Ministry of Controversy

Clueless New Yorkers Again Reporting On Stuff They Don’t Understand

I was so irked by yesterday’s witless New York Times piece questioning the environmental value of eating locally that I thought the fairest thing to do was simply ignore it. 

But now that the Times climate blogger Andrew Revkin has drafted a tepid response, I feel compelled to add a scalding hot one. 

In yesterday’s piece titled "If It’s Fresh and Local, Is It Always Greener?" writer Andrew Martin riffs unintelligently off some ideas rattling around at UC Davis about whether the carbon footprint of locally grown food is really smaller than that of food shipped from far away.  The Davis people suggest that strawberries grown en masse on an industrial farm and sent by railroad en masse may use less oil than strawberries grown at your neighbor’s small farm and sent to the farmer’s market in a beat-up old pick-up. 

There are so many variables in this example that I find it intellectually worthless.  For example, how far is the local farmer driving the strawberries?  All the way to Union Square or just to Westchester?  And is he or she driving a hybrid?  And by the way, how far are the Price Chopper supermarkets from the rail yard, too, and how fuel efficient are their trucks?

As to why somebody at UC Davis is pushing such a dicey idea, here’s a clue, Andrew…University of California.  Which state has the most to lose if all of us in the other 49 start supporting our local farmers?  California.

Plus, nowhere does anybody mention the possibly of growing the strawberries in your own backyard using zero oil, and possibly not even a bowl that has to be washed, if you just fill your face right in the garden.  Dear Andrew Martin, this is not a difficult crop.  I’ve been growing boatloads of them for years with little input other than benign neglect.

And even IF the oil costs of locally grown produce and farmer’s-market-browsing consumers were actually higher than the costs of mass-produced produce and depressed supermarket shoppers…oil is NOT the only environmental cost of industrial farming.

Farming on that kind of scale is an incredible strain on an ecosystem.  It depletes water resources, especially in a dry place like Calitornia, breeds pests, soil exhaustion, poisonous run-off that pollutes aquifers, manure pits the size of Rhode Island…a million other environmental evils.

There are other questions, too.  If farming only takes place in California, what will happen to our glorious landscape here in upstate New York?  Nothing but cheap vinyl-sided housing as far as the eye can see.  Successful small farms stop sprawl.  Encourage the revitalization of towns, where we can all walk to buy our groceries.  Keep a little space clear for wildlife. 

Not to mention, they beautify the world.  Nothing, in my opinion, and I include Yosemite and Big Sur, is as beautiful as a neat little New England farm.  Ten thousand years of human intelligence about how to deal with nature wrapped up in a few dozen heavily worked acres.

These aesthetic questions are not meaningless.  Ignore them, and we’ll wind up with a populace too down-hearted to care about global warming.  The indisputable fact is, locally grown food tastes a million times better than the plastic stuff shipped here in the winter from California.  It is life-affirming.   

In my book, beauty and flavor alone are reason enough to buy from local farmers.  But I will need a hell of a lot more evidence before I am convinced that giant agribusinesses are better for the environment than the lovely young guys at the Saratoga Springs farmers’ market from whom I buy parsnips and steal gardening advice. 

Posted by on December 11, 2007 at 9:47 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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35 Responses to “Clueless New Yorkers Again Reporting On Stuff They Don’t Understand”

  1. Frances says:

    As always, a thought provoking post. The vision of us eating straight from the land, maybe a neckerchief tied around your chin for a bib to sop up the dribbles, should be rendered by a suitable artist. You are so right, California has lots to lose from the eating locally movement. It’s always about money, not about right and wrong, isn’t it?

  2. Colleen says:

    Loved, loved, loved reading this. I could not agree with you more about the aesthetic importance of local agriculture, or about the connectedness we feel when we know the people who grow our food. And you totally hit the nail on the head regarding California’s stake in the “eat local” movement.

  3. susan harris says:

    And here’s another place the Times falls short – not providing a “Who’s Blogging About This” on their site for every article, as even the Washington Post does. If they did, a well-informed response like one this could be injected into the discussion. But they’re a long way from getting on board with Web 2.0.

