locality of food matters far less that what you eat

Eating "local" is a trendy thing these days, with hipsters making much of going to the farmers' market and "Locavore" bumper stickers all over the place. And certainly, all else being equal, it's more energy efficient and gives fresher produce to choose apples from an orchard within 100 miles than to buy apples shipped over from New Zealand.

But, as is often the case, when we look more closely we see that all other things are not necessarily equal.

First off, food coming from far away will tend to use highly efficient rail transport, or moderately efficient tractor-trailers, while your local farmer is probably delivering his goods in a panel van or pickup truck.

The difference is enormous. I got curious, so I ran some rough numbers.

As you may have heard in those CSX ads, rail can move one ton of cargo 436 miles on a gallon of fuel; that works out to moving a pound of food (or other stuff) 872,000 miles on one gallon of fuel. A typical tractor-trailer might haul 50,000 pounds at 5 mpg: that's one pound moved 250,000 miles on one gallon. Now consider a panel truck that gets 20 mpg, carrying a two tons of food: it moves one pound only 80,000 miles on one gallon. (Pretend the panel truck runs on diesel, but since these are back-of-the-envelope calculations it doesn't really matter.)

The tractor-trailer and the panel truck both have to make empty return runs, while the train picks up new cargo for the next leg of its loop; so we should half the numbers for both types of truck.

Rail: 872,000 pound-miles per gallon.
Tractor-trailer: 125,000 pound-miles per gallon.
Panel truck: 40,000 pound-miles per gallon.

That means that, for the same amount of fuel it takes a small farmer to move food 100 miles in their truck, rail transport might move that same food over 2,000 miles! Of course, it has to be moved to and from the train depot, but this illustrates the issue: it's quite possible for food coming from far away to use the same or less energy to transport, than "local" food.

(Of course the most local food is what you garden or forage yourself; there's no transportation cost when I walk out front and pick a few leaves of kale, and I'm thinking of trying some experiments with the plantain that's taking over the yard...)

So in terms of transportation efficiency, local food may not be a big win, or indeed a win at all. But more than that, transportation is a small piece of agricultural energy usage, as this WorldWatch article explains. Final delivery from producer or processor to the point of sale accounts for only 4 percent of the U.S. food system's greenhouse gas emissions; add in "upstream" miles and transport of things like fertilizer, pesticides, and animal feed, and transport still only accounts for about 11 percent of the food system's greenhouse gas emissions.

80 to 90% of greenhouse gas emissions from the food system come from agricultural production. So reducing those is far more important than reducing transport emissions. And how can we shift to more efficient food production? You know what I'm going to say: plant-based diets.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, a bigger share than the total of all transport. Livestock account for about 20 percent of the total terrestrial animal biomass. Grazing occupies a stunning 26 percent of the Earth's land area, while about a third of all arable land is devoted to feed crops for livestock.

According to Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network, "Broadly speaking, eating fewer meat and dairy products and consuming more plant foods in their place is probably the single most helpful behavioral shift one can make" to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions.

And Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University computed that replacing red meat and dairy with vegetables one day a week would give you the same greenhouse gas savings as driving 1,160 miles less per year. Therefore, they suggest that "dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household's food-related climate footprint than 'buying local.'"

There are certainly good reasons to choose local produce: what gets to you quicker, is fresher. And it usually implies eating seasonally available and less-processed foods, which are definite energy wins.

But often, only going local is a way for people to avoid making the hard choice to make a meaningful change in how they eat. Eating the flesh of a chicken raised and slaughtered 50 miles away rather than that of one raised and slaughtered 250 miles away, is the easy way out. The hard thing -- but the healthy, compassionate, and sustainable thing -- to do, is to reduce, or even eliminate, consumption of animal foods.

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Comments

There's more to consider

As you might guess, I have a little different take on all this. I think it is important to look at the transportation costs and efficiencies, but I think there are other important aspects that favor local production. One big one is the robustness of the system in the face of economic and energy uncertainty. Current transportation systems rely on cheap fossil fuel, and there is no guarantee, from a political, economic, or technical standpoint, that they will be, or even can be, maintained on renewable energy. Even 100 miles may be unfeasible for the bulk of the food supply, and production may be forced much closer to home, and into cities and suburbs. We may be talking about oxcarts and rickshaws rather than trucks and trains.

