Take-Out Sushi Eaters At The Times Continue To Wrestle With Eat-Local Question


Andrew Martin of the New York Times, who last week clumsily questioned the environmental value of eating locally, today puts another stone in the scale with an article titled "Food and Fuel Compete for Land."   Martin points out that the cost of food in your local supermarket is rising, thanks to a few factors.

  1. The diversion of corn crops to ethanol production, which has led to rising prices for animal feeds of all kinds–including a really worrisome competition between farmers who want malt barley for their animals and brewers who want it for beer.
  2. The rising cost of the oil used to transport food.
  3. Increasing international demand for what were previously luxuries, like meat, milk, and eggs.

What could possibly ease such a situation?  Martin considers energy policies, but comes to no conclusions.

Now, I’m not an economist, but it seems to me fairly obvious that bringing more land into production would help to keep food prices down.  And since the entire Northeast is littered with failed dairy farms, why wouldn’t it make infinite sense for somebody to grow food on that wasted land? 

Setting aside for the moment all debate about the environmental value of the eat-local movement, there seems to be a powerful economic argument for it.

Indeed, I’ve noticed over the last year that prices at my local farmer’s market have begun to seem downright reasonable compared to the supermarket.  This suggests that whatever questions Martin has about the carbon value of growing locally, local farmers are somehow doing something more efficiently.  Using less oil?

Meanwhile, another story in today’s Times underlines the argument for localizing food production: "World Food Supply is Shrinking, U.N. Agency Warns."  With ever more mouths to feed, global warming threatening agricultural areas, land that once grew crops for people now growing crops for biofuels and feed, and the increasing cost of oil, it is time to rethink, according to Jacques Diouf, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Mr. Diouf suggested that all countries and international agencies would have to “revisit” agricultural and aid policies they adopted “in a different economic environment.” For example, with food and oil prices approaching records, it may not make sense to send food aid to poorer countries, but instead to focus on helping farmers grow food locally.



  1. What if people willing to farm can’t afford the price of land? Got any cheap land in your area? Any distress sales on failed dairy farms?

    I wish I could say the produce in our farmers markets here in the District of Columbia compared favorably with supermarket prices. (Gosh, have you got it good up there, Michele.) Mostly I think the farmers have discovered they can sell designer kale and potatoes at boutique prices. And why should they sell cheap when customers will pay dear?

    I’m still looking for where the NYT is at fault here and not seeing it, Michele. Go to this excellent piece today at Ethicurean for a look at what’s holding local food back:


  2. I’m irked at the Times for the gullibility of last week’s piece–taking the back-of-envelope calculations of industrial strawberry growers as proof of the carbon inefficiency of eating locally! Plus, a failure to calculate the full carbon costs of industrial farming, including the petroleum-derived fertilizers used! Plus, a failure to mention the other environmental costs of industrial farming–including draining the West dry!

    Great paper, but its coverage of garden and farm issues tends to remind me that it’s staffed by Manhattanites.

    It doesn’t take much land to grow an explosion of vegetables, Ed, as I’m sure you know. Only big grazing animals require acres and acres of land. And you can still buy 5 acres of bottomland here for less than a Prius.

    Thank you for the link, but the argument seems very pro-local farmer to me.

    But I’m not grinding this ax to support local farmers, much as I like many of them. Here’s the real cause I’m fired up about: getting my neighbors and friends out into their wasted yards to grow a little food themselves, if only for their own happiness.

  3. Well of course M.Diouf’s (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) suggestion that farmers in poor countries should grow enough food to support themselves locally instead of getting food aid seems common sense. Leaving aside drought, floods, war, crop failure etc, what is the reason why countries that formally produced enough food for their own people are now needing food aid – the reason is the policies of the World Bank in funding corporate agriculture and the desire of rich countries to get food at rock bottom prices. Coffee, bananas, soya, sugar, etc are grown as industrialised crops in third world countries, displacing traditional small farms producing food for the local community. The workers, like the migrant agricultural workers in the US, are grossly underpaid and exploited so that we can eat cheap, cheap, cheap food in quantities much larger than we need, and drink coffee by the gallon. And some of these international corporations functioning in poor countries don’t care what political regime they support, as long as they pay as little for food concessions as they can. In additional, wealthy countries such as European Union and North America subsidise agriculture, covertly or overtly, to such a large extent that poor countries are unable to compete.

