other groceries they couldn’t get from their local farm. This extra driving probably only accounts for a small extra expenditure of energy, but it is still a factor that many locavores fail to consider.

Surprisingly, it is the home consumption of food that costs the most energy in the food production chain, not transportation. It is the preparation and storage of food in the consumer’s home that absorbs 32% of the total energy in food production. This is another aspect that many do not think about. Heating an oven, running a refrigerator, and washing the dishes take energy. If environmentalists really wanted to cut back on their energy usage, they should be targeting an area that may actually have an impact – their own homes.

Keep in mind that I’m not against eating locally – I merely want to point out the paradoxical nature of the environmentalist’s stance on total energy output. I also want to raise another question to think about: Should the goal of fixing our food system be to decrease energy usage? Is that possible while increasing the output needed to feed 7 billion people?

I’ll leave you with a quote by author and historian, Stephen Budiansky:

“Agriculture … 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.”

Consider that, and the other objections I’ve raised, before adopting the “Eat Local” philosophy as a moral imperative.

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. A student that wants to study food says:

    What are CAFO’s? Are they bad?

    1. CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feed Operation. Here’s some info: http://www.epa.gov/region07/water/cafo/index.htm. I wouldn’t say that large-scale animal production is inherently a bad thing, but there are definitely reasons why CAFOs could be considered bad. The cows are usually unclean, susceptible to disease (and thus, antibiotics), and have no access to pasture. But don’t take my word for it (honestly, I haven’t studied CAFOs much) — do some research and let me know what you find out!

      1. Jackie says:

        The major fault in CAFOs are that without access to pastures this usually involves cows being fed a corn/grain diet packed with antibiotics and growth hormones. Here comes one of the major problems with GMOs. They allow this special mix to be made extra cheap and extra unhealthy for the cows, and you know how that saying goes, “you are what you eat…” Cows evolved on grass and hay and when fed grain the cow may become very sick since their rumen digests it too fast. Their is so much research proving the benefits of grass fed beef and the harms of grain fed, i.e. CAFO fed.

        Furthermore, the easiest way to reduce your carbon footprint is to reduce your meat consumption. A few facts from an FAO report, “Grazing occupies 26 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface, while feed crop production requires about a third of all arable land. Expansion of grazing land for livestock is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America: some 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is used as pasture, and feed crops cover a large part of the reminder. About 70 percent of all grazing land in dry areas is considered degraded, mostly because of overgrazing, compaction and erosion attributable to livestock activity.”

        These statistics are scary to me. THE RAIN FOREST IS TREES, AND WITHOUT TREES WE CANT BREATHE!! Even eating meat that is local ensures you are another less consumer supporting the facts above. Why? Because while you may drive a little further to pick up your vegetables (mine is only at the triangle and I could choose to pick them up at wheatsville which is where I do the rest of my grocery shopping anyways since hey, its local! annnddd supports another awesome local organization called urbanroots and various other local businesses) that farm pickup ensures the land, animals, and your food is being treated properly. Food miles are just one small factor, it is not the primary care for most people who choose this as a lifestyle, or as you call it ‘moral obligation’. Not by a long shot. Our health and future is the general consensus I find. Without food we die, with food that harms our health and the environment, our generation and generations to come won’t have the luxuries we see today. That is just selfish and mean to do to our future little ones.

      2. Hi Jackie,

        You bring up several interesting points, and a few of them I want to address. First of all, I agree totally that corn fed cows are WAY more unhealthy than grass fed beef — feeding cows corn messes with their omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. Humans need a balanced ratio of both, but the American diet usually consists of more omega 3. An imbalance can be unhealthy. (read more here, I’m not dietician! http://www.marksdailyapple.com/omega-3-fatty-acid/)

        The problem with your argument though, comes when we start talking about GMOs. Perhaps the reason that cows are being forced to eat diets that mainly consist of corn isn’t because of GM corn production, but because of the government’s heavy subsidization of corn. There are other crops capable of being modified genetically that would be less harmful to a cow’s rumen (hey— why not genetically modify the types of grasses they eat?). The reason we have acres and acres of GM corn crops is not because in a natural world, corn would be the most natural and efficient food to feed cows, but because farmer’s are incentivized to grow as much of it as they can. When they end up with surpluses, they have to think of clever ways to use it so that they don’t end up with tons of wasted corn. So in reality, it’s not GM corn that’s the problem, it’s the reason behind the GM corn.

