Last week, historian and author Stephen Budiansky raised quite a ruckus with his controversial New York Times op-ed piece, “Math Lessons for Locavores.” He took issue with the argument that buying local fare saves “food miles” (i.e., energy) and scolded local-food advocates for tossing around misleading and selective numbers to support their side.
Citing numbers from the University of Michigan Centers for Sustainable Systems, Budiansky noted that the big energy hog in our food system is the American household, which accounts for almost 32% of food-related energy use (from procuring food to storing, preparing and cleaning up after it). Transportation–the actual miles it takes to bring food to your table–uses less than 14% of food “energy.”
The piece unleashed an avalanche of responses. In her Huffington Post rebuttal, Kerry Trueman, co-founder of EatingLiberally.org, dismissed Budiansky’s “deeply unserious” piece as “another flimsy, flammable straw man [made] out of boilerplate anti-locavore rhetoric.” She notes, quite rightly, that consumer-related food-energy expenses have nothing to do with whether we buy our food locally or not.
On the other side, “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert (who is sponsored by ConAgra, by the way), praised Budiansky’s “terrific” piece and declared, “One thing is clear to me: It is the beginning of the end of local.” He accuses locavore advocates of often distorting facts, which has confused consumers and eroded their confidence in the local-food movement.
Clearly, it’s not a black-or-white issue. “Local” often depends on where you live. If you’re in Southern California, like me, it’s pretty easy to get most, if not all, your food within a 100-mile radius year-round. If you live in Montana, where the growing season is fleeting, you may need a seasonal approach to local fare, as well as a broader definition of what’s “local.” In his blog, Politics of the Plate, Barry Estabrook suggests a regional approach to food may be a more realistic solution for many Americans.
As with so many food-related issues, we believe this takes a nuanced approach based on your needs and values. Lia is going to address this issue in more depth next week.
In the meantime, let us know what local food means to you.