    Maybe apart from buying what our local farmers can raise, we should also try eating and drinking a little less.
    At our local supermarket, in British Columbia, a major fruit and vegetable growing area, most of the fruit and vegetables come from the U.S., and what doesn’t come from the US appears too frequently to come from China, often unidentified as to country of origin unless you enquire (as does just about everything else in the shops here).
    I suspect that we are going to have to get used to paying more for food, and those prices will be more closely related to how much food actually costs to grow.

  4. For one thing, we can support grass-fed meat production instead of corn-fed. Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma gives a thorough set of reasons why, but in a nutshell: Cows aren’t adapted to eating a diet consisting mostly of grain; cows fed a grain diet must be pumped full of antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to reach slaughtering age; feedlots are hell for cows and people alike, and mini ecological disasters in and of themselves; grass-fed cows fertilize their own pasture; grass-fed cows tend to be healthier, and produce more Omega-3 fats in their meat; chickens and pigs, too, are healthier and produce healthier meat if they have real pasture time, and chickens that can eat grass and bugs lay tastier, healthier eggs.

    Still, using corn for alcohol fuel instead isn’t a long-term solution for our fuel problems. Corn farmers have just about maxed-out the land and water resources that we have for growing corn. Especially the water.

    Still, I agree that there is a LOT of land that could be brought into production. Our own back yards are a good place to start. How many yards in your neighborhood are growing food right now? How many could be that aren’t? How many homeowner’s associations need to be educated about the aesthetics of home food production?

    Perhaps Victory gardens will come back into fashion as one’s patriotic duty.

  5. Land is expensive everywhere. When I recently maxed out what I thought I could/should put under food gardens in my suburban home I started asking more rural friends if they would be intersted in partnering. My deal: I would build, prep, tend, and harvest their land-much of it just lawns between their buildings- and give them all they could eat if I could keep/sell the rest. Results from 3 conversations? 5-20 ACRES OF LAND. Friendly conversation goes a long way in this TV era.

    But it doesn’t take that much. .25 acres will allow for 25-30 beds 3×50, with paths, which is more than enough for one person to reasonably tend. It will also produce a freakish amount of fantastic food!

    check out http://www.spinfarming.com too. They are a business model, but it would work in anyones yard.

    Great discussion and Here! Here! for Victory Gardens!

  6. What Reading Dirt said. If we can convert abandoned, hillside farms here in the Northeast and turn them into pasture-based dairies, that would be great. But it’s a huge economic and educational undertaking to link competent farmers with the land and the animals. I don’t see a whole lot in the current ag policy debate pushing for this.

  7. Hey Rob, the other thing nobody mentions is that vegetable gardens are BEAUTIFUL! I mean, seriously, is there any kind of garden more beautiful? A tremendous improvement on the standard suburban yard of sod, red mulch, and sprinkling of evergreens.

  8. Rob, I second those emotions. I grow my own food and I wish everybody did. I just don’t fault the New York Times or anyone else for raising legitimate questions about how this local food movement is being executed. It’s still a free-market system, so no one’s going to be buying that fallow land in the Northeast unless they can pay the mortgage and make some kind of living off it. And that ain’t growing turnips. Currently, all of the local food being produced and sold at farmers markets, CASs, co-ops and elsewhere amounts to 2 percent of the food sales in this country. I just don’t see the other 98 percent moving over to the kinds of local food production mentioned here without a serious incentive–such as not being able to drive a car to the Walmart. Meanwhile–let’s face it–the local food system we do have is incredibly inefficient with all these vehicles traveling hither and yon to deliver small parcels of food. Most of the farmers markets close for the winter. The ones that remain open have a fraction of the vendors and they are freezing. At the very least, we should be talking about local farmers co-ops that can operate indoors and offer a full range of fresh produce on a daily basis. Otherwise, I just don’t see how you get from point A to point B with local food production.

  9. What irks me by the tone of all the NYTimes articles and that of some of the comments here is this assumption that farming is always done by…other people. Yes, those latte-sipping sushi-take-out Manhattanites may not necessarily have acreage upon which to plant a garden, but it’s something like 75-80% of we Americans who actually DO own land of some sort. Historically, we’ve had veggie gardens, folks! We didn’t leave 99.9% of the production of what we ate to the responsibility of someone else. And there is the problem. Period.

    So get out and plant your own, source your own, or continue to be a part of the problem.

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