I was so irked by yesterday’s witless New York Times piece questioning the environmental value of eating locally that I thought the fairest thing to do was simply ignore it.
But now that the Times climate blogger Andrew Revkin has drafted a tepid response, I feel compelled to add a scalding hot one.
In yesterday’s piece titled "If It’s Fresh and Local, Is It Always Greener?" writer Andrew Martin riffs unintelligently off some ideas rattling around at UC Davis about whether the carbon footprint of locally grown food is really smaller than that of food shipped from far away. The Davis people suggest that strawberries grown en masse on an industrial farm and sent by railroad en masse may use less oil than strawberries grown at your neighbor’s small farm and sent to the farmer’s market in a beat-up old pick-up.
There are so many variables in this example that I find it intellectually worthless. For example, how far is the local farmer driving the strawberries? All the way to Union Square or just to Westchester? And is he or she driving a hybrid? And by the way, how far are the Price Chopper supermarkets from the rail yard, too, and how fuel efficient are their trucks?
As to why somebody at UC Davis is pushing such a dicey idea, here’s a clue, Andrew…University of California. Which state has the most to lose if all of us in the other 49 start supporting our local farmers? California.
Plus, nowhere does anybody mention the possibly of growing the strawberries in your own backyard using zero oil, and possibly not even a bowl that has to be washed, if you just fill your face right in the garden. Dear Andrew Martin, this is not a difficult crop. I’ve been growing boatloads of them for years with little input other than benign neglect.
And even IF the oil costs of locally grown produce and farmer’s-market-browsing consumers were actually higher than the costs of mass-produced produce and depressed supermarket shoppers…oil is NOT the only environmental cost of industrial farming.
Farming on that kind of scale is an incredible strain on an ecosystem. It depletes water resources, especially in a dry place like Calitornia, breeds pests, soil exhaustion, poisonous run-off that pollutes aquifers, manure pits the size of Rhode Island…a million other environmental evils.
There are other questions, too. If farming only takes place in California, what will happen to our glorious landscape here in upstate New York? Nothing but cheap vinyl-sided housing as far as the eye can see. Successful small farms stop sprawl. Encourage the revitalization of towns, where we can all walk to buy our groceries. Keep a little space clear for wildlife.
Not to mention, they beautify the world. Nothing, in my opinion, and I include Yosemite and Big Sur, is as beautiful as a neat little New England farm. Ten thousand years of human intelligence about how to deal with nature wrapped up in a few dozen heavily worked acres.
These aesthetic questions are not meaningless. Ignore them, and we’ll wind up with a populace too down-hearted to care about global warming. The indisputable fact is, locally grown food tastes a million times better than the plastic stuff shipped here in the winter from California. It is life-affirming.
In my book, beauty and flavor alone are reason enough to buy from local farmers. But I will need a hell of a lot more evidence before I am convinced that giant agribusinesses are better for the environment than the lovely young guys at the Saratoga Springs farmers’ market from whom I buy parsnips and steal gardening advice.