Beneath the term locavore lies…confusion


One expert is quoted saying "You can feel very good about the organic
potatoes you buy from a farm near your home, but half the emissions –
about half the footprint – from those potatoes could come from the
energy you use to cook them.  If you leave the lid off, boil them at a
high heat, and then mash your potatoes, from a  carbon standpoint you
might as well drive to McDonald’s and spend your money buying an order
of French fries."  Ouch!

And here’s what the guy in charge of analyzing environmental impacts
of food in the UK has to say: "People should stop talking about food
miles.  It’s a foolish concept: provincial, damaging, and simplistic."
He thinks the notion that a product that travels a certain distance is
therefore worse than one grown locally is "just idiotic" because it
doesn’t take into consideration the type of transportation, land use,
water use, cultivation and harvesting methods, quantity and type of
fertilizer, type of fuel used to make the package, weather, the
season…AND SO ON.


  • First, some great news for Michele and Elizabeth.  "Last year a
    study of the carbon cost of the global wine trade found that it is
    actually more ‘green’ for New Yorkers to drink wine from Bordeau, which
    is shipped by sea, than wine from California, sent by truck." 
  • And should Brits assume that locally grown apples are "greener"
    than apples from New Zealand?  Consider that New Zealand has more
    sunshine, so its growers are more productive.  Not to mention that
    their electricity is generated primarily by renewable sources.  It’s
    already been determined that lamb that’s shipped 11,000 miles by boat
    from NZ to the UK produces about one-fourth the CO2 emissions as
    British lamb, in large part because pastures in NZ need far less
    fertilizer than those in UK. 
  • Importing beans from Kenya is more efficient than growing beans
    in Europe because Kenyan farms are small, use manure as their primary
    fertilizer, and can’t afford tractors.
  • And I bet Amy already knows about the study of the
    environmental costs of buying roses shipped to the UK from Holland
    compared to the ones flown from Kenya.  Those heated greenhouses in
    Holland cause the overall carbon footprint of their roses to be 6 times
    that of the ones flown from Kenya.  So sometimes flying is actually better?  Man, this is giving me a very local headache.

I suppose it had to come to this
– there’s something called the Chicago Climate Exchange, where members
buy and sell the right to pollute.  Sure seems "morally unattractive,"
as Specter quotes one observer saying.  And as expected, the Friends of
the Earth says this means that "people are trying to buy their way out
of bad behavior.  Are we really a society that wants to pay rich people
not to fly on private jets or countries not to cut down their trees?
Is that what, ultimately, is morally right and equitable?"

I seem to recall voicing a similar gut reaction against carbon
offsets myself, even when the offset customer is Al Gore himself.  But
the New Yorker article points to another way of looking at it,
one that’s more pragmatic than judgmental.  We’re all alarmed by the
disappearance of tropical forests in places like Brazil and Indonesia,
but get this – those morally unattractive carbon offsets mean that
landowners are now being paid to preserve the forests.  So if
the guys at the Chicago Climate Exchange have figured out a way to use
rich people’s profligate lifestyles to preserve those rainforests I say
"Have a nice flight!"

THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU CAN DO (according to Specter’s sources):

  1. Insulate your house properly. 
  2. Get double-glazed windows. 
  3. Get a new boiler. 

Of course these things to do are all waay more expensive than
recycling plastic or switching to local food.  Good thing my county
recently voted to give rebates for taking these very measures.

Photo by digihuva via Flickr.


  1. It’s too bad that discredited New Zealand lamb study made it’s way into this otherwise discussion-worthy report. That study was funded by the people who market New Zealand lamb, and did not compare the carbon outlays with British lamb raised on organic pasture. It was apples and oranges.

    Otherwise, the local business is a huge headache. I’ve been involved for several months now in a “dark days” cooking challenge, sourcing ingredients locally during the winter. I belive in local food, I’m just more of an alarmist when it comes to all the obstactles standing in the way of local agriculture and the terrible efficiencies that plague this patchwork system of getting local foods to consumers. Does anyone really think its more carbon-friendly for individual farmers to be driving over hill and dale delivering little boxes of produce?

    We–meaning our corporatized food systme, along with a compliant USDA and an indifferent public–wrecked our system of local agriculture long ago. The family farm is a postcard from the 1950s. The local food movement has all the right intentions, I just see it hitting a wall soon. My personal headache relief is growing my own food. It doesn’t get any more local than that.

