Eating Locally, and other Victimless Crimes — A Response to Budiansky’s “Locavore Math”

A lettuce farm in... well, does it matter? //

In an editorial appearing in yesterday’s New York Times, Stephen Budiansky drew a good deal of attention from the web’s food writers for dressing down locavore-types who, when making food purchases, blindly favor the apparent geographic origin of the food above all other factors. That “food miles” are only one small part of the sustainability equation is and always has been a fair point. A lot more goes into “sustainability” than simple geography. Budiansky instead craves what he calls efficiency: we can’t all feed ourselves, but we all have to be fed, so we should grow our food where it is best grown, in warm climates, instead of where it might inefficiently be grown, like snowy New Hampshire.

Unfortunately, he does not follow through with a very meaningful argument, and in fact appears to rail against invisible enemies he conjures up, like oranges and bananas overwintered in do-gooder New England hothouses. There are some instances of inefficiencies like these in real life (like eating meat, a subject he avoids), but in attacking the perceived misconceptions of one movement (that local is always better), he does nothing to convince us that this “forced” alien produce is actually a legitimate threat, or that, in slavishly purchasing it, local food lovers are contributing to the downfall of proper social advancement. Nevertheless, he slashes at these evil entities in order to buttress a dangerous prescription: when it comes to our food system, we knuckleheads should all calm down and realize that “non-locavores” are actually doing just great.

Local isn’t always better. All else equal, if you are in Boston in January and you want to buy a tomato, you should buy one from somewhere warm, not from somewhere cold. This is because the cost of the freight, in terms of energy requirements, is substantially less than the cost of the heat required to grow the tomato in a naturally cold climate. This is a valid point, but just as Budiansky is attempting to argue that “food miles” are blown out of proportion, it’s worth asking if he is guilty of blowing these very “inefficiencies” out of proportion. It is not at all clear that there are any more of these foolhardy, energy-guzzling locavores than there were, say, welfare queens. Is this about more than tomatoes? Does he have an axe to grind?

It’s difficult to figure out exactly whom Budiansky has a problem with, but his main argument can probably be summarized as this: shipping isn’t really that big of a deal. He explains:

Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.

This is not an argument against eating locally, though; if anything, it’s an argument against vilifying lettuce from California. I do not vilify lettuce from California, but I don’t purchase it, and I don’t think that other Bostonians should purchase it, either. Why? Because we grow lettuce right here, and because lettuce from here is fresher, and because purchasing it supports my local economy, and because its easier for me to know something about that lettuce that it would be if it came from the west coast. Even if you do fret over the shipping of the Californian lettuce, that’s your right. You shouldn’t have to pay for trucks and drivers and gasoline and insurance just to purchase lettuce if you don’t want to. Either way, if it’s foolish to fret over shipping, isn’t it foolish to take umbrage with those who do?

Clementines. It's best to grow them in warm areas, but on whose land, and who gets to eat them? //

I can see no reason to discourage anybody from eating locally; I can, however, see many reasons to encourage those who do not eat locally to do so. The most important of these reasons is that bad things demonstrably occur when we become divorced from our food supply, things like obesity, Type II diabetes, slash-and-burn agriculture, monocultures, GMO development, and animal and human rights violations. Not coincidentally, these issues overwhelmingly affect the poor. Many, many people within the local food movement are very earnestly working to grant poor people access to foods which are traditionally difficult for them to obtain, like freesh vegetables, much less learn about. These people are not targeted by Budiansky, because criticizing them is considerably harder than criticizing made-up people who spend all winter patting each others on the back while eating fresh mangoes from their coal-powered greenhouses.

It’s occasionally feels like Budiansky is creating the image of the holier-than-thou locavore simply so that he might out-holier-than-thou them: oh ho! You anti-Agribusiness types think you’re so cleverly contrarian, but, on the contrary! Arguing against the glorification of “local” is foolhardy if all you do is turn around and glorify “efficient,” as Budiansky has essentially done here, especially when you both poorly define and poorly support your new buzzword (for an excellent discussion of how tricky efficiency can be, see “The Inventor’s Dilemma” from the May 17th 2010 New Yorker). Nowhere is this more obnoxious — indeed, absurd — than when he preposterously compares a Costa Rican banana plantation to his backyard garden:

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica.

It is rather difficult to believe that Budiansky uses “the most efficient technologies” in his backyard garden, or that he truly believes that humble bananas farmers walk 42 steps from their back door to spend happy evenings plucking fruits which are local, fresh, and in-season. You can’t just say “listen, I’ll grow my carrots right here, you grow my bananas over there, and we’ll call it even.” Budiansky hopes that we don’t notice his logical sleight of hand, but alas, we do: he pays only part of the costs, but receives all of the food. This is a textbook example of an economic externality, which even high schoolers know are market inefficiencies.

