Eating Local Isn’t Always the Greenest Option
Eat Local. So goes the slogan for Farm to Market, a South Austin grocery store known for its produce from small farms throughout Central Texas. This attractive venue just celebrated its two-year anniversary, and while I have no idea how it’s doing financially, it has captured the attention of neighborhood residents, a notable percentage of whom drive around town with the market’s slogan, adorned with a beet, stuck on their bumpers. No matter that a majority of the goods stocking Farm to Market’s shelves have crisscrossed the world to keep our pantries full. It’s the intention that counts, and few intentions are as inherently noble, and potentially beneficial, as buying locally produced food.
Central to the Eat Local philosophy is the idea of “food miles”-how far food travels before you buy it. The idea has entered the enlightened mainstream through an increasingly rare venue: books! It achieved critical cultural mass last year with Michael Pollan’s bestselling Omnivore’s Dilemma and has since exploded into the media stratosphere with Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future; Alisa Smith’s and J.B. MacKinnon’s Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally; and Barbara Kingsolver’s (also bestselling) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (written with her husband, Steven L. Hopp, and daughter, Camille Kingsolver). The attention these titles have generated has, somewhat miraculously, transformed the art of eating into what it has, on some level, always been: a political act.
There are many good reasons for eating local-freshness, purity, taste, community cohesion, and preserving open space-but, perhaps because of overwhelming media attention to global warming, none of these benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces fossil fuel consumption. Herein lies the current power of the Eat Local slogan. In this respect, eating local joins recycling, biking to work, and driving a hybrid as realistic ways we can, as individuals, shrink our “carbon footprint” in the collective effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Each of these books employs the conceit of the authors’ limiting their diet to locally produced food, and each is emphatic about the supposedly irrefutable connection between eating local and energy reduction. “The average food item on a U.S. grocery shelf,” writes novelist Kingsolver, “has traveled farther than most families go on their family vacations.” Her husband, Steven Hopp, reminds readers that, “If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels every week.” Concerns over inflated food miles brought Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon to their dietary challenge as well. “Each time we sat down to eat,” writes MacKinnon, a former Adbusters editor, “we were consuming products that had traveled the equivalent distance of a drive from … New York City to Denver, Colorado. We were living on an SUV diet.” Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College scholar-in-residence, made a similar culinary decision upon learning that “the average bite of American food has traveled more than 1,500 miles before it reaches your lips.” Our food, he writes, “arrives at the table marinated in oil-crude oil.” As a result, “if we took global warming seriously,” we’d start supporting local food systems. The proposition that eating local will reduce energy consumption unifies these books.
As presented, it’s an overwhelmingly convincing point. Kingsolver, as well as Smith and McKinnon, generally assume what McKibben (whose book is the only one of the three with footnotes and an index) studiously reveals: a compendium of alarming statistics informing the decision to eat local. (This line of reasoning might otherwise strike skeptical readers as a gimmick designed to sell books; after all, nobody is writing impassioned volumes about their personal experiences carpooling in a hybrid for a year.) Applying his trademark solid research, McKibben amasses examples of food miles run amok. We learn that in Iowa-“center of the agricultural heartland”-carrots come 1,690 miles from California, potatoes 1,292 miles from Idaho, and chuck roasts 600 miles from Colorado. He writes that producing and transporting frozen peas demands 10 times the energy in the peas themselves. Seventy-five percent of the apples sold in New York state-an apple-producing region-come from the West Coast. On and on it goes. In light of this compelling evidence of market redundancy, corporate consolidation, and “creative destruction,” the only reasonable reaction, it seems, is to slap one of those bumper stickers on the Volvo wagon and start living the gospel of Eat Local.
At this point I would normally declare “Amen” and offer capsule reviews of each book, noting how McKibben’s is rigorous, if at times idealistic; how Kingsolver’s is charming but analytically slack; and how Smith and MacKinnon are creative geniuses in the kitchen but, somewhat obnoxiously, rather too proud of it. There are, however, bigger fish to fry-starting with the premise that reducing food miles is necessarily good for the environment.
The argument that reducing food miles decreases fossil fuel consumption appears so obvious, so intuitively logical, that it would seem anyone who questions it must be insane, work for Exxon Mobil, or live in the food-exporting nation of New Zealand. In this case, it’s the third option. In 2006, New Zealand’s Lincoln University, no doubt responding to Europe’s push for “food miles labeling,” published a study challenging the premise that greater food miles alone automatically means greater fossil fuel consumption. Other studies, only now edging onto the media’s radar screens, have undertaken similar investigations. According to this peer-reviewed research, compelling evidence suggests there is more-or less-to food miles than our abstemious authors would lead us to believe.