        Also, you mention the importance of the rainforest and its importance to our lives. I agree. But think about this (and I’m getting into what I’m planning to write on GMOs, so you’re getting a sneak preview!). GM crops allow for a significantly higher yield than non-GMO crops. In other words, you can grow MORE food on LESS land, thereby having to cut down important rainforest land.

        Trust me, I want a healthy and “sustainable” future food system for my future children just as much as you do. I just want to look at the problem honestly, critically, and in a way that can provide ACTUAL solutions. We have 7 billion people in this world and eating locally is not the solution to our food problems. (Again, realize that I’m not against buying and eating locally – I LOVE some of the vendors at the farmer’s markets. I’m just forced to confront the reality, and the reality is that local food does not have the productive value, and never will, to provide affordable food for everyone). Also an interesting thing to think about — small, local, organic farms often have a lower yield than bigger farms for several reasons (organic often doesn’t have the same yield, crop failure is more prevalent). Therefore, if we were to attempt and scale up local food production in order to feed more people, we’d necessarily need MORE than than what we’re currently using, threatening that rain forest land again….

        If you want more info on any of the things I mentioned, I’ll be happy to send some resources your way (also, check out the links in the bog). Thank you for your comment, I’m glad post has started a discussion!

  2. Asiago says:

    I do have this debate over idealism and reality a lot with my personal foodways at home and even out and about at school. I just signed up for a CSA and I think that it is really great. Yet, there seems to be a larger issue in my life which is not scheduling the time to learn about food. It takes a lot of time to learn the intricacies of food–and I am not just talking about how to cook, but as well the what effects it has on health, society, and the environment. Instead of food taking priority in my schedule, I work. But I work so that I can eat… Kinda interesting no? I work to eat but don’t take the time to eat. In my life, time is money; so if I have little time than can I say I have little money? It would seem so as my fresh local produce goes to waste in my frig, and the fast $1 menu receives another buyer.
    I think that we should take the time to eat and learn about food or be willing to pay the high costs for someone to do that for you.

  3. Jenna says:

    I really enjoyed this blog post!

    It seems like a paradoxical situation, but I would argue there are still many ways small farms are better for the environment. Eating locally generally insinuates buying from a small farmer, so these statements hold.

    -Industrial farming pollutes the land, air, and water with mass amounts of manure and runoff.
    -Chemical fertilizers contribute to the top water pollutants in the US.
    -As you said, monoculture crops decrease soil fertility, but also destroy natural ecosystems, attract crop-specific pests, and contribute to erosion.

    This said, perhaps we should focus less on buying local and more on buying with social responsibility. (But local is socially responsible!)

    In actuality, I can’t afford to buy local all the time! However, environmental argument aside, I love to buy local produce when I can afford it. I have the pleasure of working at Urban Roots, a local farm. We recently harvested the most perfect lettuce; sweet, crunchy, the quintessential of leafy greens. I ate an entire head of lettuce on the way home last Thursday! If you are a discerning buyer, local produce is at the peak of freshness which means better nutrition and better tasting.

    Looking forward to your GMO blog post!

  4. I take your point about glorifying or romanticizing local food as a panacea for a number of local and/or global problems. However, I don’t think your argument for efficiency quite holds up.

    With regards to vehicle miles traveled (VMT), CSA programs do comprehensively reduce VMT, even when consumers make multiple trips to purchase or pick up food/supplies. In many cases, including my own CSA, the food is delivered to my doorstep, which reduces my own VMT. More local purchasing means less dependence on the larger and very energy-intensive food trucking system. I just got back from a food justice conference in Oakland where a San Francisco energy official talked about how SF has been able to reduce its carbon footprint/energy consumption in almost all categories except transportation, which she noted was in part due to the high amounts of food being trucked into the city from places further than 100 miles away. Localizing the food system reduces trucking, which has far more impact on carbon emissions than an extra trip in my Civic to the grocery store.

    Secondly, I want to highlight some of the flaws in your argument for GMOs. Many talking heads and bureaucrats in major world institutions believe, as you do, that localizing the food system can’t “feed the world” as much as maximizing efficiency and yield in industrial food systems can. I strongly encourage you to take a course or read a book on political ecology, which directly addresses these arguments in a compelling way. I’ll try to address the argument as concisely and clearly as I can.

    1) Industrialized agriculture, even if it maximizes yield, also maximizes soil depletion. Efficiency advocates often have a poor understanding of topsoil composition, depth, and health, and its relationship to the long-term sustainability of ecosystems and regions in general. Kill the soil, and agricultural operations are forced to move into more and more marginal and fragile lands, which results in environmental degradation and displacement of human life as well. This process is well-documented and incredibly damaging.

