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Food Carbon, Corporate Farming and Transnational Community-Supported Agriculture
Alex Steffen, 27 Feb 07
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Does local food matter to sustainability? Ethan, in his post on food miles, asks some provocative questions about whether the carbon footprint of food raised in distant countries is really as bad or even as important as local food advocates claim. He makes some good points, and draws to our attention some interesting new research which may show that the environmental impacts of food shipment are a very small portion of the overall ecological footprint of the food we eat.

In particular, one New Zealand study (PDF) has drawn a lot of attention by making a strong case for NZ lamb being less energy intensive than European lamb, even after the transportation impacts were included.

This may not be the best example from which to take larger conclusions. For one thing, as I've written earlier, New Zealand has a strong commitment to energy efficiency and some of the most productive livestock grazing land in the world. It is not at all clear that the carbon efficiency of other agricultural goods from New Zealand and elsewhere is better (indeed, the study only makes the claim for dairy and sheepmeat, not all the other crops studied).

That said, though, the conclusion reached by the authors, that "it is not the distance that should be assessed but the total energy used, production to plate including transport," is a worthwhile caution, and we need more systems for gathering and comparing data in order to figure out whether the carbon footprint of a cheeseburger can best be shrunken by local or global production. That system also needs to take into account the backstory behind how food is actually processed and prepared. (Want to calculate your food's carbon footprint -- you could try this site.)

However, carbon output is not the only issue pushing the concept of local eating, and we must beware of carbon blindness in this debate. There are quite reasonable questions about preserving local food economies, not only for the benefit of the farmer, but for the preservation of farmland, traditional knowledge and local agricultural biodiversity. This is not protectionism, at least if done honestly.

There are also questions about what plants "want" to be farmed on any given plot of land. While botanic nativism is not the answer (most of the farmed world is already a melange of plants and animals from around the world, and climate change is rapidly transforming the landscapes in which other crops have been grown for centuries), neither is the current system of factory farming exotic high-value crops for export, especially where the costs in soil erosion and the spread of invasive species is high (though again, export crops like flowers can be done right and a bouquet of Kenyan flowers may come wrapped in less carbon than a Dutch one). Even high tech neobiological farming presumes a certain relationship to the historical ecosystem around the farm. Not every crop can be grown in every place without the risk of real ecological damage.

What's more, not all global food trade distributes benefits to local populations fairly (or even at all). Much of the global trade in bananas, for instance, is dominated by just five companies, companies which are notorious for bad labor conditions and malignant political influences, which grow vulnerable monocultures of plants nearly identical at a genetic level, requiring vast amounts of pesticides and fungicides -- and which leave a miniscule percentage of banana trade profits circulating in the local economy.

But overall, my preference would be for a sensitive and conditional approach here. When it works -- when the crop makes sense climatically, when it's transport is carbon-efficient, when growing that crop supports local farmers both at home and abroad, when the trade arrangements are fair -- let's by all means trade food.

Indeed, maybe the real task is inventing a model which would allow us to trade that food with a clear conscience. And here, I wonder if we might not mash-up community-suported agriculture, fair-trade models and the kind of international bridge-building we see in good-based remittance businesses like Mama Mike's. What if we could create fair-trade arrangements directly with local farmers or farming communities from distant places with different crops and climates? What if we got our bananas directly from a transnational CSA in Guatemala, rather than a banana cartel? What if we could utilize transparent practices and global communications to be much surer that our food dollars were going to farmers, directly supporting the sort of world we wanted to see?

Imagine then a network of such transnational CSAs, delivering great food from those places where export crops actually make ecological sense, so we get free-range lamb from New Zealand, organic plantains from the Carribean, coffee from a coop in Ethiopia and fresh flowers from a worker-run greenhouse in Peru.

What do you think? Do you know of any examples of these sorts of things (other than the ones linked to above)? How does such thinking play out in your kitchen?


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Wonderful article! Just wanted to tell you that I appreciate the work you do.

