plays the locavoreanism-debunking game

The type of article lamented by a few commenters on my recent post about food miles vs. food choices made an appearance in Salon a few days ago.

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)

4 Responsesto “ plays the locavoreanism-debunking game”

  1. agfb says:

    great piece…and thanks for the link.  you’ve made two points in particular that i think are spot-on:  the fact that small, organic farmers are more likely to use bio-diesel and/or alternative fuels in bringing their produce to market, especially in the bay area where the Salon piece focused, and also that the storage time post-harvest for the wholesalers is not insignificant from a carbon footprint angle by any means.
    those big forced-air-cooled warehouses are energy-hogs, not to mention the loss in food quality when farmers pick produce under-ripe so it stands up to a longer haul…only to gas it in the truck on the way to the supermarket!

  2. Last week a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit called the Progress Fund launched a new program called Produce Grown Here, or PGH, through which the nonprofit will work with 20 farms and serve as a central supplier to some local food-related businesses.

    As it turns out, the food-related businesses are two of the biggest in the region – one local restaurant chain, the other a grocery store chain – but it does get at the food miles issue. I emailed back and forth with the head of the nonprofit, and he provided some <a_href=””>interesting insight</a> into the program.
    One local farmer, who is not part of the program at this point, said his biggest concern is that its funding – which comes from a large grant – will disappear somehow at some point in the near future and then you’d have these small farms who have ramped up production a bit to meet the demands of these large local chains getting stuck with a whole bunch of product they wouldn’t be able to move.
    Overall, though, it seems like a positive development, and, again, should help reduce overall food miles.

  3. Charles says:

    I think the Salon article is a fair criticism of one of the environmental arguments for farmers markets. It is not obvious that local food offers any real advantage in terms of environmental cost. This follows from the fact that food miles are an insignificant contributor to overall carbon emissions of food production. This has been supported by several studies which show that the production of the food itself is the most important factor in carbon cost. Given that the production methods of many californian farmers are more capital intensive than emerging market farmers, the latter group is on a net basis more environmentally beneficial given that metric.
    Having sat through a presentation at the Ferry Building hosted by CUESA which did a great job at not highlighting anything which related to an actual analysis of the issues, I am most frustrated by these arguments. The self-righteous element among advocates of farmers markets are perverse. US farmers receive subsidies which give them advantages over emerging market producers and now we seek to disadvantage them further with bogus logic. 
    I buy food at farmers markets. Mostly for the reason you mention: its picked later and thus tastes better. The farmers market is therefore a market where people of the necessary affluence are brought together with farmers where they pay more for food in return for better taste. Lets leave the food miles rubbish out of it. There is still some debate over the carbon accounting and the circumstances will differ by product but its safe to say that a focus on food miles is unmerited by the evidence.

  4. I don’t understand your comment, Charles. Perhaps I’m missing something. But aren’t subsidies almost primarily aimed at commodity crops, NOT the fruits and veggies and pastured meat products that, from my experience, represent nearly the entirety of most farm markets?
    I’d venture to guess that many people who are regularly/religiously buy at farmer’s markets (and who also participate in CSAs), do so for a combination of reasons: better product, supports their local farmers/economy, and supports/encourages farming in a more sustainable fashion that,  just so happens, has some environmental benefit, even if it is not as great as not buying/eating beef from CAFOs.

    Again, maybe I’m missing something, but you seem to be way off base.