Interesting article: The Locavore Myth, James McWilliams

The Locavore Myth

James E. McWilliams,
Forbes Magazine August 03, 2009

Why buying from nearby farmers won’t save the planet.

Buy local, shrink the distance food travels, save the planet. The locavore movement has captured a lot of fans. To their credit, they are highlighting the problems with industrialized food. But a lot of them are making a big mistake. By focusing on transportation, they overlook other energy-hogging factors in food production. Take lamb. A 2006 academic study (funded by the New Zealand government) discovered that it made more environmental sense for a Londoner to buy lamb shipped from New Zealand than to buy lamb raised in the U.K. This finding is counterintuitive–if you’re only counting food miles. But New Zealand lamb is raised on pastures with a small carbon footprint, whereas most English lamb is produced under intensive factory-like conditions with a big carbon footprint. This disparity overwhelms domestic lamb’s advantage in transportation energy.  New Zealand lamb is not exceptional. Take a close look at water usage, fertilizer types, processing methods and packaging techniques and you discover that factors other than shipping far outweigh the energy it takes to transport food. One analysis, by Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, showed that transportation accounts for only 11% of food’s carbon footprint. A fourth of the energy required to produce food is expended in the consumer’s kitchen. Still more energy is consumed per meal in a restaurant, since restaurants throw away most of their leftovers. Locavores argue that buying local food supports an area’s farmers and, in turn, strengthens the community. Fair enough. Left unacknowledged, however, is the fact that it also hurts farmers in other parts of the world. The U.K. buys most of its green beans from Kenya. While it’s true that the beans almost always arrive in airplanes–the form of transportation that consumes the most energy–it’s also true that a campaign to shame English consumers with small airplane stickers affixed to flown-in produce threatens the livelihood of 1.5 million sub-Saharan farmers.

Another chink in the locavores’ armor involves the way food miles are calculated. To choose a locally grown apple over an apple trucked in from across the country might seem easy. But this decision ignores economies of scale. To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market. The critical measure here is not food miles but apples per gallon. The one big problem with thinking beyond food miles is that it’s hard to get the information you need. Ethically concerned consumers know very little about processing practices, water availability, packaging waste and fertilizer application. This is an opportunity for watchdog groups. They should make life-cycle carbon counts available to shoppers. Until our food system becomes more transparent, there is one thing you can do to shrink the carbon footprint of your dinner: Take the meat off your plate. No matter how you slice it, it takes more energy to bring meat, as opposed to plants, to the table. It takes 6 pounds of grain to make a pound of chicken and 10 to 16 pounds to make a pound of beef. That difference translates into big differences in inputs. It requires 2,400 liters of water to make a burger and only 13 liters to grow a tomato. A majority of the water in the American West goes toward the production of pigs, chickens and cattle. The average American eats 273 pounds of meat a year. Give up red meat once a week and you’ll save as much energy as if the only food miles in your diet were the distance to the nearest truck farmer.

If you want to make a statement, ride your bike to the farmer’s market. If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, become a vegetarian.


*Has anyone read his book, Just Food? Thoughts? I’m going to look into it. -cz

5 Responses to Interesting article: The Locavore Myth, James McWilliams

  1. Hm. Thanks for the article. I’ve had a lot of problems with the “local food” movement’s ideas, but mostly related to the local/organic divide. I’m not particularly hot on killing the environment close to home, either. Also, the local food scene here is ridiculous; the non-organic fruit people here will actually charge twice as much for their fruit per pound than the grocery stores have them – if it’s even their fruit; they’ve been known to buy fruit they didn’t grow and sell it, too. A much higher proportion of profit goes to your local farmer at the market stand, because no distributors or corporations are bumping up the price. I’m not down with that, but I’m given to understand it’s different elsewhere.

    I’m also going to point out that the “16 lbs of grain statistic” doesn’t even begin to take into account the massive environmental damage caused by beef cows* beforehand; basically all of them are “free range” and grass fed before being taken to feedlots for a few months.

    I do think, however that this crap about “threatens the livelihood of Sub-Saharan farmers” is disingenuous at best. Industrial-Western cropsploitation isn’t doing it any better; they might actually be better off without the white West’s “support.”

    *For various reasons, I won’t use “cattle.” Bite me.