    2) The main argument behind GMOs is that we must “feed the world” and that local food systems could never accomplish this. In other words, GM/industrial agriculture is posited as a solution to the problem of a large, unsustainable population. Have you considered that GM ag might also be the cause? Think of it this way. Take a look at global population growth over time. You’ll notice that the population has exploded in tandem with the rise in industrial agriculture, and particularly after the Green Revolution, when GM crops and hyper-efficient, technology-dependent methods were first introduced. Industrial ag, particularly the mass production of grains, enabled and caused the massive boom in global population. This is why you have millions of people in certain parts of the world barely subsisting on rice, wheat, or corn. GM agriculture says that the way out is more of the same–and I disagree. Localizing food systems, re-learning sustainable agriculture methods, and repairing the soil is a sustainable long-term solution to leveling off population growth and really feeding people beyond minimum survival levels.

    3) GM crops are the primary target of the “food sovereignty” movement. Food sovereignty is the right of a community to decide how it feeds itself, what it consumes. Governments, corporations, and institutions have destabilized and eliminated small farming all over the world in favor of industrial agriculture, which removes food production from communities, conceals the conditions and processes it is produced in, and then sells it back to us in packages. This is particularly destabilizing in the third world, where in order to grow food, communities must depend on large machines they have to pay to maintain, grow from seeds they must pay to activate and renew, and get stuck in an ever-escalating pesticide war against ever-escalating and resistant pests. From landless workers in Brazil to the town of Sedgwick, Maine, many communities are actively rejecting industrial agriculture and reclaiming local food as a way to restore their communities’ health, safety, sustainability, self-reliance, and pride.

    I could go on and on about the economic arguments against industrialized food (internalized and externalized costs) but this post is getting way too long. Let me know if you’d like to chat more about this stuff!

  5. Hi Heather — thanks for reading and commenting. Here are a few brief words referencing your points:

    1) Industrialized agriculture – I agree that industrialization is not without large flaws and that a more “sustainable” method to growing would be beneficial to the environment, the consumers and the producers. I’m just pointing out that local food may not really be the solution to the problem if we’re looking at it from an environmental and energy perspective.

    2) GMO’s – Hmmm… your solution would inevitably and undeniably cause millions of people who depend on imported food to perish. I agree, again, that healthier agricultural techniques need to be adopted. However, there’s absolutely no reason that GM foods cannot be incorporated into a model for the future. Right now, many GM crops are being used irresponsibly (ie. in corn that is fed to cows and processed in low-nutrient, high-sguar packaged foods), but they have incredible potential. Crops can be modified to be better for the soil and air, to contain more nutrients, and to continue to produce high yields. We’ve been doing these sorts of things for hundreds of years (Mendel’s pea plants are genetically modified, technically). While these technologies need to be accepted cautiously and with adequate research, they are NOT something that environmentalists should shy away from because, as I’ve cited, of the smaller plots of land that have to be used to grow them (and thus, less energy to harvest them).

    3) Again, I agree with several points here. People feel distanced from their food as though they and forced to eat whatever Monsanto and the government feel like producing. Again, however, the local movement is not necessarily the answer. There’s nothing wrong with starting a garden in your backyard or shopping the farmer’s market for local food. That’s great if you have the time and money to do so. Growing plants can be incredibly rewarding (I know — I’ve got basil growing in the window of my kitchen!) and buying high-quality local food is satisfying. It’s cool knowing where our food comes from and how it was grown. But it’s simply not true that everyone can eat that way. Our economy, since its birth, has depended not on self-reliance, but on TRADE. Self-reliance, in this world, is another way to say “poverty.” Our lives our enhanced by the things we produce and sell, whether it be a head of lettuce or our services as a financial analyst. Check out Matt Ridley’s the Rational Optimist for his section on the myth of self-reliance. He can say it better than I can.

    4) One more argument against local food as a global solution – Think about how economics works. Local food starts out as a collection of small farms offering goods that are similar to any other farm in the area (because only so many varieties can be grown region by region. Apples grow better in Washington than they do here, for instance). Competition MUST ensue. Consumers — even environmentally conscious ones — are going to want the best price for their food. So one farm figures out how to produce organic vegetables more cheaply. It does well, experiences growth, and achieves economies of scale. It continues to do so well that it buys up other smaller farms in the area that cannot compete with the productivity of the better farm. Assuming a free society (which is not quite the case, but principles of competition are still in play to a large extent), the farms that produce the best product (and environmental concerns, again, can be factored in) for the lowest price, will succeed. Those more successful companies will buy up the smaller, less-productive farms. The logical result will be big companies, again. Perhaps it will be a level or two better than our current agricultural system since it takes into account the long-term viability of the soil, but regardless, it won’t stay small and local for long. The anti-corporation and anti-business approach to food is not sustainable in the long-run because of the amount of people alive today. A handful of local farmers, no matter how much you and I may like them and their methods, cannot feed 7 billion people. Changes need to be made in the agricultural system, yes. But those changes DEPEND on smart business practices, clever entrepreneurs with bright ideas, and the principles of economics.