To appreciate the Lincoln University research, it is critical to understand how the authors wielded their carbon calculators. Rather than measuring a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the scientists expanded their equations to include dozens of other energy consuming factors-what economists call “externalities”-including water usage, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of product packaging, storage procedures, and dozens of other obscure cultivation inputs. Discussing the need to rethink our food system in terms of distances traveled, Kingsolver writes, “this isn’t rocket science.” But as the Lincoln University method suggests, when you factor in the externalities of life-cycle assessments, it sort of is rocket science.
By incorporating more measures, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s fertile pastures and shipped by boat to the U.K. consumed 688 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions per ton. By contrast, stock produced within the U.K.’s poorly adapted pastures consumed 2,849 kilograms per ton. In other words, it is four times more energy efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. This kind of figure cannot be ignored, especially after similar numbers were calculated for dairy products-a result, once again, of comparative advantage and what some food mile skeptics are starting to call “ecology of scale.”
For the most part, these figures and their implications have not been ignored. One can hardly fault the volumes under review for not mentioning the Lincoln University study, as it almost certainly came out when these books were in press. Nonetheless, it is worth wondering how the authors would have adjusted their arguments in light of the report and what has followed. For example, New Zealand’s most prominent environmental research organization, the Landcare Research-Manaaki Whenua, reassessed its position on local consumption after the study was published. “Localism,” two Landcare scientists wrote in late 2006, “is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle during transport.” In Britain, the environmental group U.K. Food Industry Sustainability Strategy responded to the report by conceding that “products shipped from New Zealand by sea may have significantly lower environmental impacts than those traveling shorter distances in Europe.” The Gallon Environment Letter, a Canadian publication, informed its readers that “certain products can be transported long distances and still use less energy overall than a regionally or locally produced product.” Convinced that I was missing something as I read these reports, I called Valentine Cadieux, head of the Yale Sustainable Food Project in New Haven, Connecticut, and a staunch Eat Local advocate. With respect to the Lincoln study, she said that, indeed, “the core argument is valid.”
While challenges to the Eat Local philosophy have received little attention in U.S. media, the European press pounced on the news of life cycle assessments. The Guardian wrote how “consumers who make their choices on air miles alone may be doing more environmental harm.” BBC News explained in a story titled “Food Miles Don’t Go the Distance” that food mile advocates “may seem to have common sense on their side, [but] the science which could be used to underpin their arguments is at best confusing, and at worst absent.” The Scotsman reported that “consumers who try to cut down on the number of ‘food miles’ in their weekly shop by choosing local produce could be doing more harm than good.” The Economist warned that “the apparently straightforward approach of minimizing the ‘food miles’ associated with your weekly groceries does not, in fact, always result in the smallest possible environmental impact.”
Life cycle assessments have yet to be undertaken systematically in the United States. When they are, the assumption that local consumption is automatically energy efficient will be seriously muddied. I’ll admit that-as someone who has written books about our ancestors’ intimate ties to the soil-my gut reaction is to dismiss life cycle assessments as a threat to the localism that Kingsolver, McKibben, Smith, and MacKinnon value so deeply. But stepping back and putting my assumptions aside, I also see in life cycle analyses genuine opportunities for changes that will lead to environmentally efficient food production. Rather than reject what might seem to be inconvenient findings, Eat Local advocates would be wise to consider them, because, properly analyzed and acted upon, they are anything but threatening to the prospect of an environmentally responsible diet. In fact, they could help solve several problems inherent in the Eat Local movement-problems that are often on vivid display in these books.
One such problem involves the way the Eat Local movement downplays geographical reality. Kingsolver, McKibben, Smith, and MacKinnon-all passionate food milers-downplay the impact geography has on their culinary options. It was, after all, Arizona’s horrific geographical conditions-ones that favor cactus fruits and tubers-that inspired Kingsolver and her family to take “the trip of our lives” to southern Virginia, where they would “begin the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain.” Choosing to move to a fertile region supportive of a healthy year-round subsistence, Kingsolver not only solved her food mile problem, but-a point not meaningfully appreciated-she solved her food cycle problem as well. It is hard to take issue with this environmentally responsible decision. But we should take issue with the fact that within weeks, Kingsolver’s new geographical circumstance, one of rare sustainability, becomes in her mind something of a standard experience. While Kingsolver was rhapsodizing over asparagus, I was left wondering about the 1 million Tucson residents she left behind, stuck in that life cycle disaster called a desert. What does her experience say to them? As it turns out, they quickly disappear into Kingsolver’s geographical amnesia, phantom members of a society mired in a nonsustainable grid and, sadly for them, irrelevant to the noble project that Kingsolver and her family accomplish with elegance, wit, and satiation. Kingsolver’s geography, in essence, becomes the privileged geography of the Eat Local movement.