    • I just got this guy’s book out of the library so I’ll be reading it this week. I think the local food movement is a good idea but that it’s executed, by some, in a really silly way. Like- if it’s local it’s good, if it’s not, it’s bad. This leaves no room for conversations about animal ethics, the ethics of eating meat and dairy *at all* (especially in the face of plant alternatives), organic food, global communities/economy, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Just like there are vegans who eat really shitty food and assume it’s good just cause it’s vegan, there are locavores who eat really shitty food who assume it’s good just cause it’s local. Furthermore, the conversation usually completely ignores the fact that it’s generally possible to be vegan and eat local.

      There are so many other things to consider: food miles are complicated (as written about in this article.) Animals need to be slaughtered at federally approved slaughterhouses, so even if you think you’re being less inhumane in your choice of animal farms, those farms are mostly still sending their animals to big slaughterhouses as per the law. Local food can be really unhealthy, not organic, and not sustainable. People need to be having more nuanced conversations about this stuff.

      • Oy. Lierre Keith is tiring. How do you even obfuscate this much? Seriously, she believes that 50% of the world isn’t lactose intolerant? Um. And wasn’t her entire point supposed to be that eating animal products is already healthy, not that it might become so someday provided we keep doing it as much as possible?

        I had to take a break.

        The part about how food miles are more complex than we’ve been led to believe is solid gold. I’ve been mulling over energy expenditures lately, especially since it’s come to my attention that there are people who don’t use a minimum amount of electricity. (No matter what we do, my roommate and I can never manage to top $60 in our elec/heat bill, which is basically $5 above the minimum for both categories.) One of the problems with the animal agriculture free-for-all Keith is promoting is the enormous usage of freshwater; first because it’s an extremely finite resource, but also because even in Massachusetts it takes energy to move water places. One of the biggest causes of parasitism and water contamination all over the world is animal agriculture; and actually most of Africa, where cow herding first originated, has been completely stomped by this fact.

        Even if you take the sociopathic route of killing animals you’ve raised, though, it’s a mistake to focus exclusively on “energy expenditure.” Because only some forms of energy expenditure are ever counted, and even then, there are so many more powerful forms of environmental degradation you miss by looking only at this one piece.

        Other than that, yes, you’ve summed up my problem with local-food politics quite nicely.

  2. Alan says:

    So veganism is somehow more sustainable? Wow. NO diet is sustainable with 7 billion people on the planet. At least with pasture fed animals, you are building the topsoil. Contrast that with mono-crop corn, wheat, soy, etc. How is crowding out all non-humans by growing these grains more sustainable than pasture fed animals building topsoil? Even if we were growing grains on a local scale, you would be deleting topsoil, and yes even if you are rotating crops(you merely slow down topsoil loss by rotating). Not to mention grains are essentially sugar; so the solution is to grow grains, decrease biodiversity, and eat starches which convert to basically sugar? Your ideology is blinding you. Why don’t you go hang out in the forest or a meadow for a little while? Maybe you will begin to have a better understand how the REAL world works. Sorry but predation is necessary in a healthy ecosystem. Don’t pretend like your hands aren’t dirty either; you have no idea what died to get your food on your plate.

    • A lot of the things you’re saying are simplified and missing crucial information. For instance:

      Eighty percent of corn and soy crops are used for livestock feed, not for vegan food. The problems of grain, soy, and monocultures are simply not ones that can be pinned on the vegan movement. The problem of designer foods is not inherent to veganism any more than the problem of designer clothes is inherent to wearing clothes. There are plenty of vegans who eat mainly local and organic, plenty of vegans who don’t eat soy or tons of corn and wheat, etc. To claim that all vegans eat all grain and soy is a disingenuous straw-man argument.

      Veganic/stock free permaculture is a thriving practice all over the world. It seems many locavores are willfully ignorant of this fact, and I’m not entirely clear why. Veganic permaculture is by far the most sustainable farming practice. There are many books and internet resources on this if you need more information.

