“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.