McKibben is a bit guilty of a similar amnesia. Though undoubtedly well informed about relative food producing efficiencies among different regions, he assumes that his situation in the Lake Champlain Valley-a place that can, with some belt-tightening, provide sustainable food for most of the year-is somehow typical. Like Michael Pollan, he waxes eloquently and brilliantly on the scale, scope, and well-honed efficiencies of local farming. McKibben argues convincingly that much of the East Coast could, with a few adjustments, easily supply all its own food. It’s great stuff. However, he overlooks the demographic reality that a growing majority of the nation lives in (or is moving to) regions where water is imported, soil is artificially enhanced, and the trucks that pick the food up and send it off are the crudest of guzzlers. All of which is to say that McKibben’s deeply researched and humanistic accounts of Eat Local victories sparkle for regions endowed with the life cycle systems to pull the victories off. For those of us poor saps stuck in locations where sustainability is a cruel joke, we can only enjoy the experience vicariously, or plan to subsist on beef jerky and well water. Like Kingsolver, McKibben has a hard time mentioning the dirty secret called The Arid West.
Then there’s the experience of Smith and MacKinnon, who try to eat local in a semi-sustainable environment. Choosing to undertake their “100 mile diet” in Vancouver, where geographical conditions support an erratic local food supply at best, the authors are reduced to what at times read like panicked, animalistic foraging for wayward ingredients. In the name of food miles, the authors, who it must be noted became incredibly creative cooks, twist and turn and stretch a grossly limited food supply into “meals” that they somehow manage to stoically enjoy, even if they are anxiously having discussions about weight loss, scurvy, and protein deficiency while nibbling on stored turnips and worrying about lowered sex drives. If you’re wondering what it is like to eat local in the wrong place: It sucks.
I watched these authors negotiate their self-imposed decisions, made primarily in the name of reducing food miles, with gre
t interest. While I appreciated their personal experiences, as well as the passion and poign
ncy of their writing, one thing soon became depressingly clear: No way on earth would any of these solutions, or anything remotely like these solutions, work for me. The reason: geography. I live in Central Texas-where it would take ample financial resources and a willingness to accept a severely limited diet to eat local year-round. More importantly, we live in a world where demography (for better or worse) responds to economic opportunity rather than geographical fertility. Herein lies the elephant in the room: For environmentally concerned Americans wedded to food mile measurements, the only viable answers for reducing our dietary carbon footprint are to move to a fertile region (Kingsolver, McKibben), to live off root crops, game, and preserved food (Smith and MacKinnon), or to starve (almost Smith and McKinnon). Favoring food miles over life cycle assessments, the authors have established a simple premise for readable books, but they have also obscured an alternative scenario, one that would serve their basic environmental goals while offering mainstream environmentalists more pragmatic solutions than moving to Appalachia, hunting elk, or flirting with scurvy.
Here are what I see as unshakable realities framing the food wars, realities the authors do not face:
The United States, not to mention the world, cannot provide a diverse, locally based diet for all citizens.Asking people to move to more fertile regions is entirely unrealistic-in fact, it’s about the quickest way I can think of to alienate potential environmentalists.In a nation of 300 million people and a world of 7 billion people, food will always have to travel, sometimes very long distances.Consumers living in developed nations are always going to demand choices beyond what the season has to offer.
What I’m thus envisioning, based on these realities and the most recent research, is a pragmatic scenario built on a geographical model that, as the Lincoln study proposes, thinks primarily in terms of comparative life cycles. Given the severe geographical and cultural limitations inherent in the Eat Local philosophy, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop obsessing over food miles, stay put, work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages, and make transportation more fuel-efficient? Shouldn’t we encourage (through subsidies, legislation, moral suasion) regional nodes capable of supplying sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the nation (and the world)? Might it be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, with the hubs located in a food system’s naturally fertile hot spots and the spokes, which travel through arid zones, connecting them with vehicles using hybrid engines and ethanol fuel?
Granted, the idea is a skeleton without flesh, and it is being discussed without the least regard to what are sure to be daunting political obstacles. Still, I think these are lines along which Eat Local advocates would be wise to start thinking. With a dash of imagination, one can see how, properly developed, a life cycle, hub-and-spoke system could meet Eat Local’s environmental goal of fossil fuel reduction, and at the same time diminish many of Eat Local’s less obvious, but often alienating, hang-ups.