      Grass fed livestock don’t partake in the problem of corn and soy feed. But pasture/grass fed animals require more than twice the land of factory farmed animals. Grazing is one of the worst environmental problems that exists. Overgrazing has tramped and compacted land and been the largest contributor to desertification. Two-thirds of the American West, for instance, is grazing land. Clearing land for pasture is the major reason for destruction of forests and biodiversity including the rainforests. This is simply not a problem with even the least sustainable plant diets. Even the most industrialized plant diets use exponentially less land per yield than meat diets, especially grazed meat diets. Grazing is one of the most ecologically absurd situations humans have ever created. One researcher, Vacliv Smil, who has done very careful math has estimated that by 2050, if we are to feed the world on a meat diet, we will need 67 percent more land on the earth. Again, there is no comparable number for even the least sustainable plant agriculture.

      Cows emit massive amounts of methane, one of the worst greenhouse gasses, and it is well documented that this is a major cause of global warming, surpassing all forms of transportation combined. Grass fed and free-range livestock emit many times more methane than industrial livestock, in fact, because they live much longer. Again, this problem is simply not comparable to the problems of plant agriculture.

      Raising livestock, even grass-fed, is also by far the world’s number one cause of water usage and, in many cases, water pollution. Again, not comparable to the water usage of plant agriculture.

      Furthermore, the issue of transportation of food over long-distances is often cited by locavores, but the truth is much more complicated. The simple equation of food miles does not account for whether or not irrigation is used, whether or not food is grown in hothouses, whether or not food is in season, how food is stored, how food is cooked, and how much food was shipped where, etc. To quote McWilliams, who has many problematic ideas but is right-on when it comes to food miles, “To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market.” Furthermore, simplistic food mile equations do not account for people who live in regions where food is not available, which opens up a sizeable can of worms in terms of human rights and food access that is so complicated that books and books have been written about it. The local ethic, despite its benefits, simply does not take responsibility for the problem of food access in a globalized world where food is an inherently global issue. This is complicated and deserves to be dealt with in a complicated way, especially if people claim to be concerned with human rights.

      But I digress. In short, transportation is about ten percent of a food’s energy cost. The rest is comprised of all the factors I just mentioned. So while there are many reasons to eat local, and I support eating local for several reasons, and I eat local as much as I can (and I’m a vegan… gasp), a life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a much more honest and comprehensive way to figure which food is the most sustainable. This is not to completely shit on local agriculture at all. But it is to say that just because something’s local doesn’t mean it’s the most environmentally friendly option.

      If you are going to eat animal food, grass-fed meat from permaculture farms is the most sustainable way to do it. But veganic permacuture is exponetially more sustainable due to the minimized effects it has on land, water, and greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the less sustainable techniques of plant agriculture are more sustainable than the most sustainable forms of animal agriculture.

      And this does not begin to get into the issue of the rights and interests of individual animals. I happen to believe that an egalitarian and ecologically friendly world is not possible when our personal and mass psychology is imbued with the idea that it is okay to unnecessarily use most of the world’s sentient creatures as mere instruments to our own ends. But that aside, I understand the issue of animal rights lives in complicated philosophical, emotional, spiritual territory. However, the issue of whether or not eating meat is good for the environment, especially in the long run, is quite simple: it isn’t. And there are viable, thriving alternatives.

      It’s not my intention to get into an internet flame war, but I do think your argument seems a bit disingenuous. You’ve said I’m lost in ideology, yet you have reiterated almost idea for idea the theories of Lierre Keith and the sources she derives her theories from, many of which we’ve explored in depth in this blog, and many of which have been proven inaccurate by a preponderance of widely varied evidence. The health argument you’re putting forward not only comes from a psudo-science fringe, but it’s based on theories from folks like the Weston A. Price Foundation who are widely known as reactionary, zealous non-experts. Grain, in fact, is not just sugar. This claim is a caricature of biology. Grains are made of complex carbohydrates, amino acids, minerals, and fiber. Quinoa is a complete protein. Oats and whole wheat have iron, fiber, and b vitamins. I could go on. But if you take an introduction to biology class you will get a lot of information about this. And I’m not even going to get into how wildly dogmatic and ideological your claims about predation and farming are, or the fact that you have no idea what my experience with farming– or forests– is. So I guess I’d take your argument a little more seriously if it seemed you were thinking for yourself and gathering all of the evidence before stating your case– a case which, in the end, is just derivative of the polemic of Lierre Keith et al. Also, you’ve helped me write a new post, so thanks.


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