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Is Eating Local Best? Perhaps Not

Posted By Mark Sisson On August 31, 2010 @ 8:57 am In Research Analysis | 72 Comments

There are many within the Primal community, I know, who also like to eat local. Some months, of course, allow for the confluence of these priorities more than others. Right now, we’re at the height of harvest season. Farmers’ markets are overflowing, CSA [7] boxes are brimming, and backyard gardens [8] are gratifyingly bountiful. Nonetheless, all good things must come to an end. In a few short months, farms and gardens will be snow-covered in many parts of the country. If you live in balmy Southern California like I do, that’s not much of an issue. If you live in Minnesota or Maine, it is. We Primal types love our produce, and winter complicates that relationship for some of us. Must locavore-minded Northerners relegate themselves to frozen and canned vegetables for several months of the year? Are root vegetable remnants really the only acceptable fresh produce before the spring thaw? Last week I stumbled upon a guest editorial [9] in the New York Times that took on the nagging locavore guilt trip.

The author, Stephen Budiansky, personally embraces eating local. He happens to tend an impressive garden and even raise sheep. Although he freely acknowledges the many culinary benefits of eating local, he’s got some words – and numbers – for those who preach the environmental angle of locavore living. The crux of his argument revolves around the total energy expenditure for the agricultural sector in the U.S. – and the comparatively small role of transportation in that equation. Budiansky first goes after some allegedly fuzzy calculations that have been thrown around within the locavore and environmental communities. One claim he assails: the common assertion that it takes “36 (sometimes 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast.” This oft-quoted bit is a load of hooey, he says. The number, a misguided comparison to begin with, actually reflects the total energy expenditure invested in that head of lettuce from the time it’s planted to the time it’s served. Since it only requires “about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail,” transporting that lettuce is practically inconsequential in the grand scheme of production and consumption.

Budiansky doesn’t end his argument there. He submits other statistics to quash the transportation guilt that troubles locavore-minded consumers everywhere. Citing Department of Energy analysis, he contends that the concept of food miles is a red herring. Whereas shipping constitutes approximately “14 percent of the total energy” used within “the American food system,” consumers’ activities account for some 32 percent of that pie chart, and that doesn’t include the trip to the grocery store and back – the real haulage hog. Once we get the goods back home, Budiansky says, we’re running up the meter to store them and prepare them in our individual (i.e. inefficient) facilities. Touché. (Maybe the guy’s got a point there.)

Budiansky spends the rest of his editorial illustrating a larger perspective on American agriculture. Although today’s farms are responsible for supplying three times the populace and exporting ten times the product, he explains, total farm acreage is essentially the same as it was in 1910. Growing and raising food where it most flourishes, he says, makes the most environmental sense. Not only does it save us additional soil erosion, added chemical usage, and vegetable greenhouse heating costs, it spares countless acres of land for wilderness. In other words, geographically suitable trumps the proverbial “sustainable” message that circulates through the locavore movement.

Readers of Budiansky’s article questioned his sources, and he happily offered them up in a follow up blog post [10]. Yes, there are plenty of gaps in Budiansky’s presentation. For one, environmentalists would argue that transportation’s impact isn’t simply measured by diesel use but by added pollution. And his assessment doesn’t take on the more substantial energy expenditure of importing food from as far away as China or South America. On another note, it takes additional energy to refrigerate produce and meat during transit.

Nonetheless, I think, Budiansky presents good food for thought. While the spirit of the eat local movement encourages positive changes in communities (e.g. supporting small-time area farmers and locally-based businesses) as well as better eating choices (e.g. wider variety, fresher and more nutrient dense produce), the practice eventually hits up against a reasonable limit. My point here isn’t to debate the benefits of regional economies, the environmental impact of small versus larger farms, or the safety issues surrounding imported food. There are plenty of solid arguments to be made within the full spectrum on these issues.

For me, Budiansky’s editorial offers useful perspective, and I always love seeing these kinds of conversations fully played out. As someone who wants to maximize nutritional benefit in my diet, I buy local items when they provide the freshest and thus most nutrient dense options. In the winter months when local harvests are sparser (even here), I happily take advantage of modern technology and trade to buy what I want to maintain a healthy diet. I don’t go out of my way to purchase the farthest flung imported items, but I’m not going to wallow in guilt either when I feel like eating bell peppers in January.

Eating Primally is foremost a commitment to your personal health. It’s about optimizing your diet and other lifestyle choices to cultivate genuine wellness and disease prevention throughout your lifetime. Nonetheless, going Primal doesn’t have to discount other priorities in the social and environmental realm if they’re important to your personal values and lifestyle choices. I think the big picture comes together differently for all of us, and the PB offers a surprisingly versatile outline for our personal, cultural and value-based preferences.

Along that vein, I believe the most interesting point in the locavore discussion was actually mentioned by a reader in her response letter [11] to the Times. Characterizing the locavore movement from a different angle, the reader described the “holistic approach to the plate” that locavores ultimately hope to achieve. The food miles concept isn’t a red herring. In fact, it’s not even the central point, according to this reader. Transportation is too often part and parcel of a much larger issue with food, she suggests. When it comes to food related energy expenditure in this country, she says, the real elephant in the living room is our taste for processed, packaged and prepared foods. She cites her own statistic (from the Dept. of Agriculture) to reveal that nearly 58 percent of food related energy expenditures comes down to the “processing, packaging, transportation, wholesale and retail, and food service energy use that locavores are seeking to avoid.” The real difference, she suggests, is made by rejecting the manufacturing of food products to begin with. A “real locavore,” she says, wouldn’t touch a Twinkie with a ten foot pole even if it were made down the street. According to this reader, “eat real” food [12] is as much or more of the locavore message as “eat local” is.

Have your own thoughts on the locavore perspective? Share those comments, and thanks for reading today.


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[9] editorial: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/opinion/20budiansky.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1283047216-rw83wpdenha4VRPtcTD5GA

[10] follow up blog post: http://budiansky.blogspot.com/2010/08/energy-or-land-pick-one.html

[11] her response letter: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/28/opinion/l28food.html?_r=2&ref=letters

[12] “eat real” food: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/get-real-achieve-your-health-goals-lose-weight-get-ripped-stay-motivated/

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