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local agriculture: sometimes it doesn’t matter

March 9, 2011

Shocking!  A title like that, on my blog?  All of you are busily checking your address bars right now to make sure that yes, indeed, Lady Quantum really is writing this piece.

I’m being intentionally inflammatory here, in the grand tradition of irresponsible bloggers, but it’s also true.  Sometimes local agriculture is an irrelevant or even a worse choice … but it depends on what your values are in terms of food.

Values?  In terms of food?  For many of you reading this, that isn’t an outlandish concept.  For those of you for whom it is, however, let me explain by example and anecdote.  Energy intensiveness — how much energy something requires — is a huge personal issue for me, and it informs many of my choices.  My attempts to cut my energy use are why I refused to get a car for so long, why I was vegetarian for a few years in high school and college, why I piss my roommates off by keeping the thermostat at 60 degrees overnight, and why I reuse yogurt containers until they melt.  Energy intensiveness is something that I try to consider when I buy food, and really, for me, that’s what’s most important, given the non-negotiable boundaries of time I have to cook, my need to eat at least marginally healthy, and my restrictive budget.  Other people I’ve met have vastly different food values.  Prioritizing animal cruelty would mean that you never buy meat, eggs, dairy, or even honey if you’re obsessive; prioritizing water pollution would mean that you only buy organic products, no matter the cost or the distance they travel, to avoid the pollution caused by fertilizer and pesticide runoff.  What you care about can — and should! — inform your food choices, giving you a set of food values.

With this in mind, I was very surprised to read an article today from the Post Carbon Institute titled “Beyond Food Miles.” Based on data from an USDA report on energy use in the American food system, it tears holes in arguments typically used to support buying locally-produced and organic products.

It’s a common assumption among lots of people like me (myself included) that buying local is the gold standard for sustainability because it reduces “food miles,” the distance food travels from farm to plate, and therefore it reduces reliance on energy-intensive transportation.  False!  Well, partially false.  Shamelessly stealing data from the article’s graphics (then doing a bit of calculating), turns out transportation only accounts for 4.2 percent of the energy cost of our food.  By contrast, processing, packaging, and retail combined are 41 percent of that cost, and the actual agricultural energy input to our food only accounts for 13.9 percent of the total.

Michael Bomford, based on data in the USDA report.

What does this mean?  Thinking purely in terms of energy, if you’re in the grocery store buying something packaged and processed, buying local is practically irrelevant.  Buying something organic (which cuts agricultural energy costs by about a third) is practically irrelevant.  This completely blew my mind this morning.

Let’s walk through an example, just in case your mind isn’t blown yet.  If I were to buy a box of organic Celestial Seasonings tea (a local product here), and we assume that tea is a pretty standard example for our food system and ignore any differences in production methods, it would only be about 9 percent less energy-intensive by the time I was drinking a mug of it than if I were drinking Kroger Value Brand orange pekoe.  If the tea wasn’t organic (most Celestial Seasonings I buy isn’t, I think), then it’d only be about 4 percent less energy-intensive than the cheap kind.

Is it worth it?  It totally depends on your values.  If you value energy cost and your budget, then probably not, since you get 20 tea bags for $3 from Celestial Seasonings, compared to 100 from Kroger Value Brand for just $2.  If you value other things, like supporting the local economy, supporting organic farming methods, or you just really like the way the fancy tea tastes, then sure.

In the end, it all comes down to values.  If you’re interested in energy-intensiveness when you shop, then this is certainly a surprising set of results.  It’s definitely going to make me rethink the choices I make at the grocery store, and perhaps I’ll even revisit my food values.

I also want to stress that this shouldn’t by any means stop you from shopping at the farmer’s market, even if you’re exclusively interested in energy cost.  As the article itself says, “Buying from the local farmers’ market offers great opportunities to cut down on food system energy use, but it’s not because the food there has traveled less than the food at the grocery store.”  Using the same set of numbers, avoiding most transportation, processing, packaging, and the energy costs of retail display (presumably all things accomplished at a farmer’s market), you could be cutting as much as 44 percent of the food’s energy cost.  Only 4 percent of that, though, is tied to transportation.

Food for thought.

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