Culture

Published on August 10th, 2009 | by Steve Savage

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Five Good Reasons to Eat Non-Local Food (Part 2 of 2)

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In part one of this blog I acknowledged that I enjoy local food as a special treat in my diet but described three reasons that the true “locovore” concept was impractical:  Limited Food Diversity, Quality Issues, and Water Issues.  I’ll continue.

Productivity Differences

Many commentators have focused narrowly in the issue of “food miles,” but there is a more appropriate way to think about these issues that is the well-developed science of “Life Cycle Analysis” (LCA).   That looks at energy, carbon, water or whatever is of interest across the entire life cycle of the product.  So for instance, if you do an LCA comparison of lamb produced in the UK vs lamb produced in New Zealand and shipped to the UK, the energy and carbon footprint across the entire process is quite a bit better per pound of lamb from New Zealand.  This is because their productivity is so much higher that it more than makes up for the ocean shipping (which is really quite energy efficient).  Local food frequently has a higher carbon footprint because there are certain places that are just so much better for growing a given crop (Apples in Washington, Potatoes in Idaho, Corn in Iowa, Lettuce in the Salinas Valley, Peanuts in Georgia…).   If you are a farmer you will want to grow the crops that are best suited to your location, and no location is great for everything.

The Mathematics of Land Availability

It takes hundreds of millions of acres to grow the food for the US.  Our urbanized society lives in concentrated areas.  There are not enough acres close to those cities to grow the crops.  Also land prices are much higher close to cities making it economically impossible to grow all but the highest value crops near cities.  I did some searches on how much land it takes to feed a person and found a whole bunch of estimates with a huge range of values but very little supporting information.  Those that made calculations supporting the idea of “local food” failed to consider how much of the land around cities is actually suitable for food production.  If someone has seen a rigorous calculation of this nature I’d be interested to look at it.

In the US, we are blessed with vast expanses of rain-fed cropland with excellent soils, and that is the best place to grow our large acreage crops.  Just because not that many people live in rural Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas… does not mean that we shouldn’t grow crops there.  It is our best option from a sustainability point of view.

Conclusions

To reiterate, there are definitely virtues of “locally produced food” and they should be enjoyed.  There are also some very good health, enjoyment, and practical reasons that even a significantly local food supply is impractical for most people living most places.  I would encourage everyone to take advantage of local options when they make sense and to feel fine about anything but the few, absurd, non-local options (like water in a glass bottle shipped from Europe).  I would also like to see some people reduce their “smugmissions” about how much of a locovore they are.

Photo of a Swiss produce stand by Steve Savage (probably a good mix of local and non-local food)



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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    Great points. I had been getting the impression that a true green considered local food a sacrament. I for one am thankful that food variety exists pretty much no matter where one lives. I love my state, but a diet restricted to rice, soybeans, onions, sugar cane and seafood would probably get boring (and be less than healthy).

    BTW, I found the following at the USDA (ers.usda.gov/briefing/landuse/majorlandusechapter.htm):

    “The United States has a land area of about 2.3 billion acres, which can be categorized as:

    “Rural (2.2 billion acres, or 97 percent) includes agricultural (range, cropland, pasture, farmsteads, and roads), forest, and other land.

    “Urban (60 million acres; 3 percent) includes residential, commercial, utilities, mixed, transitional, and other urban land.”

    The disparity of the numbers really calls into question the whole urban sprawl campaign the greens have been waging against society all of these years.

  • russ

    In the 50′s the commies were coming to get us.

    In the 60′s & 70′s the doomsday clock was going to hit midnight.

    In the 2000′s Gore got us as the mouthpiece for the radical greens – nothing has to make sense – you only have to believe all the stuff spouted and follow the rules of the green mafia such as never be negative about anything they declare green no matter how silly it is.

    We need to work on reducing our personal carbon footprint – yes!

    We need to work on efficiency – yes!

    We need to work on reducing waste – yes!

    We need to panic and retreat to the mountains – No!

  • http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com Steve Savage

    Good points all. Thanks for the feedback

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