Starting with a provocative headline ("Is local food really miles better?") and subtitle ("Many of us now count 'food miles.' But local fruits and veggies may not be more carbon-friendly than produce at the supermarket"), writer Roberta Kwok takes a look at how food gets from the farm to either the grocery store or farmers market. Looking at five items — apples, oranges, lettuce, greens and squash — she finds that CO2 emissions from transportation are lower for the wholesalers than the small farmers for four of the five products. Even though the wholesalers obtain their food from much farther away, often unsure exactly where it came from, their big trucks are significantly more efficient on a per-pound basis than the pickups and box trucks used by small farms. (Note that she only considered the emissions during the final leg of transportation, not any of the farming-related emissions.)
Although the beginning of the story has that "those poor misguided locavores are so wrong" feel to it, she's right about the distribution system for small farms. It's far from ideal: too many small trucks, too much time spent on the road and minding the stand during the markets instead of farming. But with wholesalers and large grocery chains prizing low prices and efficiency above all else, there aren't many alternatives right now. The big companies want to deal with as few suppliers as possible to reduce transaction costs, the transportation companies can't go 40 miles out of their way to pick up a few boxes of peaches or salad greens. Of course, there are some exceptions to these generalities, like a farmer who fuels his truck with waste vegetable oil or big organizations like Kaiser Permanente doing some purchasing directly from small farms.
An additional disconnect between for small farms and big wholesalers is one of storage time. One of the biggest benefits of farmers markets or direct sales is that the produce can be picked when it is nearly at its peak because it will be sold soon after picking. But in the wholesale world, the additional layer of commerce means that the shelf-life of produce needs to be extended by a few days, and thus, peaches must be picked a little less ripe, tomatoes picked a little bit greener. Durability becomes a far more important factor.
In 2007, Russ Parsons wrote a provocative article in the Los Angeles Times about farmers markets (available at the Project for Public Spaces). After suggesting that the success of farmers markets could lead to their undoing because farmers start spending too much time selling and traveling instead of farming, he proposed that new models of distribution for small farms be explored. Similarly, Carol Ness wrote about the farmers' perspective on farmers markets in the San Francisco Chronicle, pointing out that some farmers have decided that community supported agriculture (CSA) and restaurant sales are a better way to sell their produce. And some farmers, like Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm reaffirmed the value of the farmers market, saying "...it keeps us in touch with the community of people who support the local food movement. I think it's a really important part of our business."
I'm a big fan of the farmers markets in Berkeley (and other places), but can see that the rising price of oil and impending fees on greenhouse gas emissions will require some adjustments to the model. Can new models like grower co-ops, sales in independent grocery stores, or a seven-day-a-week market staffed by city folk instead of the farmers provide enough transparency? Buying peaches from a bin at the grocery store marked "Grown at Freddie's Farm in Sunol" is not nearly the same as buying peaches directly from Freddie at the farmers market, or even from Freddie's workers. And can the exceptional quality be maintained in an alternative system?
The second page of the Salon article has a reasonably fair examination of the issues beyond food miles, despite a citation of the infamous New Zealand lamb vs. UK lamb study, which Michael Shuman tackled and dismantled in a guest post here at The Ethicurean. Kwok lays out some of reasons for eating local and lets Friend o' Ethicurean Julie Cummins, education director for Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, the non-profit that runs the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, have a few words on the subject:
...Julie Cummins agrees that environmentalism shouldn't be the only consideration when buying food. But she argues that going local supports regional agriculture and builds relationships with the people who grow your food. If you're concerned about a particular issue such as pesticide or water use, she says, you can just ask farmers about their agricultural practices — something that's not possible at conventional grocery stores. "It lets you make informed food choices," says Cummins.
For another view on the article, I recommend agoodfoodblog's response to the article.
(via Eater SF; farmers market photo by Bart Nagel)