The small mixed farm within 100 miles is a much better model for this potential future, and a much better storehouse for food diversity, land stewardship, skill, and knowledge than a larger more mechanized farm farther away. Diversified decentralized low-tech agriculture is homeland security in all but the most optimistic scenarios of the future.

Traditional mixed agriculture has a diverse and robust ecology, and built-in hedges against some of the vagaries of nature that might become ever harder to predict in the age of "global weirding." I'm sure there are viable veganic systems, but with domestic animals, some of the issues of organic fertilization, weed and pest control become less labor-intensive and problematic. I think it would be a mistake to remove the option of livestock from the equation.

Speaking of water use, once we eliminate the useless practice of disposing of human urine and feces in potable water, and instead adopt composting toilet technologies, we'll gain a lot in terms of water quantity and quality as well as soil fertility.

Globalization fosters the flow of resources from the poor to the rich. When you eat food from the other side of the world you are taking nutrients from their soil. How will you give it back? Local consumption makes closing that loop a more feasible prospect.

Then there is the question of sustainability itself. Can this planet continue to support 7 billion people? Even with the most frugal and efficient possible measures to reduce our ecological footprint? Again you must take into account the political will and the economic and technical feasibility of that happening.

We are already overdrawn on the energy checking account and are drawing heavily into savings and running into hard limits on several ecological fronts. Our current world population and Western affluence are both directly attributable to this unsustainable energy consumption. It's quite possible that the question of carbon footprint for a lot of things may become moot; for other things the calculations may change dramatically. Both indulgent meat-eating and principled veganism may become luxuries of the past.

BTW, the FAO report you cite is not without controversy. There are differences of opinion about the relative contribution of livestock and transportation to GHG emissions, and one of the authors admits a flaw in the calculations.

http://www.vegan.com/blog/2010/03/24/coauthor-admits-flaw-in-livestocks-...

I also don't think it takes into account the carbon-sequestering potential of some rotational grazing systems. Granted, these don't constitute a big part of current livestock production, but they are spreading in popularity.

no going back...

Trains are going to be with us even in a worst-case peak oil scenario -- you can run a steam locomotive on wood. And we're much more likely to replace gasoline automobiles with something like an electric trike than with an oxcart -- oxen are "designed" primarily to make other oxen, despite our recent efforts at selective breeding, and make lousy propulsion systems.

And i guess that points up one of my objections to this line of thought: the fact that present systems of food production are inadequate does not imply that past ones were adequate and should be returned to. For all the talk of "tradition" in some circles, there were often very good reasons why those traditions were left behind. Animal-drawn transport, for example, left shit everywhere. It was highly polluting.

We're not going to go back to some mythical simpler purer pastoral time. Even if it were desirable -- and generally, it would not be -- we cannot feed the world with those techniques. Veganism is not going to be made obsolete by sustainability pressures; animal agriculture is inherently inefficient. If grass will grow there, so will something that humans can eat or otherwise use -- tree crops or hemp, for example, not to mention biofuel crops.

I'm all for learning from tradition -- but that doesn't mean getting stuck on it. This is one of the reasons I find Japan fascinating. They still practice a religion with Paleolithic roots, and at the same time are one of the most urbanized, technophillic societies on the planet. They're looking into making robotic exo-skeletons -- for small-scale farmers to use. (A lot of farming there is done part-time, or in small urban plots.)

As for soil balance: if by eating, say, mangoes from Mexico, I'm "taking nutrients from their soil", then the same problem applies if I'm eating barley grown in Kansas. What can be done? As you note, we ought to be getting human urine and feces back to the soil; I'm open as to whether composing toilets, or some modification of existing sewage systems to filter or re-direct contaminants, would be more practical. (My grandfather built a very fertile garden in his Baltimore backyard on top of a bed of biosolids from the waste treatment plant, but "those were different times.")

But if we put those nutrients from our bodies back into the soil here in Baltimore, say in someone's tomato patch, and then someone in Kansas -- or in Mexico -- ends up purchasing those tomatoes, and returns their own urine and feces to the dirt, then the soil books can be balanced over the (very non-local) trade between Baltimore small-plot tomatoes, Kansas barley, and Mexican mangoes.

But in fact, the U.S. has been, and remains, a net food exporter (at least as measured in dollars -- I'm too lazy to look up the phosphorous, nitrogen, etc. that goes into each crop and figure out the chemical balance here.) It seems it's actually our soil nutrients going to other countries, rather than us taking theirs, for the moment.

