Monday, October 4, 2010

Thinking About Local Eating

Perhaps some of you receive the Grow It Eat It Network News. It is an email newsletter for home gardeners, associated with the Maryland Extension service. In the second-to-last edition there was a link to an editorial in the New York Times about local eating, in which the author basically asserted that the transportation costs associated with eating food from distant farms were negligible in comparison to other energy costs associated with food production and consumption, and that the local food movement "...threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas."

Well, you can imagine this article ruffled some feathers. My own response (steeped in thesis work as I was) was to immediately write an email reminder to myself to post about this when I started writing posts again. I understand where this op-ed's author is coming from. However, I found his article a bit trite and at times vague. (In physics we would say "hand-wavy", as in you wave your hands around a lot where you're not quite sure if your argument holds water.) Here are some questions I wrote after reading the editorial.

1) How much extra energy is associated with local growing (small farm or home garden) versus large-scale commercial growing in a more hospitable environment?
2) How much energy would have been used to landscape the local land that is instead used for food production?

Obviously these questions are practically unanswerable, even on an individual basis. The fact is that large-scale commercial farming is big business and is very efficient. A home gardener is much less so, even an experienced one. For example, consider the amount of extra packaging associated with distribution of fertilizers in such small quantities, and the amount wasted due to the absurd difficulty of accurately distributing said fertilizers.

3) How does the nutritive value compare? The flavor?

Steve Soloman (my gardening hero, if you remember), in his book Gardening When it Counts; Growing Food in Hard Times, pointed out a claim he attributed to Dr. William Albrecht about the nutritional consequences of local eating. To quote Solomon: "Before World War II most North Americans got most of their food from farms located not far from where they lived. As a result, differences in average human health due to local soil conditions were apparent." (To be clear, Solomon was not criticizing local eating, he was emphasizing the importance of using quality, balanced fertilizer if you intend to grow most of your own food.) We are often told that locally grown food is more nutritious (and delicious) than "supermarket" food because it doesn't have to be shipped and therefor it can be picked closer to the ideal ripeness. This makes sense to me, but I'm not sure how the nutritional losses from shipping compare to those from growth in less productive soils. I'm assuming my local farmer's market guy does not grow his food products in COF. Does anyone know of any studies that have been done comparing the nutritional content of farmer's market or home garden produce to supermarket produce?

4) What additional energy cost is associated with food storage because of a shorter local growing season? (The author discusses the costs of food storage in the editorial, but in such a way that it seems disconnected with the concept of local eating. I believe this question is the point he was trying to make.)
5) What energy savings are associated with seasonal eating?

In my opinion, by far the best thing about local eating is that it encourages seasonal eating. If you buy most of your produce at the farmer's market you are more likely to eat eggplant - at least, I know I am - because strawberries won't be there in September. Not only does this encourage the consumption of a wider variety of foods, it discourages the waste associated with shipping strawberries from CA when you could have eaten a locally grown eggplant with your dinner instead. However, some people - okay, me! - react to the seasonal availability of foods by simply storing foods from their assigned seasons year-round rather than buying them from CA, at great additional energy cost. Do you think the benefit outweighs the cost?

Just FYI, the most recent Grow It Eat It newsletter included a link to a scathing editorial in defense of local eating, with several very good points in it. However, I liked it even less than the original piece, because I felt the tone was overly emotional derisive and much of her defense confuses the issues of eating locally and eating organically, which often but not always go hand in hand.


  1. These are great points. I read an occasional column on Slate, where people ask "Paper or plastic?" "Local or not?" etc., and the author calculates the total energy costs associated with each choice. And what I've learned from that is that it's really hard to accurately calculate how much energy something costs, from start to finish. What a difficult question, and yet it's such a useful thing to know nowadays.

  2. Eating local just seems to be the correct thing to do, but it is hard. For example, local tomatoes are avaiable Thur- Sun at a road stand on Archer Rd. extended. So most times I forgo local and do Publix.I do sometimes go to Wards.

  3. I think you are a very good experimental scientist to have all those questions. And it seems from your eloquent writing style that you may have been doing a lot of that recently...

  4. @Renee Michelle: You are quite correct. I encountered a similar problem when it came to choosing to use cloth diapers. One article would say it was better for the environment, another would say it was worse - both could be right, depending on your individual situation.

    @Sue - Yes, I agree, it is difficult. It is also difficult to even gauge how local a local food is. For example, at the College Park farmer's market there is a stand that sells some local foods and some definitely not local foods like bananas. And the farmer's market where I work consists of one truck from a farm in Pennsylvania. They can afford to drive so far because they charge a LOT.

    @Ellie - I have been known to jot the occasional line of prose...

  5. I am late to this conversation but am slowly catching up. I agree with your sense of "local eating", which also include seasonal and appropriate for the local environment. But I can also see the point of the NYTimes writer. For example, it doesn't seem a good use of Maryland resources to sell mangoes produced locally (if they ever get to that point). Or for places like Arizona to sell any produce, for that matter (other than cactus and prickly pear). But I know of people who think that anything with the local label is going to be good, even if it means you have to do a heck of a lot to that local environment to support that produce.

    I think these are great questions. I also frequently wonder how doing dishes myself compares with the dishwasher. I understand that if I use a full dishwasher, I use less water (depending on how I wash the dishes). But what about the electricity used to run the dishwasher. I wouldn't need that if I were to wash dishes myself.

    I can't wait for some smart people to figure out how to help me measure this.