  4. El says:

    I found both articles amazingly dispiriting too, and it is in this feeling that I wondered if I was alone in feeling it. When Revkin said “But my guess is that most people seeking local produce are not in it to save the climate,” my response was, et tu, Andy? Are you really that clueless? (And if so, I want your job.)

    What neither article addresses is the actual fossil fuels expended to actually grow and fertilize and harvest the food: guess what, your average local truck farmer will always have a smaller footprint than a California conglomerate farm, I don’t care how it got from California to where you happen to live.

  5. NS Jones says:

    Liked your post and site. I agree, it will take a lot more evidence before I think local food is not the way to go. Challenging ideas isn’t a bad thing though, as long as it makes sense. Farmer’s markets and CSAs make sense to me.

  6. Ed Bruske says:

    The original Times piece by Andrew Martin, while certainly not the last word, made a number of good points worthy of discussion. Being someone who tries to cook with local products on a daily basis, blogs daily about food, receives a weekly Communuty Supported Agriculture (CSA) food box and now keeps close tabs on what’s happening in the local farmers markets, I can attest that there are many rough edges to this locavore movement.

    I was thinking as much on Sunday as I paid $28 for a four-pound, bone-in pork shoulder roast. The first thing you notice is that everything being sold by the various meat vendors at the farmer’s market–every slice of ham, every pork chop, every chicken quarter–has been individually packed in plastic. Because the farmers market is not a full service grocer, you have to tabulate all the other markets you must travel (i.e. drive) to in order to complete your shopping list. Then make a tally of all the different farm vehicles being driven into the District of Columbia from Pennsylvania, Virginia and Marland to put designer kale and radishes on display. Then take into consideration that most of the markets in most parts of the country are now closed for the season. So the local food is coming from where?

    It is, in fact, a horribly inefficient system that in fact represents only a tiny sliver of this country’s food production. It is not at all carbon neutral, and we as citizens–with our happy-go-lucky automobile culture and sprawling McMansion developments–are only making it worse, driving up the cost of local farmland to unreachable prices. It’s probably more accurate to say that we will only have a truly environmentally friendly agriculture when the oil finally runs out and we have to tear up all those suburban lawns to plant vegetables.

    Let’s hear it for backyard chickens…

  7. Oh yes, Ed Bruske, I think everybody ought to do it themselves! I grow enormous tons of gorgeous food without any excess of effort, cash, oil, or time.

    But no matter how inefficient eating from local farmers may be, you cannot convince me it is worse than draining rivers and lakes to irrigate deserts to grow chemical fertilizer-fed, pesticide sprayed industrial food which will be shipped thousands of miles to sit on the shelves of supermarkets the size of football fields where the air-conditioning is always cranked too high.

  8. Andy Revkin says:

    Nice post. I stand by my comments on Dot Earth, which point to the big basket of benefits offered by regional agriculture. And what I wrote about shrimp being flown from Scotland to China and back again surely illustrates the energy intensity of industrial-style food management.

  9. CaliGardenGirl says:

    Well, i live in California and I couldn’t agree more with the post above. And I often do travel past Harris Ranch, a HUGE conglomerate farm. After you see something like that, there is NO WAY you can argue that the local farmers are worse or on par with the conglomerate farms.

    It’s just so amazing to see it. So many Californians after seeing it become localvores. So much energy, fuel and pesticides are used at those huge farms it’s not even funny, or healthy for California. By the way, we are running out of water and we’re growing strawberries in December!

    In fact Sunset magazine has a blog about eating locally; it’s called the one-block diet where they grow all their own food.

  10. Question : would you prefer to go without fresh California produce during the entire winter, which in some areas of the country is about 8 months in favor of waiting till your local climate warms up a bit more so that you can feed your family strawberries, lettuce or whatever ?

    curious.

  11. CaliGardenGirl says:

    No, that’s why I live in California :-).

  12. Excellent point, Michelle Derviss. I was wondering when somebody was going to ask me that. I do buy supermarket produce, beginning right about now.

    But I think what I would really prefer is to get it together to have a hoop house and a better root cellar. Then I could conceivably harvest my own food all year long.

    But for less ambitious gardeners–my farmers’ market manages an impressive array of local produce all winter. They don’t just know how to grow the stuff, they know how to store it, too.