The issue with the U.N. report was about how they counted carbon emissions from transport; they apparently didn't count the emissions from making cars, trucks, road-building, etc. It does not change the basic conclusion that animal agriculture is a major producer of greenhouse gasses. And in terms of carbon sequestering, using a fraction of the land for crops (which could feed the same number of people) using permaculture techniques, and letting the rest return to forest, would be far more effective.

Energy use advantages to eating local

I read "Locality of food matters far less than what you eat" and then "There is more to consider". I understand the main point of your arguments about the energy costs of producing animal protein, and that local transportation not being as efficient as long distance transportation.

Without checking references and calculations, I agree much more easily with Jim’s points, especially in his first paragraph about the robustness of the transportation system and cost estimates being based on the current cheap prices of fuel.

Calculations aside, it just makes sense to get more of our food more locally, including producing our own food and buying from our neighbors. It is more sustainable in the long term and it is a good direction to move toward. Buying local eggs from a friend or neighbor is certainly not having a big impact on global warming (I guess I could argue each aspect of this, that the eggs are "live harvested" (a word I just learned from Jim's FB post), that the transportation costs are minimal because they are 5 miles away and the people are coming this way anyway..).

I don't believe the conclusions that you make but I don't have time to find the faulty assumptions or what it is that is wrong in your calculations (maybe I will give it some effort). Bottom line, it just doesn't make sense. I know this does not fly if we are attempting to have a logical discussion but that is my instinct and I don't pretend to be defending my position with facts.

More importantly, and more to the point of what really bothers me about your assertion, is that the moral or ethical issue of eating meat or dairy products, and the personal health considerations of eating meat or dairy products are other questions all together (and they are very personal) from the environmental impact considerations. However, from the last paragraph of what you wrote I think that you might not be separating these issues.

You said: "Eating the flesh of a chicken raised and slaughtered 50 miles away rather than that of one raised and slaughtered 250 miles away, is the easy way out. The hard thing -- but the healthy, compassionate, and sustainable thing -- to do, is to reduce, or even eliminate, consumption of animal foods" . From this statement I suspect that you are attempting to convince others, by using an environmental argument, that they should adopt your moral / ethical / health beliefs (or you are assuming that others already share these beliefs). the statement is full of biased, emotionally based, and irrelevant language (flesh, "easy way out", "hard thing", healthy, compassionate)

I wish we could separate these 2 issues (environmental impact vs ethical and health issues) and talk about one or the other at one time.

Keep in mind, I am all for reducing consumption of meat (and as Jim said on FB, "Eating meat within the confines of ecologically-based agriculture also means eating less" )however eliminating it from my diet is not healthy for me and I do not have a moral or ethical dilema about this. My passion about this issue is that I think that the focus on NO meat, or that meat is THE BIGGEST and FIRST environmental problem to consider, is a distraction from bigger environmental issues, and that it is somewhat deceptive and based more on personal ethical practices or beliefs than on environmentalism. I resent what I interpret as underhanded (or at least mis-guided) attempts (that are very commonly used) to convince everyone of a morality that I don't agree with, using environmental arguments that are supposed to be "based on science and facts" and "completely logical".

Respectfully, Beth

far reaching and biased

"locality of food matters far less that what you eat" is a far reaching but biased and incomplete analysis that is true only when considering the moral and ethical issues of choosing to eat meat or not. Eating meat or not is not the central issue in considering all aspects of environmental sustainability.

Your conclusions about transportation costs to the environment, and carbon footprint of shipping are surprising and contrary to what I thought. These are some important considerations that you bring to light. I do not doubt your calculations. I am not sure I agree with all of your assumptions, it would be interesting to look at more closely. However you are only considering one aspect of environmental sustainability (carbon footprint and global warming). I realize that I simplified the issue to transportation cost on my FB post, reacting to the overly simplified post that Carl put up. Also, right up front, despite your main points, you do concede that “all else being equal, it's more energy efficient and gives fresher produce to choose apples from an orchard within 100 miles than to buy apples shipped over from New Zealand.”

There are many other things to consider in environmental sustainability of local vs global agriculture and meat production than carbon footprint related to global warming. Most of these other environmental sustainability considerations are related to intense agricultural production or agri-business.

