Friday, August 20, 2010

Local Food Matters: A Response to "Math Lessons For Locavores"

Many people have emailed me about a New York Times Op-Ed from August 19, 2010: Math Lessons for Locavores, by Stephen Budiansky. I've started to feel a little silly continually cutting-and-pasting my response, so I decided to blog it!


Budiansky's blog is called, a name which may reflect his wish to be seen as controversial or contrary—and what better liberal sacred cow to assail than local food? Budiansky's main point in his piece is that food miles don't matter, because food transportation is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to food-related energy usage. This is a similar argument to the one that James McWilliams made in his book Just Food; in fact I suspect that Budiansky has read McWilliams book recently.

Budiansky's argument is rich in facts and figures but devoid of footnotes and references. While this may be the nature of an Op-Ed, it does make it hard for a critical reader to explore the facts. Regardless, even if we take all of his facts and figures to be accurate and contextually appropriate, his piece is flawed in may of the same ways as McWilliams' book (ways which I explored here).

Both he and McWilliams neglect or discount the value of a strong local economy.

Buying local helps to build the local economy, and helps to support small businesses.

Why is that important?

Supporting small businesses rather than large corporations is likely to result in a more uniform distribution of wealth—money to the middle-class rather than to the kingpins.

Also, if we keep money in the hands of the middle-class in our local economy, then the place where we live will perhaps be a nicer place to live.

Also, more local food production leaves us better in the face of some sort of infrastructure breakdown that might make food transportation more difficult.

What do I mean by infrastructure breakdown? Fuel shortage…natural disaster…human-made disaster…war…political crisis…strike…

So while transportation fuel is interesting (or maybe not), it is only one piece of the puzzle. That, at least, we can all agree on.


Emmy said...

Great response.

Matt Monteverde said...

I'll make a very selfish and shallow comment: The tomato that I had at work today from a very respectable grocery store tasted like nothing. The tomato I had tonight from my Massachusetts CSA tasted like heaven. Just because transporting produce that was picked WAY too early doesn't technically cost significantly more in the way of energy, doesn't mean that there's no problem with it. I'm just a cook so I don't know anything more than taste...and local produce has more.

Anonymous said...

I've never been one for "food miles," but I do eat locally for reasons of taste and to support the local economy. And I can't help but think that conventional, mass produced food is worse for the environment regardless of food miles.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this response, it is totally right. "food miles" (and the broader notion of carbon footprint) is problematic for lots of reasons and by suggesting that this is the entire reason for the local food movement is erroneous and dishonest (and, frankly, patronizing). not only is there a local economy, and an anti-corporate economy, issue in play, there is also the very important reality that people who are connected to their food think about what they eat. and are excited to do so.

Alex Lewin said...

I probably should have made it clear there were other reasons to buy local food, besides the "local economy" reason that I focused on!

Like that local food usually tastes better.

And that local food leads to greater accountability for food producers, a reason which becomes more and more relevant in these days of outbreaks and recalls. (Check my "Eggs" post tomorrow for more on this…)

And agreed, local food is generally produced in a way that is better for the environment than industrial food. Small farmers, for instance, even when they are not organic, may use chemicals more sparingly than industrial farms. And they don't cause the same runoff and manure problems.

And certainly agreed, the more connected I feel to my food, the more I think about it, the healthier and happier I am likely to be.

And food can once again become a focal point for community, rather than simply a commodity that we put in our mouths so that we can continue moving.