Sunday, July 12, 2009

Locally Grown Foods Two

Stan Sersen, in this month’s Business Monthly column, asks if we are locavores. Below is a snippet of his column:
When was the last time you sat down to a meal and were concerned that the food on your plate came from halfway around the world? Or whether that same food would even be available at any cost in the future?

How about the questions, "What will we do if the food is no longer available?" or "What types of chemicals are they putting on this food to grow it in China and ship it to us?"
According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (, the average "food miles" to get food from the farm to your plate in the U.S. is, on average, between 1,300 to 2,000 miles. Would you have thought that?

Another disturbing fact is that, since 1970, when the supposed endless supply of oil was available to us, truck shipping has dramatically increased, replacing the more energy efficient, and less carbon burning, rail and water transport used in other parts of the world, even today.

I have already blogged about the lack of environmental benefits from locally grown food here. Additionally, a weakness in the concept of “food miles” is raised by Wikipedia:
The calculation of food miles ignores questions of scale. Consider the following simplistic example: a small family farm produces 10 tons of produce, but has a small truck with capacity for only 1 ton. If the farm is located 100 miles (160 km) away from market, each piece of produce only travels 100 "food miles"; however, 10 trips are required to bring that produce to market. Now consider a farm located 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away but with a 10-ton truck. That farm's produce would travel 1000 "food miles" while consuming a slightly higher amount of energy (as a bigger truck needs less fuel per unit of mass transported).

The Wikipedia article above also cites a source which tells us that only 4% of the greenhouse gases produced by the food industry come from transporting the food from producers to retailers.

I am a strong believer in helping the environment, but I think that the things we do should make sense and be more than mere propaganda. Sometimes I wonder if people who proclaim to environmentalists are more concerned about actually helping the environment or making it look like they are helping the environment. Food for thought.


Bob O said...

Well put. If you really want to have a hoot, compare the total environmental cost of buying and driving a Toyota Prius with buying and driving an H2 Hummer. Once you see how the numbers work out, I'm surprised that more people concerned about the environment aren't driving around in H2s.

So many things in life are counterintuitive....

Anonymous said...

Bob O,

I know you're relatively new around here, but you should spend a bit more time learning and less time talking. Sometimes cutesy, "counterintuitive" stuff is actually just wrong.

Two seconds of Googling can make a lifetime of difference.

Anonymous said...

If we want to grow our own food, no 'covenant' or other insane HOA rule should prohibit. In fact, no covenant should restrict outdoor clothes drying, windmills, solar panels or other mainstream methods of lowering household cash flow out and helping the environment.

Freemarket said...

I’m not sure I buy that an H2 is better for the environment than a Prius. Although, I have a strong personal bias for Toyota and against GM. I think a better comparison would be the environmental cost of a Honda Civic vs. a Prius. The tricky part of that comparison is whether or not electricity is cleaner than gasoline. If the electricity is generated from a coal fired plant, it would not surprise me to a Civic be much better for the environment than a Prius.

Dave W said...

"Sometimes I wonder if people who proclaim to be environmentalists are more concerned about actually helping the environment or making it look like they are helping the environment."

I've been saying that for years.

Personally, in the past year and originally at the urging of my girlfriend, I've ben picking up more and more produce from the local farms around Howard and Carroll County instead of purchasing them at the local supermarket. I guess you could call that "buying local" except I probably burn eight-nine times more gas getting to those places than I would driving down the street to my local supermarket and picking up the same produce. But the produce tastes so much better from the local farms that I am willing to spend that extra money (and carbon-producing gas) to get it. And I get credit from the environmental crowd for "buying locally". YAY!

Eludius said...

Freemarket beat me to the comment about electric cars. Yes, these cars produce less exhaust, but how much exhaust is produced to create the energy to operate them? And the rechargeable batteries in hybrid cars are extremly toxic. What do we do with those when they die?

As far as buying locally, did you know that food can be considered 'grown local' if it is grown within a 400 mile radius of the sale? Would you consider something grown in New York or Pittsburgh to be locally grown? It's very deceptive. Perhaps there should be a new lableing standard - grown in Maryland\Delaware, etc....