I agree that for my health (and for the planet) a “plant-based diet” is better all around, but for me that does not mean eating no meat or animal products. I believe the “meat or no meat” question is a personal ethical or moral choice, not anywhere close to the pivotal issue in an environmental sustainability discussion.

Aside from the environmental sustainability discussions, I see you as biased and as having an agenda that is not clearly stated up front and despite the scientific analysis approach in what you write. You are making an argument for not eating meat as being more environmentally sustainable (at least as far as carbon emissions go) up until the end, and then you conclude with:

“Eating the flesh of a chicken raised and slaughtered 50 miles away rather than that of one raised and slaughtered 250 miles away, is the easy way out. The hard thing -- but the healthy, compassionate, and sustainable thing -- to do, is to reduce, or even eliminate, consumption of animal foods”

This paragraph is full of language that is irrelevant to the environmental sustainability and carbon footprint argument, and full of assumptions about my (or anyone’s) health or nutritional choices and needs, and my (or anyone's) ethics or morality related to eating animals or animal products. This language that I am talking about is: “Easy way out”, “compassionate”, “eliminate consumption of animal foods”, and perhaps “slaughter” and “flesh” but that does not really bother me.

I choose to eat animal flesh and “live-harvested animal products (I got this wording from Jim on FB)”. I have no moral dilemma about it, and it is good for me nutritionally.

I find that vegetarians and vegans often mix up these issues (environmental sustainability being one issue, ethical / moral issues being another issue, and nutrition / health choices being another issue) probably because of their strong feelings about the issue. I would prefer to have a discussion of one thing at a time or at least identify which one is being discussed. I discuss all of these issues here but I try to identify which issue and talk about them separately and also to identify when I am going on a rant (soapbox) which I do not claim is rational (I also have strong feelings about these issues, I am not immune from confusing the issues ).

My soapbox: I eat less meat for environmental sustainability reasons but I resent people putting the issue of eating meat out there as the number one issue related to environmental sustainability (as the photo that Carl posted does, put out by “The Humane Society of the United States” (clearly biased), and as "locality of food matters far less than what you eat" does, also clearly biased based on the last paragraph). There are many environmental issues related to this, and putting the “no meat” issue up front is based on personal ethical beliefs and not on environmental sustainability aspects. In the big picture, I think that putting the “no meat” issue out front as the main issue is misguided and does a disservice to promoting environmental sustainability.

Environmental sustainability issue: One of the biggest environmental pollution problems in this country is nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution in water-ways. This is largely from intense agriculture (some also from waste water treatment plants, a human contribution, but that is much less). Agribusiness and industrial farming uses up soil and pollutes water-ways with nitrogen fertilizer pollution. The largest problem in the Chesapeake Bay and what is causing the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” is nitrogen pollution from agriculture.

My soapbox: Eating less meat is better for the environment, and eating locally raised meat is better for the environment. Eating locally raised meat is better for the environment because of the differences in the agriculture that are used to support both. Less is better but that does not mean that eating no meat (or meat products) is the solution to environmental problems. As with so many food and environmental issues even though less is better that does not mean that none is best. Eating “live-harvested” products is another discussion.

Nutritional aspect: I choose to eat meat and embrace it for nutritional purposes. I am also choosing to eat less meat and better quality meat for nutritional purposes. Local meat and eggs are of better quality in my judgement and they taste better. It is possible to know the diet of the animals and to see the conditions under which they are raised. I ask the farmer at the farmers market “what do you feed your cattle?”.

Possibly irrelevant argument: I have visited a few farms and I enjoy it and I feel better about my food. It is the size that I can walk around in one day. It is not a monoculture (not true in agribusiness). They usually compost and they have decent soil or they could not have a farm (not true in agri-business). They try to control their runoff (or they don’t have any runoff because there is plenty of buffer space) so that the nearby streams do not get full of sediment and nutrient pollution. They work within the community and sell in the community (not true in agri-business). Of course small farms are not perfect either and I am sure they contribute some pollution to the environment.

My soapbox: I think that vegetarians and vegans sometimes sabotage efforts toward more environmentally sustainable agriculture and more environmentally sustainable animal production, ignoring that large agribusiness in the United States is getting by with polluting the environment.