An emphasis on life cycle analyses could help free the Eat Local movement from an unfair burden it currently bears-a strong whiff of hypocrisy. Buying locally is the easiest way to buy into what some skeptics call the “light green movement.” Like any movement, Eat Local is prone to insincerity and self-righteousness, with “environmental chic” sometimes outweighing concern about global warming. One gets a glimpse of this tendency when MacKinnon repeatedly visits the local chicken farm to ensure that the birds are happy before he buys one to kill, or when Smith experiences existential angst over whether “we would eat vegetables grown in manure from local cows that ate non-local feed?” Small potatoes, no?
Depoliticizing the local-imported distinction might allow people with genuine concerns about global warming to focus less on the external inputs into cow manure, and more on raising fuel-economy standards, taking on corporate waste, and eliminating coal-fired power plants. Browsing a farmer’s market with a hemp bag that reads “this bag is not plastic” is an innocuous (if a little annoying) display of environmental awareness. A quiet (or not so quiet) campaign to raise fuel standards or shut down coal plants that carries none of the “light green” sexiness of food politics strikes closer to the heart of global warming. Optimistically, one could reason that an intense awareness of food miles would, like a gateway drug, lead to more potent environmental tactics. It is equally likely, however, that the “light green” food shopper who owns a second home in the Poconos and flies there three times a year is going to salve her conscience with local heirloom tomatoes rather than using them to throw at Monsanto executives.
A second issue that the hub-and-spoke vision addresses is that of nostalgia. Too many authors who stump for the Eat Local movement have an overly precious, deeply mythologized view of agricultural history. To an extent, the authors under review all indulge in a declension narrative whereby an elusive golden age of farming-marked by ecological harmony, self-subsistence, and homemade pies-succumbs to the filth, grit, and greed of industrialization. “When we walked as a nation away from the land,” writes Kingsolver, “our knowledge of food production fell away from us like dirt in a laundry-soap commercial.” The nation’s “drift away from our agricultural roots,” she writes in what may be the weirdest historical segue I have ever encountered, began when “munitions plants” started making chemical fertilizers. The result, Kingsolver says, is that “we don’t know beans about beans.” Smith and MacKinnon are equally outraged with this decline. “Fifty years ago,” they lament, “there was still widespread connection to food and the places that it comes from. … Many people kept kitchen gardens, raised chickens, or knew a beekeeper.” Today, “legions of modern children have never seen a cow.”
As an historian who studies agriculture, I’m troubled by these characterizations because they ignore the fact that, from the moment Americans began farming, landowners worked to achieve nearly everything the Eat Local groupies lament. Farmers wanted to trade internationally; they wanted to achieve scale economies; they wanted to industrialize (usually); they wanted insecticides, mechanization, and irrigation systems; they wanted to leave the farm when other opportunities arose; they would have been happy if their children never saw a cow; and they sure as hell would have liked a little commercial soap to remove the dirt from their soiled overalls.
So does this call to arms against an exclusive “food mile” assessment suggest that we should stop eating local, rip off the sticker, and head to the nearest Wal-Mart? Of course not. It means that we-as individuals, as consumers, as environmentalists-should place the act of eating local in a broader perspective, one that goes beyond food miles to recognize the emerging realities of life cycle externalities. We must appreciate the fact that buying local, while in many ways virtuous, might not always benefit the environment. As much as this claim violates deeply held assumptions, life cycle assessments are far more valuable than food mile measurements in gauging the environmental impact of eating. We must appreciate that while there is every reason to encourage the development of efficient local food systems, they will inevitably develop in tandem with global counterparts. The world’s population is expanding; we must get over our fear of bigness and support this co-development. Bigger, if properly managed and regulated, could in many cases be better. Finally, we must appreciate that nobody wants to be scolded because of diet; nobody likes to be told how to eat. The beauty of thinking globally and locally about food production based on ecologies of scale and life cycle assessments is that, in a well-regulated international system, choice would matter less. A novelist could move to the Appalachians and start growing kale, and that would be fine. A scholar could eat what the icy ground had to offer for a long winter, and that would be fine. A young couple with a taste for sadomasochism could hole up in a Canadian shack and eat their “100-mile diet,” and that would be fine. The rest of us could take on the coal lobby, the CAFE fuel-use standards, and the oil giants, and then go have a hassle-free lunch.
And that, too, would be fine.
James McWilliams, a contributing writer, is the author most recently of Building the Bay Colony: Economy and Society in Early Massachusetts. He will spend the upcoming academic year as a fellow in the agrarian studies program at Yale University.