Not Livin’ La Vida Locavore

I like local produce: local pears, local wines, local ripe tomatoes. I like the taste of stuff grown around here. It’s tasty. It’s fresh. And, I know the folks who made it. So far, so good. I imagine that you’re not saying, “Nah. Give me a tomato shipped half-way around the world. Ya just can’t beat the taste of a tomato bred for easy shipping with their tough skins and bland flavor. Makes my mouth water just thinkin’ about ‘em!”

Buying local produce means a relationship with the vendor and freshness. It may mean some other things too like being in touch with the season and the joys that each time brings. Good things all. Buying local produce does not imbue the transaction with anything, in the environmental sense of the word, green. And, local organic, even less so.

I know a lot of people such as Bill McKibben and Alice Waters (who author Anthony Bourdain once called Pol Pot in a muumuu though he doesn’t let her completely off the hook, “With Waters’s fondness for buzzwords like ‘purity’ and ‘wholesomeness’ there is a whiff of the jackboot, isn’t there?”) proclaim that local and organic equates to less pollution and a lower carbon footprint. I have been looking at the numbers, which are interesting, but no, local and organic hardly means it’s “better” for the earth. (I suspect the earth doesn’t give a rip, either way, but you get my drift.)

Food storage/prep accounts for twice the energy used than does transport

While the locavore movement touts tasty local produce, they have begun taking on the trappings of a cult, using food miles as a litmus test for lower impact. However, transport accounts for under 14 percent of fossil fuel used in the “food system” (from seed to table). Food storage and preparation account for nearly one-third of the fossil fuel used. Local and organically grown food tastes great, but, as with everything we need for life, comes at a cost. “Organic agriculture is incapable of feeding the world’s current population,” wrote the Nobel winning Norman Borlaug, “much less providing for future population growth.”

Organic agriculture proponents dispute this saying that combining nature has ways to produce yields with less pollution. The Rodale Institute has conducted a Farming Systems Trial® (FST) comparing three farming methods: “one conventional (five-year corn/soybean rotation), one livestock-based organic (five-year rotation corn/soybean/corn silage/wheat/red clover/alfalfa hay with aged cattle-manure applied in the two corn years), and one legume-based organic (three 3-year rotation of hairy vetch/corn, rye/soybeans, and wheat).” According to Rodale, “corn and soybean yields are the same across the three systems.” The way I read this, the organic methods need other crops to produce the nutrients, which could mean that only the time that corn or soybeans are planted do they get the same yield. Meanwhile, the organic fields need to recover through nitrogen-fixing plants and/or the application of manure. In other words, it takes more land to grow organic. I have emailed the Rodale Institute for clarification.

Organic farming costs more because, as the former Washington editor of the scientific journal Nature, Stephen Budiansky writes the choice becomes a little fossil fuel for energy and fertilizer or a lot of land for the necessary soil amendments, “By spending not much energy to make fertilizer and run machinery — and trivial amounts of energy to ship the stuff we grow from the places it grows best — we have spared and conserved hundreds of millions of acres of land that otherwise would have had to be brought into agricultural production. That’s land that protects wildlife, that adds scenic beauty.”

This echoes what Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution, wrote at the turn of this century: “Had the cereal yields of 1950 still prevailed in 1999, we would have needed 1.8 billion hectares (4.4 billion acres)…instead of the 600 million that was used.” In other words, we would need an additional area roughly half the size of North America to grow our needed food. Borlaug cited fossil fuel based fertilizer (e.g., nitrogen from the Haber-Bosch process) and weed control for the increased cereal yields.

“[A]ntiscience and technology groups are slowing the application of new technology whether it be developed from biotechnology or more conventional methods of agricultural science. I am particularly alarmed by those who seek to deny small-scale farmers in the developing countries–and especially those in sub-Saharan Africa–access to the improved seed, fertilizers, and crop protection chemicals that have allowed the affluent nations the luxury of plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs…While the affluent nations can certainly afford to pay more for food produced by the so-called organic methods, the 1 billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot.” – Norman Borlaug

When we measure our greenness by how many miles our food has traveled, we are only looking at one small step of the seed-to-table journey. By all means, patronize the local Farmers’ Markets until they close for the season, but I think we can stop fretting about food we buy from the grocery store. Odd as it may seem at first blush, because developing nations are overwhelmingly agrarian, you are often supporting people in the developing world when you buy food from the grocery store rather than the Farmers’ Market.


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