Nutritional and personal choice issue (probably more of a soapbox): Even though I am a meat eater, I do not support ridiculously cheap meat of questionable quality. Locally raised grass fed beef, pork, or chicken is better nutritionally and it is more consistently good. Buying directly from the producer builds a relationship and accountability for the meat producer. Locally harvested deer meat is even better assuming that the deer have a decent place to get food that is not contaminated (roadside grazing for example). Meat that comes from the huge meat industry is not healthy for several reasons. I am not talking about promoting eating meat or eggs every day or in large quantities as the typical American does. I am talking about eating meat and/or eggs as a protein choice when that is needed or as a person chooses for their health. For example, nursing mothers need some good protein. I am sure they can probably do without animal flesh or other animal products, but I would guess that it is not easy to do without and still be healthy, and in this case I have heard that animal protein is a good option.

The issue of carbon footprint and global warming related to food production should not be looked at without looking at other environmental issues and other general issues.

Moral and ethical considerations: This is where my ethical beliefs about eating meat come in. I think it is morally different to raise animals and slaughter them under large “concentrated animal feedlot” and slaughterhouse conditions than on smaller farms. I believe it is the meat INDUSTRY that is immoral, not MEAT ITSELF or the practice of eating meat or animal products. I think that all of us meat eaters should be required to hunt or slaughter an animal that we are going to eat, and to learn/experience the deep implications of taking a life for our nourishment.

Environmental considerations: Not supporting large agribusiness is not as simple as not eating meat. Many vegetarian products are from the agricultural industry in this country and in other countries. Eating and buying local is a way for vegetarians and vegans to not support large agri-business.

Eating from local farms (where you can go visit) is about a lot more than preventing global warming, and whether to eat a small amount of locally raised meat (or not) is not the biggest part of the issue, and is more of a personal choice question than an environmental sustainability question.

Jim said: “The small mixed farm within 100 miles is a much better model for this potential future, and a much better storehouse for food diversity, land stewardship, skill, and knowledge than a larger more mechanized farm farther away. Diversified decentralized low-tech agriculture is homeland security in all but the most optimistic scenarios of the future.

Traditional mixed agriculture has a diverse and robust ecology, and built-in hedges against some of the vagaries of nature that might become ever harder to predict in the age of "global weirding." I'm sure there are viable veganic systems, but with domestic animals, some of the issues of organic fertilization, weed and pest control become less labor-intensive and problematic. I think it would be a mistake to remove the option of livestock from the equation.”

Tom said: “We're not going to go back to some mythical simpler purer pastoral time. Even if it were desirable -- and generally, it would not be -- we cannot feed the world with those techniques.”

I argue that what Jim is suggesting is already in existence, and it is possible to move further in that direction, it is not “going back to some mythical simpler purer pastoral time”. In response to “we cannot feed the world with those techniques”, that is a big part of the problem. We do not need to think in terms of feeding the world. Large agribusiness has not worked to feed the world and it is ruining the environment.

Jim said: “Both indulgent meat-eating and principled veganism may become luxuries of the past”.

That is very well said. I also see both of these extremes as luxuries. Obviously, indulgent meat eating is a luxury. Principled veganism is also a luxury that would not be possible if we did not live in this society where we can obtain almost any food that we want within a 20 minute drive (at least in the DC area).

In my experience living in a third world country (for 2 years), people are happy to get some animal protein and animal fat into their diets and for their children, and I would never argue that they should not do this. It is from this experience that a lot of the inner fuel for my beliefs on this issue comes from. Many people do the best they can to survive on beans and rice (nothing wrong with that, very healthy), if that is available, and then eat whatever else they can. I saw hungry people kill a mouse in the field and cook it on a fire to eat it. Killing a chicken for food is a rare luxury in many places in the world and it very much appreciated by everyone and anyone who gets any little piece of that chicken. For them this is survival (not a theoretical discussion as it is for us) of themselves and of their human family, and the moral and ethical decisions are quick or not even in question. I don’t idealize life in a third world country but I also think that is shows us an aspect of reality that we are out of touch with and that should not be denied.

In my view, principled veganism is a luxury and a construct built around our current extremely high standard of living, and that it is largely in reaction to excesses of indulgent meat eating and other extremes of our society.

facts, please.

Beth, to put it briefly, "I don't believe the conclusions that you make but I don't have time to find the faulty assumptions or what it is that is wrong in your calculations" does not make an argument. If, in your own words, you "don't pretend to be defending [your] position with facts", then there's nothing for us to talk about.

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