Sunday, April 19, 2009

Step Away from the Banana

I haven't been blogging as much as I'd like to lately. It's not because I'm not thinking about it or because I have run out of topics ... actually it's the opposite. As I do more and more research, I get sucked into the wealth of interesting information out there. I want to draw it all together somehow, introduce you to a few interesting articles you may not have found, and then point out interesting conclusions or questions that were left out.

But there is too much. So instead, I just keep reading and thinking...

This week's fascinating topic? The economics of locavorism.

After reading the New York Times' column by James McWilliams on the topic of not-so-free range pigs, about which I wrote last week, I found more interesting columns from him and also from the Freakonomics blog in The New York Times.

The theme - eating local is not a panacea to all of our environmental and economic woes. A few of the major points:

  • Food miles travelled is not necessarily an indicator of the carbon footprint of a food. For example, lamb raised in New Zealand on their abundant source of clover and then shipped to Britain, requires about 1/4 of the energy of lamb raised in Britain which must be supplemented with feed. Therefore, while the distance a food has traveled is a nice metric to follow, the environmentally minded consumer must actually think about the entire life cycle of the item to determine the least impactful choice.1
  • Most places are not suited to growing a diverse, healthy diet year round. 2 Therefore, the amount of fossil fuel and water that must be devoted to producing such a diet locally is offset by any reduction in fossil fuel spent on transporting it from a more suitable climate. 3 Actually, I guess this a slightly different statement of the previous point. Oh well, I like it. Maybe I should edit more, but tonight I'm not going to ;)
  • What about economics of scale? Large scale farming of only tomatoes is efficient in a way that cannot be reproduced by small farmers or home-gardeners, regardless of whether the climate is suited to growing tomatoes.
  • Consumers would have to adopt a radically different diet if they were to avoid, for instance, bananas, which can't even grow in this country.
  • How local is local enough? If everyone agreed to eat food grown within a 100 mile radius, it wouldn't be possible to feed all of New York City. Does this mean that everyone should leave?

While all of these are certainly interesting points, I'm left, as usual, with more questions than answers.

How sustainable long-term is large scale farming? How much soil is depleted and resources are required by repeatedly farming the same tomato crop on the same plot of soil?

What about the non-economic value of a fresh, varied diet? While variety can certainly be added to a diet by importing tropical fruits from abroad, it can also be added by redeveloping countless heirloom plant varieties not sold in supermarkets. Fruit and veg (and meat) sold in supermarkets is bred for two things, consistency and yield. Whether grown locally or not, a diet consisting year round of the same single variety each of strawberries, carrots, potatoes, spinach, apples and bananas may be efficient but I doubt if it provides us with the complex set of nutrients you can get from experimenting with regional varieties. Local farmers aren't in it for the efficiency, that's true. They're in it for exactly this inefficient diversity, among other things. And I like that.

Ok, ok, each of these columns raises some interesting points, and while I don't wholeheartedly agree, I definitely have some things to think about.

But geez, who are these extremists to which these columns refer? Yes, Barbara Kingsolver managed to do it, and write about it (is her book published on locally sourced paper?), but what about the rest of us? According to those close to me, I am BY FAR the most extreme local eater of anyone I know. And yes, I do eat bananas. And I only feel a little guilty about it. Ok, maybe a lot. But I still do it.

1 Food That Travels Well, James McWilliams. The New York Times: August 6, 2007

2 Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores, Stephen J. Dubner. The New York Times: June 9, 2008.

3 Will the Anti-Locavorism Never End, Stephen J. Dubner and James McWilliams. The New York Times: August 26, 2008.

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