  13. Yes, middle and upper class North Americans across the continent can eat any fresh (if flavorless) fruits and veggies we want, in any season. Not just from California, either – there’s Central America, Chile, New Zealand…And the prices can’t be beat.

    But, do those endless bins of blandness necessary add up to a nutritious and tasty diet? It’s a false choice, I think, to assume that the best, indeed the only option we have is industrial produce at the supermarket – either that, or 8 months of living on something worse than MREs.

    As gardeners, we pride ourselves on stretching productivity throughout the year, plus we freeze, dry, preserve and can as things ripen in our garden. We change our eating habits with the seasons – that’s part of the fun, and a wellspring of taste and nutrition.

    If I remember right, it is eating both locally and _seasonally_ that counts.

    If we, through our chosen food system, destroy local farmscapes and ecology because we prefer the supermarket’s time warped monotony to local diverse growers who produce with the seasons, a vinyl village would make the perfect setting to munch our industrial salads –

    “Oh, goody, Blanche! Square tomato salad in January! You know, they taste just like they did in July!”

    What a miracle! You think Barbara Kingsolver might want to write about it???

    Beyond issues of taste and ecology, there is also a matter of simple nutritional justice.

    The supermarket only feeds those of us fortunate enough to afford it. The poor folks beneath the clouds of pesticide who grow and pick that food (those toiling in the US are branded “illegal aliens” – our most recent xenophobic outbreak scares and disgusts me), can’t afford to eat it.

    Supermarkets have simply pulled out of inner city neighborhoods, leaving poor families unable to obtain _anything_ fresh, industrial or otherwise – unless they grow it themselves in a community garden or in their yards, or community organizers bring small farmers and communities together to sponsor inner city farmers’ markets.

    Something odd and disturbing happens when people lose touch with where food comes from, and begin thinking of it simply as a “product” to be “consumed” whenever an urge hits us. Food and our relationship to growing (or finding) food goes much deeper, as Wendell Berry pointed out long ago. When we forget where food comes from, we uproot our souls.

    Our bargain “choices” in the supermarket come at a high cost, aesthetically, environmentally, nutritionally, spiritually, personally, and in terms of social justice. I think Michele is absolutely right on the mark to raise questions about the Times story and the tepid response.

  14. sandra says:

    I live on veggies during the winter delivered from a local organic farm, and yes they don’t include tomatos or lettuce. The selection does include a range of veggies you can make into winter salad,including lambs lettuce and sprouts, winter radish with a gorgeous wine coloured inside, apart from carrots and cabbage. There are also all the root veggies and squashes for baking and boiling and soups.
    Frankly I don’t want to eat strawberries in December, and if I get an unconquerable urge to do so, I can probably find some in my freezer put away during the summer when they were over-abundant in the garden. There is nothing like the anticipation of the first small lettuce leaves in Spring, or the first asparagas, or the first strawberries or peaches. I like eating veggies in season, they feel right and taste wonderful, and when I am tired of one sort another is just coming into season.

  15. JT says:

    Gee whiz, being comfortably coddled and well-fed as I am in (dare I say it) California, I did not realize the bile people out there feel towards us left-coasters.

    Anyway, plenty of people here do not want to eat strawberries (or apricots, or peaches, or plums . .) shipped from around the world out of season either; fact is our berry season is in full swing by late February, which I imagine feels like winter in some places. But rest assured that we wear hair shirts as we eat the berries so we don’t enjoy them too too much.

  16. Angela says:

    I like to grow food in my backyard, and I like to shop at local farmers’ markets. As a Californian, I know I’m more than blessed when it comes to fresh produce. Mea Culpa.

    But the whole California import/export, “locavore” topic seems so moot when you consider the fact that California exports its abundance to the rest of the world, not just the U.S.

    If you look at goods and services, the whole world barters. We feed Japan and land-challenged Japan gives us awesome technology. We feed Canada and Canada gives us… oh, I don’t know… whatever it is that Canada produces that we can’t.

    It’s just where we are in the whole, grand cultural geography scheme of things. Each county, state, country and continent has something different to offer the world. That’s not going to change.

