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.
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.