Agriculture / Consumption / North America / Research / USA

‘Food miles’ can be ‘false miles’ when total energy expenditures are taken into account

American science and history writer Stephen Budiansky published a tonic op-ed in the New York Times last week on the dangers of simplifying such inherently complex issues as total energy expenditures in the production, transportation and marketing of food. As his article tellingly points out (see excerpts below), making arbitrary rules about our food systems, rules that are not based on credible scientific evidence, can make for ineffective responses at best to the problems of sustainability.

‘. . . [T]he local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.

‘The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

‘The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. . . . Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.

‘. . . Other favorite targets of sustainability advocates include the fertilizers and chemicals used in modern farming. But their share of the food system’s energy use is even lower, about 8 percent.

‘The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far. . . .’

Read more of this op-ed in the New York Times: Math lessons for locavores, by Stephen Budiansky, 19 August 2010.

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