    Hoo-boy, I’m sure that’s more than you wanted to hear. Thanks again for your input! If you want to discuss this more, feel free to email me at brittanyrheasmith@gmail.com

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to respond! I’ll just respond super briefly to your points.

      1) If you could show me studies that demonstrate that local food production, distribution, and consumption are somehow more energy-intensive than conventional long-distance trucking, I would be really interested to see that (seriously, because if they exist I’d like to read them!).

      2) To clarify, I’m not really suggesting that the solution is to just shut down all big agriculture and leave billions to perish. I’ve heard tons of arguments and seen examples of how we should go about reducing population growth, from the racist/insane (implanting third world women with Norplant), and the paternalistic (“they just need us to go over there and teach them about family planning!”) etc, but I’m most persuaded by examples of food security and sovereignty projects. I really do think it’s a step in the right direction that respects culture and autonomy, while reducing dependence on a global, insecure system.

      with regard to GMOs, I think you are conflating (or I wasn’t clear enough what I meant) genetic modification on a molecular level, in the lab, where scientists place genes from one organism into another, with domestication and artificial selection, which we have been doing for tens of thousands of years, not just hundreds. I know you are placing your faith in this type of technology to improve efficiency and nutrition, but I simply can’t bring myself to do the same (maybe I’ve read too much Wendell Berry!). I think that the risks of GMOs outweigh the potential benefits–pesticide resistance, gene transfer, destabilization of communities, allergenicity (for example, the rise in gluten sensitivity and celiac disease in the US is a great example of what happens when GM wheat monocultures, just a few very glutinous strains, dominate our food system). The yield may be high, but who benefits? The Green Revolution resulted in the rise of a few mega-corporations who exclusively reaped those benefits. Even if a small farmer buys into the GM model, the GM seeds she buys die out like clockwork, and she’s locked into the seed company for life. Not so empowering.

      I can see the influence of the Rational Optimist on your thinking–the idea that humans are on an upwards trajectory, and that new technologies should be embraced uncritically (or embraced in principle, and tweaked), that things will only get better. I myself used to think similarly. I just think it’s important to ask, with each technology and policy and change, who benefits and who loses? Because there are many people that are worse off than ever before in the shadow of so much “progress.” That’s the crux of the field of political ecology, which I again urge you to check out–I promise you’ll find it interesting, even if you don’t agree!

      3) I’m curious about why you would say that self-reliance amounts to poverty. Trade and the deficits and exploitation associated with it over the course of modern history seem to have caused a lot more poverty than sustainable subsistence. Also, I am not against trade as long as the supply chain is fair and just–something we’ve lost control of in this industrialized economy. It’s interesting you say that our economy has been biased towards mass trade since it’s birth–at the beginning of the country’s history, there was a bit of a war in discourse between Jefferson and Hamilton over whose economic vision would rule the country. Jefferson thought that decentralized, self-reliant small enterprises would be most conducive to democracy, and that a large industrial system like England’s would reproduce England’s political fate: a powerless and apathetic majority, disinterested in deep democratic principles. Sounds familiar 🙂

      And yes, 7 billion people do need to eat every day, but I still disagree that the solution to feeding more people is the same “solution” that caused the population boom in the first place. More GM food = an ever-growing population.

      4) I agree with you to some extent that some businesses would be more successful than others, but I don’t think they’d get to the scale that Big Agribusiness is today. None of the largest producers got to where they are without subsidies that created monopolistic conditions. I think your more laissez-faire hypothetical would produce different conditions, but I guess we can only speculate so much. Also, speaking of economics, I myself am really interested in the ways that cities and communities lose money through transactions with large corporations. I don’t think that all corporations should be done away with, but I do think local food can provide cities with significant economic multipliers and generate more good jobs for unskilled workers in small- and mid-scale production, processing and distribution, which is a huge need for cities everywhere. The industrialization of food took away a ton of jobs and regional infrastructure.

      Damn, this was not short at all. Apologies! I debated sending this to you as an email, but oh well. It would be cool to actually meet you in person someday. Hopefully I’ll see you at a Food Studies meetup soon!

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