World's Fair

“We Americans increased our travel — just for shopping — by over 90 billion miles from 1990 to 2001. That’s billion with a ‘B.’ It’s safe to say that most of those new miles were not spent seeking out local food.” A. Flaccavento

So it is that the localism movement is in full flush. No news flash there. Along with such popular movements come determined counter-arguments. With local food, one of those counter claims deals with Food Miles (as discussed before here and here and here). Anthony Flaccavento, director of Appalachian Sustainable Development, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post–“Eat Locally, Ease Climate Change Globally”– that aimed to rebut those counterclaims. His case is well put. In the brief letter, he draws from his own vast experience and work coordinating a successful alternative agricultural system in southwestern Virginia to argue for the benefits of local foodshed development. Take a look.

A few weeks ago, a farmer from Minnesota, Jack Hedin, contributed a thoughtful op-ed to the New York Times that is part of the same conversation. “My Forbidden Fruits (and Vegetables)” is about the political mechanisms that work to restrict the local food movement. It highlights structural features that are currently working against local foodshed development.

Also last week, the university folks here wrote a story about research on agriculture and energy a student of mine, Lauren Doucette, has been doing. Her senior thesis project is a study of the energy dynamics of our town’s farmer’s market. (The Daily Progress, Charlottesville’s local newspaper, then picked up on it and ran a perhaps poorly titled story, here.) It fits well with the Flaccavento op-ed, whose concern was that the Food Miles concept was being reduced to an issue of energy inputs alone. (Michael Specter’s recent essay in The New Yorker on carbon footprints, “Big Foot,” touches on this as well.) Our motivation for the Farmer’s Market project was, in kind, a response to questions about the energy efficiency of local food. But we began it to try to stay ahead of the debate curve.

To address the energy issue, we wanted some empirical evidence so as to say, okay, if that’s the big worry, that local food is not more energy efficient (I don’t think this is true, but let’s allow it for a starting point) then fine, we’re dealing with that. If that’s indeed the worry, we can then work on redesigning local food markets so that the energy parameter is addressed and no longer the entirety of the discussion. After that, we can let the range of other benefits hold their rightful place in the debate (all the other issues being ones Flaccavento notes and the ones numerous others have continued to articulate, as noted in the links given above). Lauren’s project is the first part of a larger effort, but it’s been a good start. She found, for instance, that it takes as much energy to run the farmer’s market for a day as it does to run a household for a year. The newspaper latched onto that stat, though, as Lauren stated but the reporter did not include, such a figure is meaningless until it is compared with other markets. How much does Kroger use? Food Lion? The Kwik-E-Mart? (For a start, consider consumers getting there, producers delivering products, the energy to operate the facility itself, and so on…)

So here we are. I hope the study can continue by drawing those larger comparisons and expanding our focus to include further considerations. And as for the title of the post, who exactly is out to get local food? Jack Hedin says its Washington; Anthony Flaccavento says its the industrial supporters; and I suspect (combining the two) it’s those who insist on reducing the local food movement to a debate about energy efficiency.


  1. #1 Bodhi
    March 24, 2008

    Thanks for the links to the Flaccavento and Hedin Op Ed pieces. It is interesting to see this treated from the economic “energy efficiency” and a food politics points of view. For other background on the politics of food, see Marion Nestle’s Food Politics.

    As a food-conscious consumer in a large midwestern city, I’ve been able to purchase pasture raised and finished beef, chicken, and eggs from local (e.g. w/in 50 round trip miles of my home) farmers. There are three farmers markets within 20 round trip miles from my home for the fruit and vegetables we consume. Whole Foods, the only chain market we use, has a little local grown foods, but not as much as it would seem to have available to it.

  2. #2 MikeB
    March 24, 2008

    An excellent post on a trend which also seems to be growing here in the UK, as is the backlash. The usual suspects have already tried many of the same arguments regarding food miles/energy.

    However, when putting forward these arguments, critics tend to forget that supermarkets are inherently inefficient in terms of energy. My local supermarkets offer ‘locally sourced’ fruit, veg and milk. However, ‘local’ in this case might mean over a hundred miles away (which, in UK terms, is anything but), but the true journey taken from the farm to the supermarket might be much longer, since all produce would have to go from the farm to the packers, to one of the supermarkets chains large distribution hubs, before being sent out to my local store. It was this sort of of lengthy journey which led to both Prince Charles and Lord Melchett (President of the Soil Association) being delisted by one supermarket, largely because their produce was no longer fresh by the time it hit the shops.

    What we all really want (or at least should aspire to) is eat food that is grown as locally as possible (where pratical), using as few imputs as possible, as tasty as can be (older varities, for instance), respecting biodiversity, with the maximum profit going to the producer, rather than to the supermarket/processor. This isn’t utopia, its basic food security and economics in a world where long-distance transportation using fossil fuels will become increasingly expensive, and food will become more scarce.
    Plus, I like my farmers market…its cheaper and I don’t have to drive.

  3. #3 Rebecca Haden
    March 25, 2008

    The focus on farmers’ markets may simply reflect urban reality, but they aren’t the only option for local food, and may not be the best energy value. In the more rural area where I live (60,000 in the county seat), we grow some of our own food, buy some at the farmers’ market a few miles away and at local groceries, and we can also pick up eggs and vegetables on the way home from people with cardboard signs on their gates. Plenty of people still choose to buy Chilean produce at the chain store, presumably because they don’t know any better. Perhaps people in more urban areas could grow tomatoes on the patio and trade with a neighbor who grows squash. All these informal transactions would add more friction (in the Friedman sense), but that could be a good thing, too.

  4. #4 Kaleberg
    April 5, 2008

    The local food movement is right about many things, but for the wrong reasons. I live in a farming region, buy a lot of local foods, work to preserve farm land, and encourage local farm products, but it is not about energy efficiency. Local food tastes better, local food preserves unusual crop varieties, and local food makes it possible for local farmers to earn a living.

    Our area is noted for its crucifers, particularly the kales and brussels sprouts, and is THE major center for producing crucifer seeds used nationally. Our local farms produce milk, lamb, chickens, eggs, kales, cabbages, lettuces, potatoes and amazingly good carrots. We really need to brand them like Vidalia onions. We do not have enough hot weather for tomatoes, watermelons, or peppers, without luck and a greenhouse. We do not have broad acres of flat land suitable for wheat or rye.

    If we tried to become self sufficient, we would have to give up a broad range of warm weather vegetables, and we would be extremely inefficient produces of basic grains. It makes a lot more sense for us to focus on what we can do well, and trade for other goods from more efficient producers.

    Agricultural specialization is nothing new. The ancient Romans ran their empire on Egyptian and British wheat, and it was a wide reaching spice trade that brought pepper to Europe and coriander to Asia.

    People have been carrying plants and animals with them for millenia. Between the Indo-Europeans with their grasses and cows and the Polyesians with their roots and pigs, there is no such thing as truly locally evolved cuisine. On the other hand, the packages, the collections of plants, animals and techniques, have a certain value in and of themselves.

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