    Yes, we should all grow more of our own food in our own backyards and on our patios, balconies and rooftops; and yes, Easterners should eat nothing but frozen, homegrown strawberries for eight months out of the year.

    But will we Californians stop eating your Eastern maple syrup? Will we all stop driving our Japanese-made cars (hybrids, even)? Blogging on our Chinese-made iMacs? Wearing our Australian UGGs? Will we all start growing our own coffee beans? I wish! It’s one of the few crops that doesn’t grow in California. Locavore sounds like a very dirty word if it means going without coffee.

    Yes, we spoiled Americans should do our part to shrink our clown-sized carbon footprints, but can we? Will we? I don’t know. All I can say is, welcome to the “age of miracle and wonder”. Buckle up and don’t forget the cloth bags.

  17. Angela, Elizabeth just sent me a link to a story about hobby greenhouses that says there is a guy in North Dakota who grows his own coffee in one. So there you go!

    I enjoy many things about the global economy, most especially the Swiss rug dealers on eBay–and the fact that bankers in France suffer when homeowners in Detroit, exploited by the same global financial industry, can’t pay their subprime mortgages.

    But there’s a difference between an iMac and a strawberry. One travels well, the other doesn’t.

    The produce in the supermarkets here uniformly sucks–not to mention the sheer craziness of their shipping in apples from Washington State when we are surrounded by apple orchards here in upstate New York.

    Whatever efficiencies demand that my supermarket sell rubber apples from Washington, rather than the crisp products of Saratoga Apple down the road, are meaningless efficiencies.

    They are the kind of thing we’ll look back on and laugh at in a wiser future, the same way we laugh at bomb shelters and strip malls now.

  18. Frances says:

    Our local grocery store sometimes offers local produce with a large sign and display. It is seasonal and costs more, but people seem to be willing to buy it despite that. Especially popular are the local tomatoes, labeled as Grainger County. They are a big deal here and many markets showcase them, even in the larger cities. That is a step in the right direction. When they start coming in, it is even on the local news.

  19. Katy says:

    The absurdity of California shipping oranges to Florida grocery stores and Washington State transporting tons of apples to the North East are just two small examples highlighting the fact that the largest profits earned from our market basket is in the transportation of our food not from the food it self.

  20. Peg says:

    Great post! You should send it to the Times as a letter.

    I agree with the points of how absurd it is for fruits grown within a local economy to be supplanted or even augmented with crops from far away. Why does Florida need California oranges, except in seasons of drought or bad weather? And why should New York or Massachusetts import apples from Washington?

    I live in Albany and am so happy the local apple orchards and farmers’ markets are thriving…but winter is a dark season, indeed…hence that Dark Days challenge I have been seeing (similar tot he 100-mile diet idea)…in which one tries to eat a meal comprised of only local produce and products once a week in the winter, if one lives in the Northerly zones…

  21. Angela made some good points regarding the interdependance of food and hard goods between the different U.S states and other countries. This is a major carbon footprint generator that will not be easy to distill, (even if the locavore habit is adopted by the masses)
    The very infrastructure of commerce in our world today is based on a “spider web” of goods that hold the economies of many rich and poor countries together.It isn’t surprising that as gardening enthusiasts, we focus on what we can immediately control, and that is our food source. So we focus on it, as we should. (I’m not addressing the point of superior taste with local grown foods just the environmental benefit)I wish this alone would solve the worlds’ problem, but somehow I do not think it will.
    People outside our interest group may find it hard to adopt the “grow your own” mentatlity or opt for the farmer’s market on the one day it is available in their area. It is a matter of convenience to many in our coddled consumer market.Heck, as a professional gardener, I find it difficult to just motivate the masses to do some good old fashioned gardening (thats another great topic.) In my industry we are strategizing to win over the next generation of gardeners,who find what we do not “fun” but “work.”
    That said, I say, “grow your own veggies and support your local farmer” because it is better for our health and promotes local commerce. Is it a major carbon foot print mitigator? I don’t know, we will see.

