I was made aware this week of an article that appeared in the New York Times on 8/19, that attempts to explore the cost and environmental differences between local and industrial agriculture. Stephen Budiansky, a gardener himself, enjoys local food, but is concerned about what he calls “self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas.” He suggests that “(w)ords like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.”
There is truth to that idea that Americans often latch onto sound bites and catch phrases and then use them rather liberally as if they really understand the nuances and complex topics to which these phrases refer. Budiansky is clearly fed up with this frustrating trait in American discourse on many subjects, so he sets out, using math, to compare the two and reveal the fallacy. The only problem is, his approach has its own fallacies, and neglects several points that may tip the scales back toward local food.
In a recent study, U Texas released its findings (link 2 below) that real food is more effective at preventing cancer than vitamins and supplements. How does this information play into the local vs. industrial equation? Fresher foods contain more nutrition and beneficial enzymes, and local foods are fresher than industrially produced foods, which are often picked before fully ripe for their long commute to your local grocery store, and may be much older by the time we buy them. Industrial foods are often nutritionally deficient, which is why so many doctors prescribe vitamins for proper nutrition to begin with. If you get cancer because of diet, those medical costs need to be factored in to the cost of industrial food.
Budiansky has legitimate concerns about the footprint of “lavishly heated” greenhouses, but a farm like ours uses no greenhouses, and I’ve read about greenhouses that use chickens or compost to produce the heat in colder northern climates. There are other creative ideas, like rooftop gardens (link 3 below), which can boast reduced energy costs for the building below it, and mitigation of storm water runoff.
He also neglects to consider other industrial factors, such as fertilizer runoff, recalled produce, soil depletion, and all the costs that accompany these issues. While I share his desire to explore the real costs of food and have an honest debate with no omissions, his view is still a little narrow to meet that goal.
This Week’s Harvest: Delicata Squash, Tomatoes, Summer Squash, Peppers, Cucumbers, Potatoes, Watermelon, Basil, Parsley