In the former scenario, he is free to use his own land how he pleases (though I’m guessing that this does not involve huge amounts of highly efficient pesticides). In the latter scenario, a giant corporation bribes a corrupt foreign government to allow it to seize large tracts of arable rainforest, and puts locals to work for incredibly meager salaries, all so that bananas can be purchased by New Englanders for $0.79 per pound. The former is a hobby. The latter is imperialism. Budiansky may purport to despise insular thinking, but it is the height of isolated Western entitlement to argue that, given the fact I and my friends want lots of bananas, it is the world’s most efficient solution to send North American companies down to Central American land to grow them at the lowest possible cost. Here is a more efficient solution: if you live in Loudon County, Virginia, do not eat bananas.

Mexican farmers. These men can be made more efficient by denying them citizenship, so that we can just eat their food instead of having to pay for their healthcare. //

It is possible that he truly does understand how inefficient pesticides are in the long-term, and just failed to mention it. Being that he lauds the relative energy efficiency of agricultural chemicals, this is unlikely. It is also possible that when he talks about growing bananas and bringing them to market, he is referring to Costa Ricans growing their own bananas on their own property and bringing them to their own local markets; this would be of little interest to his New York Times audience, though, so this too is unlikely.

Or perhaps he maintains that the benefits to us of eating as much tropical fruit as we are able to purchase at market — vitamins, antioxidants, being well-fed so that we may continue to be world leaders — are worth the costs, such as unknown quantities of relatively unstudied chemicals in our children. After all, haven’t these past two hundred years indubitably proved that Malthusian fears over resource exhaustion were misguided? We may be filling ourselves with pesticides now, but who knows what “undo” buttons science may afford us in the future? Soon we will surely begin to make great strides in engineering our children to be BPA-resistant. Why fret now over a tablespoon of oil?

Budiansky’s piece didn’t have to be poorly-targeted or poorly-framed. It’s great to take a person who wants to do well and show them how to do better: I see you carrying your organic cereal out of the supermarket, but could you maybe not use a plastic bag? One wishes he’d fleshed out the real potential wisdom of his article, which is that, since we’re all concerned about saving the world, we should pay less attention to where our food is grown and more attention to how it’s produced. Futhermore, let’s just take a long, hard look at our nation’s energy habits:

The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.

But he doesn’t flesh out this argument at all (to, say, advocate for aggressive clean-energy policies). He instead attacks those who eat locally for thinking they are being efficient when, really, they’re probably actually being somewhat less efficient than they thought were being, in some cases. Great. Thanks.

Truly, there are too many buzzwords used underneath the umbrella of “environmentalism.” This is not a problem because there is some idiocy at the heart of the sustainability movement. This is a problem because it confuses people, and because when people are confused, they are then easily placated, and ask too few questions of the solutions they are being sold. What the “sustainability movement” is really about is the recognition that how we feed ourselves now has a very real impact on how our children and grandchildren will feed themselves. We need to ensure the security of their food supply. This is not foolhardy, or inefficient, or wrong, regardless of the fact that there may be a number of people in the world who think they’re doing more than they actually are. It’s important that we catch everyone up to speed — not, for god’s sake, that we declare a mistrial and forget this whole thing ever happened. There is still work to be done. We cannot assume that the future will do it for us.


4 Responses to Eating Locally, and other Victimless Crimes — A Response to Budiansky’s “Locavore Math”

  1. Jake Claro says:

    Excellent post. I sent out an email the other day to some friends responding to the Budiansky article and I’m glad to see that I wasn’t alone in the points I attempted to make. This lil rant articulates some of my initial responses further and I will definitely recommend it. I’m really perplexed by the Budiansky article because all of the data he uses has nothing to do with comparing local vs global food transport–he’s simply pointing out that energy use in comparison to other energy using sectors in the US is a small percentage of total usage. This is not a revelation of any kind, and many who support local agricultural development are aware that agriculture’s primary environmental sin is not the amount of energy use, but the way in which it is used. Those who want more localized/regional food systems desire greater autonomy in how their food is produced, which implicitly involves a desire for energy use to be endogenous to the agricultural system rather than through exogenous inputs that are primarly derived from the inefficient use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (and integrated pest management, cover -cropping, intercropping etc.). Anyway, this could turn into a lengthy screed of my own…nice work and I’ll be visiting the site frequently in the near future.


    Jake Claro

  2. Jake Claro says:

    I just want to clarify that my reference to cover-cropping and the like were meant as examples of management that confers benefits that are often sought through external means. Also, IPM is a somewhat loaded term, but I was using it as a placemarker for ecologically focused pest management practices.

    • Finn says:

      “…many who support local agricultural development are aware that agriculture’s primary environmental sin is not the amount of energy use, but the way in which it is used.”

      I think this is probably the best evidence of the wrong-headedness of his piece. He’s probably trying to make arguments that “locavores,” on the whole, would very much agree with. For whatever misguided reason, though, he tried to make his points at the expense of locavores and, really, local foods themselves.

      He’s just a guy, and I don’t know how many people really read that and took it seriously besides the people he was blindsiding. I saw a few people pick up this story as a “Shut up, Locavores!” meme-type thing, but most of the people who have taken it seriously have been decidedly negative about it. Here’s hoping the Times allows for a counter-argument. It’d undoubtedly be much more coherent and inclusive.

  3. Pingback: Food in the News: 8/21–8/27 «

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