Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Food Fight: Grist weighs in

Last week, the NYT ran a provocative op-ed by self-proclaimed "Liberal Curmudgeon," Stephen Budiansky.  In "Math Lessons for Locavores," Budiansky looks to debunk the "misleading and often bogus" statistics deployed to explain why eating locally is environmentally friendlier.  Writes Budiansky:

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.

A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers’ market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy. Just running your refrigerator for a week consumes 9,000 calories of energy. That assumes it’s one of the latest high-efficiency models; otherwise, you can double that figure. Cooking and running dishwashers, freezers and second or third refrigerators (more than 25 percent of American households have more than one) all add major hits. Indeed, households make up for 22 percent of all the energy expenditures in the United States.

While locavoracity may have acquired something of a self-righteous halo recently, especially among the coastal trend-mongers, some of Budiansky's own calculations struck me as suspiciously ad-hoc, mustered to score points rather than to advance understanding of the pros and cons of our current food system.  Partly it was using the club of "efficiency" to bludgeon the arguments about localism ("The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies"); partly it was the smugly contrarian conclusion ("The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being.") that pretends that the interests of land, economy and environment are somehow naturally aligned under industrial monocultures.  In the role of curmudgeon, Budiansky reduces complex and textured arguments about diversity, resilience, seasonality and ecological scale to a choice between virtue and efficiency.

The folks over at Grist have taken up Budiansky's challenge and organized a series of responses, including this one from Elanor Starmer of Food & Water Watch. I'm curious to see how the debate unfolds (nothing in the NYT yet, as far as I can tell); let's hope it generates a bit more light.


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