Sunday, September 5, 2010

On Locavorism

I'm fascinated by food trends and issues of agricultural policy, and as someone who dreams of someday becoming a yeoman farmer himself, these are not purely abstract concerns.  The "locavore" movement is certainly good news to one who hopes to be able someday to market the produce of a small, diverse operation. So it's not with great enthusiasm that I agree with the analysis that several of the primary reasons people cite for buying local really don't add up, namely the environmental and food-security.  Here, a small local producer explains why the "buy local" food movement is just another sentimental feel-good trend, and why it would be an environmental disaster if it were actually embraced throughout the culture.

In short, the energy costs of agriculture and food shipment and processing are really quite small: we Americans use more energy powering our televisions than producing the food we eat. Without question the most significant environmental burden of our food production system is the sheer amount of land it takes up, so making a marginal reduction in the already-tiny transport costs at the expense of using more land is hardly a win for the environment.


Shane said...

"The energy costs of agriculture and food shipment are really quite small."

I was under the impression that agriculture was one of the largest consumers of energy - refining and synthesizing petroleum-based products for use as fertilizers is an energy-intensive industrial process. And the problem is that the multiplier means that many pounds of crop are grown as inputs to other foods, until we're ultimately growing corn as little more than feed for livestock.

This summary has links to papers claiming that the agricultural sector accounted for 17% of American fuel consumption 20 years ago - it's gotta be higher now, since we eat a lot more meat.

Also, your link apparently ignores corn - which is the stuff I'm most concerned about.

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...

I don't support King Corn any more than you do, and I don't agree with the writer I linked in flippantly dismissing the concerns over animal feedlots. There are a whole range of reasons to support pastured meats, but that's a different story.

As to localism, from that summary:

"By most accounts agriculture consumes a relatively small percentage of total U.S. energy and, within the food
system, processing and home preparation consume significantly more energy than does farming."

It goes on to confirm that agriculture is the highest consumer of petroleum products, but that's only one segment of total energy use. Including the energy inherent in producing fertilizers and pesticides, agricultural production accounted for 3% of US energy use in 1974, again from that summary. And that's gone down since then, as fertilizer use has gotten far more efficient. As to transportation, which is the locavore movement's great concern, "According to several studies, transportation consumes a rather small portion (3-6 percent) of energy in the food system. Other analysts report figures of 12 or 13 percent".

I don't mean to say that conventional agriculture doesn't have costs, obviously it does. My point is that there are environmental costs to agriculture beyond fuel use, particularly land use. Locavorism writ large would be a land use disaster, as we plow up millions of acres trying to grow things where they don't grow particularly well. Of course, that's not actually going to happen, because -- to circle back to the original point -- the local food movement is more sentimental than coherent.

It's one thing for locavores to eat their local fruits and vegetables, which grow quite efficiently in small-scale intensive systems anyway (and often are higher quality to boot). But it stops making sense if you try to apply the philosophy in any broad sense; how many locavores do you know who have actually given up bananas and citrus and pineapple on principle? Or who brag about eating bread made from local wheat? They don't, because most self-described locavores just pat themselves on the back for buying things that grow well in their area anyway, while they enjoy them in season and then quietly buy the shipped ones the rest of the year. And (unless you live in CA), all those self-described locavores are eating canned food and rutabagas all winter, too, right? Umm... not likely.

There are plenty of reasons to support local agriculture. Of course I believe that, or I wouldn't want to be a part of it. But the environmental argument just doesn't hold up.

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...
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