  2. Susan, you’ve hit on the problem my climate-beat husband keeps raising: it’s almost impossible to measure the carbon costs of one’s food because the variables involved in growing and transporting it are almost infinite.

    Except, as Ed says, if you grocery shop in your own backyard. That’s almost oil-free.

    Carbon aside, there are infinite reasons to eat food from small local farmers, including flavor–and the fact that those farms look so beautiful in the local landscape. Plus, they are not creating manure lagoons the size of Rhode Island and not poisoning our water supply with pesticide-laced runoff.

  3. I have such mixed feelings about all this. I live in the Shenandoah Valley, still a semi-rural area. In the spring and summer I buy most of my produce from local family farm stands and farmers’ markets where the food is wonderful and reasonably priced. These sources dry up in the fall and winter. Ed, I read your Slow Cook blog daily and have been very interested in your attempts to buy locally year round. You have described prices at your local markets that put them out of reach for many households. In our community we have a large number of people living at or below the poverty level. I see their struggles with food insecurity as a pressing ethical issue. I wish I knew how to put healthy food, produced and distributed without violence to the environment on every table in the US. The best I can do at the moment is to try to buy and eat frugally and make regular donations to my church’s food pantry.

  4. Save our planet, start with your own backyard. Literally. Growing your own fruit and veg, well how local can you get? And it is cheaper too than having to buy it in the shops.

    I garden (organically) in the Netherlands (zone 8) and can grow a lot of food in my small veggie garden, even in winter. Of course the summer and autumn months produce the most and the biggest variety in fruit and veggies. There’s nothing better than going into your garden and picking and eating strawberries still warm from the sun and knowing that no toxins were used to grow them. They taste delicious, much, much better than any of the shop bought stuff. Another good reason to grow your own veggies and fruit.

    And if you mix your veggies and fruit with flowers then you have provided yourself with a lot of eye and nose candy too.


  5. I’m not a numbers person, and all these measurements make me dizzy. My husband and I live in a rural area and can shop at farm stands and markets in season. There is even a local movement to have a winter farmers market. We have an organic garden, which includes blueberries and raspberries. Maybe strawberries this spring. We try to be thoughtful, try to keep educated, and try to live as gently as we can.

  6. I agree that there are many, many reasons to support local farmers, and I certainly do. But carbon emissions from transportation might not be one of them. When I suggested in that NPR commentary that authors instead write about “my year of insulating my ductwork,” this is exactly what I was talking about–if we were really serious about greenhouse gas emissions, we would be absolutely consumed with a national dialogue about home insulation and public transportation. Because home heating and personal auto use are far bigger culprits than food transportation.

    My husband recently did a fairly simple calculation–the carbon emission per pound of food of transporting a Ford F-150 pickup loaded with lugs of tomatoes 100 miles to Manhattan’s greenmarket (and many farmers at that market are 100 miles away), as compared to a semi truck packed completely full of tomatoes and trucked across the country. Guess who won? The semi truck. Pound per pound, you can haul a semi full of food a long way and still be more efficient than that farmer in a pickup.

    My point is: buy local for all the right reasons, but don’t claim that carbon emission is one of those reasons. It’s almost impossible to calculate, and the semi truck might just win.

    And yes, Susan, I know about that flower study–lots of valid, interesting points, but it’s also worth pointing out that a flower importer helped fund the study.

  7. I think there are a thousand great reasons to support local agriculture–you’re preserving diversity, enjoying the aesthetic opportunity to buy what you don’t grow yourself (or don’t grow enough of) from farmers’ markets, CSAs, or farm stands, and giving your hard-earned dollars to your neighbors as opposed to faceless megacorporations, aka agribiz, just to name three.

    Giving agriculture a human face and making it personal is what eating locally is really all about. To reduce the idea of making food choices to a carbon-emissions equation is appalling to me–like telling people to go to McDonald’s rather than cooking their own food.

    No, thanks. I’ll keep growing as much as I can and buying as much of the rest locally as I can, because I believe with Wendell Berry that having–or creating–a sense of place is the best hope we have of having a future in a healthy world.

