Beyond the Food Miles Pothole

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Last Sunday’s Star Tribune Writer vs. Writer presentation on the local foods movement is a good example of why it’s so difficult to debate a complicated issue within the confines of newsprint. But it’s a good start.

The newspaper’s commentary section dived into the local foods debate by featuring  the question, “Does the local-food movement make a difference in the world?” On the pro side was Steve Calvin, a Minneapolis physician who has a pasture-based farm in Rice County. Representing the nays was ace environmental/travel journalist Greg Breining.

Calvin argues that now, more than ever, we need a local food infrastructure that provides an alternative to the faceless, industrial system. He concedes that the locavore movement may never replace industrial agriculture, but it will become a bigger presence in coming years, and we should welcome and support that growth.

Breining, on the other hand, finds the locavore movement to be a “dubious ideology of those who insist on hanging a public virtue upon everything enjoyable.” Breining finds what he sees at the St. Paul farmers’ market to be a “buoyant scene” and admits that fresh produce eaten in-season is a delight. But in general he finds local foods to be just a nice idea which has (and should have) its limits.

It should have its limits, according to Breining, because it burns more fossil fuels, does not benefit local economies and in general is supported by hypocrites who drive foreign cars to the farmers’ market. “And reading only local writers’ books, perhaps?” the writer snarks.

I like commentaries and articles that take on sacred cows and bring us back to reality—it helps add more depth to the dialogue. And folks, let’s face it:  thanks to Michael Pollan and company, the local foods movement is on its way to becoming an entity so burdened with good vibes that we’re blinded to its faults.

But frankly, I was disappointed in Breining’s piece, especially given his reputation for well-researched articles that don’t pull punches. His anti-locavore essay was an example of the “What if we took things to the extreme?” school of commentary writing. It makes for good reading, especially on an opinion page that isn’t always as compelling as it could be. But the local foods movement deserves a more nuanced discussion.

For example, according to Breining, industrialized agriculture, despite major flaws, is needed to “feed a hungry world.” Unfortunately, the “feed the world” justification for industrial ag is losing steam by the moment. There is a growing body of evidence that sustainable farming systems can provide Third World Countries the kind of long-term food security our energy-intensive, export-driven model cannot. Local food systems are a key part of sustainable agriculture.

Breining also poo-poos the argument that local food systems help local economies. His reasoning? Stopping trade is bad. That’s a red herring. Not many people I know within the local foods movement are promoting the idea that we all build stockades and ban the import of bananas, chocolate and coffee. Those folks are too busy listening to Coast to Coast AM and hoarding gold to be involved with a community-based movement.

But the all-trade, all-the-time strategy ain’t working. Just go to any Midwestern farm community that’s focusing almost exclusively on producing raw commodities for global markets, and one will see just how much of a disaster such a myopic take on economic development is.

As Ken Meter’s analyses show, regional food systems generate the kind of wealth that stays local. Such a system can provide a sustainable anchor for a local economy, an economy that also generates wealth by exporting excess production. Yes, trade does have its place, but it can’t be the tail wagging the dog.

When people criticize the locavore movement for wanting us all to eat only what’s grown within 10 feet of our kitchens, it’s an attempt to end the discussion by going to the extreme. It reminds me of the folks who, when the sustainable ag movement suggests we may want to diversify (just a little) our production systems and reduce our reliance (just a little) on chemicals, snap back: “Which 3 billion people do you want to starve?” Not much room for discussion there.

But Breining’s commentary does make a good point: our current transportation system does make it much more efficient to get tomatoes from California  via one big semi-load, as opposed to from Winona County utilizing several clunker pickup trucks driven by well-meaning farmers. But this isn’t just about getting from point A to point B. This is about the big picture.

One estimate is that the food sector—from planting seeds to dumping table scraps—makes up some 25 percent of our negative impact on the environment. And because our food system has become globalized to the point where it travels on average 1,500 miles to get to say, Midwestern supper tables, how those vittles are transported has become a major focus of food’s overall ecological impact (between 2007 and 2004, globalization increased by roughly 25 percent the average distance moved by food).

This has promoters of local food systems excited. Now, not only is locally produced and processed food good for the regional economy and better tasting, but it also utilizes less fossil fuels in the transportation process.

However, as Breining rightly points out, such a connection between local food, low food miles and lower greenhouse gas emissions is not as automatic as it would appear. Recent studies have taken a close look at the food miles debate and found that how that food is produced and processed often has a bigger impact on the environment than whether it was flown in from South America or trucked in from the next county. For example, the journal Environmental Science and Technology reported that transportation as a whole represents only 11 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by our food system. Final delivery from the producer to the retailer accounts for 4 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by our food system.

Sustainable agriculture and energy experts are increasingly calling for a look at the entire ecological lifespan of food, rather than focusing on just one or two things like food miles.

For example, grass-based beef and dairy farms have a much smaller environmental impact than their grain-based, factory farm counterparts. Organic vegetable and grain operations that utilize conservation tillage are also friendlier to the environment.

There are plenty of compelling environmental, economic and even social reasons to consume locally produced food. But giving too much weight to the food miles argument may be a mistake. Also, if we always assume local food has lower food miles, no matter what, we may lose the incentive to fix our regional transportation systems.

And all of the other good reasons to support local food systems make it imperative we deal with the issue of transportation. That’s why the Land Stewardship Project is working with farmers and haulers in Minnesota to fix this weak link.

Already, farmers in different parts of the Midwest are pooling resources so that they can move their product to market in larger, fuel-efficient trucks. They’re even utilizing communal refrigerated storage, which can use much less energy that dozens of individual on-farm coolers. For example, Featherstone Farm in southeast Minnesota has teamed up with other farms to make transporting vegetables to the Twin Cities more efficient. This is an experiment worth watching.

These are all complicated issues. Even Breining seems a bit conflicted in his Star Tribune commentary. He ends it by summarizing his thesis: you are not saving the earth by buying local food. But then he goes on to concede that local foods are a “refreshing counterpoint” to an industrialized system of food production that is quite problematic.

A nice complement. But it carries that same “isn’t this nice” tone we use when a child hands us a wilted dandelion. A glass of lemonade is “refreshing.” An entire movement that’s making us question everything we thought we knew about how we feed ourselves is much more.

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