  22. Tibs says:

    I have noticed in our Farmers’ Market which is held in the city park that there are people who are selling stuff they have bought from a wholesaler, same stuff you can get at the grocery and definately not grown locally. I don’t know if you have to get a permit to sell or just show up, but there is no monitering of the stuff. Yeah, they can say it’s grown organically, but how do you know?

  23. Shirley, people don’t know that the work of gardening IS fun. Meanwhile, they spend millions of hours on weird machines at the gym, producing absolutely nothing, beautifying nothing but themselves.

    Even if it would have only a neglible impact our carbon footprint, getting these people to garden instead would be fantastic for our culture.

  24. firefly says:

    There is actually a school of thought that advises eating with the seasons — that the body is better off with root vegetables in the winter and lighter things like lettuces and fresh crops in spring and summer. Depending on where you are and how the seasons play out, your diet will differ, if you follow that approach.

    I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to clock time (o how I hate changing, either forward or back!) and I think the global transport of veg in all seasons falls under the same industrialized mandate to ignore the sun, moon, stars, and weather, and keep your nose to the grindstone under fluorescent lights.

    There’s a local co-op forming here in answer to Whole Foods’ wading into town and gobbling up all the other organic grocers, and when the co-op gets some legs, I plan to join.

  25. Angela says:

    “But there’s a difference between an iMac and a strawberry. One travels well, the other doesn’t.”

    Excellent point, Michele, and ripe strawberries seem particularly vulnerable to rot (Botrytis, etc.). None of us really want to know what’s been sprayed on our huge, gorgeous, conventionally grown strawberries, do we? http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/r734100111.html

    Hydroponic hothouses practicing IPM might be the ticket to fresh year-round strawberries in Eastern regions. Let’s make them solar powered to counter the energy argument.

    But, hey, I’d take a frozen strawberry over no strawberry any day.

    Do I really have to grown my own coffee? Damn that greenhouse of mine!

  26. Katy says:

    Shirley,
    “Heck, as a professional gardener, I find it difficult to just motivate the masses to do some good old fashioned gardening (that’s another great topic.) In my industry we are strategizing to win over the next generation of gardeners, who find what we do not “fun” but “work.”" I think you made a great point and only through the efforts of those who lead by example will we begin to see change. Here is an example of what’s happening on that front in my neck of the woods. http://www.farminstitute.org/who/whomiss.html Doug Tallamy made an important point in the post Doug Tallamy answers your questions that relates to this discussion as well.
    “But we change what we consider to be desirable or valuable all the time. It was once a sign of status to smoke. Now we know better. Last year it was a sign of status to drive an SUV. Knowledge and peer pressure is changing that status symbol too and soon SUV owners will be ridiculed for heating up our planet. It is becoming more socially admirable to drive a Prius or ride a bike instead.”

  27. Michele, I agree with you. “Lead by example.” As the mass media interjects the green message in constant doses, I believe the general public will become more aware of different lifestyle options that are win/win for us and the environment.

    With this in mind, I believe that the message is more effective when it is presented as less “preachy” and more “practical.” God knows people hate to be preached to, unless of course they are part of the choir. All it does is separate those who agree with those who don’t agree and create factions.

    Emphasize the universal human factor and direct benefit to people, by example. How about writers writing about people who lost weight through gardening, or who are saving money on their grocery bills by growing their own? Families who are reconnecting by spending time outdoors.Who can resist that?

    Weave into television and movie storylines characters who are recycling, gardening, shopping at the farmers market, biking to work, crafting products with their own hands(for fun and profit!)and have general, earth-honoring habits. It doesn’t have to be “telegraphed” each time a character does something good- just make it look natural.

    Our magazines and design shows could showcase beautiful homes and gardens that are designed with alternative materials and plants.
    To be effective the message needs to be politely pervasive.”Low key is the key.” Otherwise unsympathetic people will dismiss a feature article, magazine brand, television show, and even people as “those militant green things .”

    The message of good health, saving money, enjoying life, happiness and excitment, communicated with a sincere smile, are some of the most alluring bait we have in our tackle box.

  28. chuck b. says:

    I want to say California agri-business is not the same thing as California; a distinction somewhat elided in this rant.

    Also, Californians are pioneers in the locavore movement, not followers.