  8. Before anyone asks, here’s the Sierra Club’s analysis of the fuel cost per mile:

    They look a few scenarios – a local apple sold at a farmer’s market in Des Moines, about 60 miles from the orchard. A Washington apple trucked to Des Moines, and some grapes shipped from Chile.

    Unfortunately, their calculations for the farmer’s truck are ridiculous. They are using marginal costs – that is, the extra cost of trucking an apple from the farm to the city if you were going anyway. Obviously, the additional gas used to haul one apple is negligible. [To get into the math, the Sierra Club says the Iowa farmer uses 0.01 cups of fuel per pound of produce. That’s 1 cup per 100 pounds of apples. Or 1 gallon for 1600 pounds of apples. Now if there’s a farmer who has figured out how to drive a Ford pickup 60 miles on one gallon of gas while hauling 1600 pounds of apples, we all need to meet her. Our energy problems are solved. It also appears that the truck calculations are one way – I guess the farmer doesn’t have to go home.]

    Let’s calculate it this way: A farmer lives 60 miles from town (the average for the San Francisco and New York farmer’s markets is more than that), so she drives 120 miles for each market. If she gets 15 mpg, that’s 8 gallons (or 128 cups) of gas. Figure she sells 500 pounds of apples (a pretty good day). That’s about 4 lbs of apples per cup of gas, or to match the Sierra Club data, 0.26 cups per pound.

    According to the Sierra Club, hauling an apple from Washington on a semi truck requires 0.20 cups per pound. Shipping grapes from Chile by ship and semi is 0.26 cups per pound. Almost all of that fuel comes from the semi.

    In short, you can ship food roughly halfway across the country or halfway around the world as efficiently as you can drive it to the farmer’s market in a beat up truck. [Note: produce sent on an airplane is another matter entirely. If this country had a decent train system, the costs would be even lower than for trucks, but that’s a topic for a different blog… You can make the numbers look much better for the farmer if she sells 1,000 pounds of apples or much worse if she sells 250 pounds. The point is, though, even under the best scenario, buying local is not a good way to save energy, especially compared to living closer to work or turning off your heater.]

  9. I watched “The Real Dirt About Farmer John” last night. Bought the DVD. Whatever your thoughts are about local food or carbon footprints, you should watch this inspiring documentary, written and produced by a free-thinking Illinois farmer who eventually is coaxed into growing for a CSA. Truly inspiring.

  10. So this makes me wonder about other options. For those of us who like to eat local and feel virtuous, how about more urban gardens? More mini-farms? I can grow enough food in my smallish garden for at least 4-5 people, and I’m a beginner. Would my non-gardening neighbors be willing to be a small fee for tomatos (enough to cover seed and manure, not enough to enable me to quit my job)? Don’t most of us plant too much/end up with too many tomatos/zucchini anyway? How much could we reduce the need to truck in items? I bet there’s some crops that probably are “better” to grow on a dedicated farm-space, but I also bet that there’s a lot of waste from regular gardeners that could be applied to this problem.

  11. The fundamental challenge of getting an apple to go 100 miles with low carbon output is not really that hard.

    “Truck Farming” has had about 60 years to get efficient. New local farms that bring in produce to urban markets haven’t really gotten the chance yet.

    Farming communities around the ring of the city could easy get more efficient distribution.

    Drive that F-150 5 miles to a co-op that brings your fruit to market in a semi. Have your condo living cousin sell the fruit in the central market.

    If you support your local farmer, you can help this come to pass…

  12. Ed (and all): Farmer John also has a great cookbook out, featuring (of course) CSA-fresh seasonal produce. It’s called “Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables.” Recommended!

  13. Have been reading Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy” about local economies. He gives many examples of urban farms that are inspiring for a variety of reasons (improve blighted areas, give people work, healthy because organic, build community, low carbon emissions). It’s happening in Detroit, Chicago and elsewhere. No downside that i can see. Every city and town should be converting vacant lots this way.

  14. How wonderfully marvelous had become this moment, when, for a few minutes, I together with my boys were suspended from the conflicts and pressures of normal living to observe and taste of the wonderful experience that life can be. Then, upon reading this passage from Zechariah, it became clear in yet another way that God also has a passion and appreciation for those things that would be marvelous to us. Not, necessarily the things that would be driven by our flesh that eventually come with the baggage of…

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