Bob O said...

Anonymous, nice to meet you. Are you the same Anonymous I see all over the internet? Man! You get around!

I'll be over with my old Prius battery to bury it in your back yard! Thanks!

Bob O said...

Anonymous (did I spell your name right?), thanks! I read the second study. Thanks for tipping me off to that, good deal.

I still think you are not able to fit your head around the unintended consequences. Take a look at the energy that it actually takes to build, run, and de-commission a Prius. I've actually been involved in engineering studies regarding hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure electric cars. The ramifications are much larger than you seem to realize. "Wait! I know! Let's burn more coal so that people in Columbia, MD, can plug in their cars to recharge them!" Good thinking.

I find your post condescending and your name despicable. And, I contest the allegations on TOC for different vehicles. Next thing you know, you'll be sending me a hockey-stick diagram about Prius battery recycling. You should do some research on this, and volunteer to have a nickel-metal hydride battery buried in your back yard. I'm sure it'd increase your property value.

Other than that, get with the program and the tenor of the discussion. Come out of the Anon closet. And have a sense of humor.

Matt said...

Why do people keep saying things about the coal used to power my electric Prius. The Prius is not a plug-in, so it does not have an external electric source, coal, nuclear, or other.

As for local foods versus non-local foods, I think its a bit of a complex issue and basing the argument on one part of the equation alone is not fair. I'm a supporter of local produce, but prefer to support local, sustainable produce, which reduces the carbon footprint greatly through a reduction in petroleum based fertilizer, a reduction in large equipment use, etc. It also helps the environment through its other managenment practices.

When you look into the impact of buying local, don't just think about your mileage, or the miles spent getting the food to market, think about the energy used to process and pack the foods at the store, the energy used to cool the foods for the one to two week trip it takes, and energy used in the store to keep it in a safe state. Most local food is purchase within 24-48 hours of being picked. It doesn't need all of the same care of a tomato that was picked two weeks ago in CA, or brocolli shipped from South America. Not to mention the meat that is shipped from New Zealand.

This is a very complex issue, and simplifying it, on either side of the argument, does not do it justice.

As a person who tries to do good things for the environment, I don't care if anyone sees me doing it or how I appear. As for local foods, you could leave the environmental impact out of the equation and I'd still buy local foods for the economic, food safety, food security, and sociological reasons - that and the taste is much better.

Freemarket said...

Matt, I don't know much about the Prius so I assumed that they plug in. So where do they get their juice? They don't have solar panels, so are they burning gas to generate electricity? If so, the MPG figures for a Prius are very much an apples to apples comparison to an ordinary car.

Matt said...

To my knowledge, there aren't any available plug in hybrids in the marketplace. Hybrid engines differ from manufacturer to manufacturer,but in Toyotas the batteries are charged by an internal generator that can charge the battery several ways. One is to charge it directly from gasoline engine, similar to the way your car's engine charges its battery while running, but the Prius also is able to charge its battery by using the braking system through regenerative braking. The kinetic energy of the movement is transferred into electrical energy and stored in the battery.

It's interesting to note that there are some type of "governors" placed on the Prius that prevent it from fully utilizing the electric motor in the US version of the car. I don't know the complete details, but in the US version, you can't run for too long in electric only mode, and acceleration is limited with the electric motor.

As for the MPG calculations, its pretty simple, and the source of the energy shouldn't make a difference. If you can travel 50 miles on a gallon of gas, that's the figure. How the gas is used to travel that 50 miles, whether its directly running the engine or powering a generator that runs an engine, is moot. People can argue about life cycle costs of the Prius, but it gets the best gas mileage in the US and produces ignificantly less emissions while operating than other cars. The operational carbon footprint can't really be challenged, but as mentioned earlier, the life-cycle costs, especially due to the nickel in the battery, should be weighed against other options. Don't forget though, that the Prius, and other hybrids also have features that mean they burn less fossil fuel, or none at all, while idling. This shouldn't be discounted.