    An interesting if irrelevant point about locavorism (in California at least, where land prices are very high) is that locally grown food is to some extent, a luxury item.

  29. Mea culpa, Chuck B. I shouldn’t disparage Yosemite while I’m attacking agri-businesses, particularly since I’m related to California by marriage. Plus, I love Chez Panisse, and you’re right, Alice Waters was supporting local farmers before anybody else on the continent was. I’m just highly suspicious of the UC Davis people quoted in the Times piece. So maybe I’ll confine my slander to them.

    Here at least, the cost of organic food at the farmer’s market is lower than the cost of organic food in the supermarket and often comparable to the price of conventionally grown supermarket food–thanks, I’m assuming, to oil’s toying with $100 a barrel.

  30. Ed Bruske says:

    Michele, I went back and read the original article again and I did not find any comparison between locally produced food and food produced with with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides or draining rivers to make deserts bloom. (I’ve also worked on a produced farm in the desert that would not have survived without irrigation, but it was very crafty drip irrigation, not sucking everything out of the Colorado River.)

    People suffer horribly from the illusion that buying local food ipso facto means they are being more kind to the environment. I could bend your ear talking about local organic farmers who cover their fields with black plastic and don’t care very much where the wind carries it. Or burn their trash in the fields. Or drive huge distances transporting relatively small amounts of food for customers who are willing to pay the price–for the vegetables as well as the gas–just for the privelege of purchasing food grown within a 100 mile radius.

    No, this really has nothing to do with how you fertilize your fields or what you spray on them but rather the efficiencies involved in putting food on America’s tables. And the truth is that this surge in interest in locally produced food willfully overlooks horrible amounts of ineffiency and hence impact on the environment. Nobody’s been able to quantify that, however. And my point is that we probably won’t see truly efficient, local food production until our current system becomes too expensive to operate any longer.

  31. Don says:

    Great discussion!

    You got me! As a coffee drinker, I concede trade has a place in greater scheme of things. Besides, I like it that farmers in Togo (my Peace Corps country), Guatemala, Indonesia and other places can make some money off us.

    And, yes, it makes ecological sense to grow coffee in Guatemala and wheat in North Dakota (though neither plant originated in those bioregions). I hate to think of the cost associated with greenhouse production – even a solar greenhouse would require expensive materials.

    To me, I’m not doctrinaire, but see things simply and pretty pragmatically. It makes sense to eat locally whenever we can, for all the benefits listed in these posts. In choosing food not grown locally, I try to consider it a supplement rather than an absolute necessity (except coffee <:)), and try stay mindful of any negative local impacts (like losing all our local small farms and food production capacity).

    In a couple ways, this touches on the comments by the Harvard biologist who sees gardening as a continual war with nature, to force it to do what ‘we want’. Brace for this kind of questioning – I know I’ll get some folks in my next organic gardening class who bring this up.

    If we accept this for ornamental landscaping, then how much more will it be true for food production? Bring out the nukes and slay the enemy. Hmmm, sounds a lot like current foreign policy, too.

    What organic/ecological gardeners do, simply, is recognize that, like it or not, our gardens and farms obey ecological laws. We can work with them, or try to fight them at every turn. A garden not only keeps our bods in good shape (and it is more fun and cheaper than the treadmill at the gym), it can teach first hand how to work with Nature.

    I think Michael Pollan was much closer to the mark in Second Nature, in suggesting that gardens and gardeners are bridges linking the human and natural worlds, and must seek balance between the two without denying either. Seeing our communities and farms in this same light offers hope for us all, whatever our carbon sitzmark.

  32. mary says:

    Locavors unite.

  33. Please don’t smear all us New Yorkers with the dusky ink of the New York Times!

  34. Steve Dores says:

    Growers who ship produce select varieties that ship well. How it tastes is not of primary importance.

    Buying locally gives you a product that was harvested closer to being ripe and selected for taste and not how long it holds up in shipping.

  35. Mary says:

    “We feed Canada and Canada gives us… oh, I don’t know… whatever it is that Canada produces that we can’t.”

    Angela, last time I looked, Canada was cutting its old growth forests because ours are either gone or too expensive (those pesky environmental laws, ya know).

    Just a note.

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