Ethical Consumption and the Debate over Locavore Math

In an ethical consumption blog post from earlier this month, I weighed in with some thoughts on the pragmatism of the locavore movement.  It turns out that I was in good company, as a debate about the movement has been raging since August 19th, when Stephen Budiansky published an Op-Ed in the New York Times criticizing the math behind the movement.  His main argument: that food transportation represents a negligible fraction of the overall energy use quoted by proponents of local eating.  In fact, according to Budiansky, 32% of energy use in our food system derives from home preparation and storage, and a large chunk of the remaining 68% represents the energy use required to grow the food itself.

Not surprisingly, Grist had a field day responding to Budiansky’s op-ed, assembling responses from farmers, locavore-related non-profits, and columnists and analysis specializing in food systems.  Arguments embedded in these responses run the gamut.  Here are a few samples of points made in the Grist responses in defense of the locavore movement:

-Selling food in mass quantities means contamination in a batch can affect massive numbers of people.

-Economic arguments about energy use in production don’t take into account the spread of allergens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria from agribusiness.

-Calculations like Budiansky’s may not take into account economic distortions caused by perverse government subsidies.

-We waste more energy throwing out food than transporting it.

-Budiansky’s calculations would look different if he took into account that the local food movement should more accurately be considered a regional food movement.

-Local food is yummier.

And here are a few more adding more fuel to the fires of criticism:

-The economies of scale lost in farmers markets make buying locally a luxury that only the wealthier among us can afford.

-Farmers need to make a living, and may have difficulty doing so if they limit their sales to a 250 mile radius.

Notice that there are far more arguments against Budiansky’s position than in favor of it.  Does the fact that these ethical consumption pieces are critical of Budiansky’s New York Times op-ed indicate that his point of view is truly flawed and partial?  Or is the bias in these articles simply a reflection of Grist’s sympathetic stance on the locavore movement?  If only Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland would actively weigh in on these perspectives.  Perhaps this is a future article for Justmeans’ CSR section.

Photo credit: Tanakawho