Friday, September 10, 2010

Eat Locally, Save Globally?

The notion that ethically correct eaters need to be carbon-footprint conscious has been around for several years.The thrust of the argument is that just as those wanting to lose weight should be aware of the calories in the food they eat, all of us who don't want to destroy the planet should be aware of how much carbon-based energy it takes to produce various food items.

The food miles concept, arguing for eating local food to cut down on fuel burnt in transportation, was developed, but later criticized for being too simplistic and not taking into account the big energy picture. A lot of energy, for example, could be expended by a local farmer. Attention turned to estimating the total carbon footprint for producing various foods, thereby accounting for all of the energy used to bring food to your table.

Stephen Budiansky has a very revealing op-ed in the New York Times of all places on the true allocation of energy costs incurred in our food production and distribution system. It turns out that , despite the rhetoric that large-scale agriculture is sending our planet on a climate-change death spiral, Budiansky notes the following:
  1. "[T]ransportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system."
  2. The use of fertilizer and pesticides accounts for 8 percent.
  3. "Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far."
 Budiansky's main point is this:
Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for just 2 percent of our nation’s energy usage; that energy is mainly devoted to running farm machinery and manufacturing fertilizer. In return for that quite modest energy investment, we have fed hundreds of millions of people, liberated tens of millions from backbreaking manual labor and spared hundreds of millions of acres for nature preserves, forests and parks that otherwise would have come under the plow.
What Budiansky had identified, without possibly even noticing, is the blessings of capital accumulation. We are the beneficiaries of past saving and investment in machinery, laboratories, chemicals, and research and development, so that, as I report in my book,
The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that in 1987 it took the average American farmer three hours to produce one hundred bushels of wheat, compared to 275 hours it took the average farmer to do the same thing in 1830. That is a 3,233% increase in farming productivity over 157 years.
As Budiansky notes, there a many fine reasons for growing your own produce or by buying it from local farmers; pleasure, satisfaction in growing one's own food, aesthetics, and superior flavor come to mind. Guilt and anxiety over spent carbon-based energy, however, ought not be one.

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