Will Rimmer

Posted by: Will on 27 Feb 07

And yet, growing at least part of our diet locally makes sense from a strategical point of view, as transport may be disrupted by peakoil or panflu or human conflict.

So what would be the right mix? 40% from closer than 100 km, 30% between 100 and 500 km, and 30% from even further?

Or what would be the criteria for designing "locally desirable aims"?

Posted by: lugon on 27 Feb 07

Even if the economics are not evident RIGHT NOW, having a local distribution market in place is essential, because with price shocks, the economics change quickly. American car companies couldn't justify the economics of tooling up for smaller cars, although the Japanese could, and when gas prices went up, GM and Ford nearly went under.

Often these local distribution networks can find near-term economic justification in the luxury market when they can't make such justification otherwise. A local farmer could grow prestige produce one year, and the next year, when if she is able to predict that people won't be able to afford such stuff, she can plant delicious cabbages.

Posted by: rob on 27 Feb 07

Just a quick FYI.

There was an interesting article in The Economist this winter (can't recall the exact issue) that showed that the carbon footprint of commercially grown produce (e.g., a head of lettuce grown in California, then shipped to a Super Wal-Mart in Boston) is *less* than that of a locally grown CSA head of lettuce sold at the farmer's market.

Why is this possibly true? Well, Wal-Mart is *extremely* efficient in how they ship products. (Imagine an entire 18-wheeler, filled with lettuce!) A local CSA, has to drive a smaller distance, to be sure, but the miles driven *per product delivered* is much higher. Furthermore, people tend to buy a *lot* of their groceries at the Big Box store, not the farmer's market -- so they probably take fewer trips.

This is just another example of how the "buy local" mantra might not always work as advertised.

But, as Alex says, there are lots of other good reasons to consider the whole "buy local" idea. It's not just about carbon life-cycle analyses.

But let's remember that, behind the curtain, there are lots of ugly details to sort out. No one simple thing (e.g., buying local food, buying carbon offsets, etc.) is going to "solve" any of our problems.

The world is messy, and so are the solutions.

Posted by: Just Another Dude on 27 Feb 07

In Response to 'Just Another Dude': I agree that there are a plethora of ugly details to sort out and there most likely will not be one clean shiny perfect solution to issues such as effective and responsible delivery of food from the farm to the frying pan. The notion that buying anything from a Wal-Mart is more environmentally and economically friendly than buying locally is hard for me to believe however. Wal-Mart does have an incredibly efficient supply chain and they have revolutionized the industry, but I would need to see some hard statistical data to support those claims before I buy into them. There has been so much documented negative ecological impact by Wal-Mart that any gains realized in their supply chain efficiency have most likely been completely undone.

I have to admit that I am biased on my stance towards Wal-Mart, I believe they have a long road ahead of them to becoming responsible contributors to society instead of voracious consumers of resources.

Posted by: Rob W on 27 Feb 07

Isn't it possible to find any one case, be it New Zealand lamb, African flowers or Wal-Mart lettuce, for which it's possible to prove that long-distance is better than local? Does that kind of reductionist analysis really help?

How much does it matter to know the carbon footprint of any particular foodstuff? Aren't we more interested in the total ecological footprint of our diets?

Wouldn't that take into account a wide range of issues, including habitat destruction, land degradation and soil erosion, fertilizer and pesticide intensity, water use, social and economic justice for those who grow the food, processing, waste, transport, storage, merchandising and - um- nutrition?

That's what I think I'm hearing from Alex. I commend Ethan for his intellectual honesty, and agree with a lot of what he says - heck, I'm going to buy imported olive oil rather than try to produce it here in Maine - but food and agriculture are too important to be reduced to a few metrics.

Perhaps we should be asking: in a sustainable civilization, how do we produce and trade food? And we'd have to agree beforehand that no one has any idea how to do that yet.

Posted by: David Foley on 27 Feb 07

There will never be a 'perfect system'- but I have been giving this a lot of thought.

When Growing:
1. Look into Terra Preta -black earth. Essentially a biochar technique for fixing CO2 and creating high yield crops.

2. Native Systems Agriculture- look to the systems that evolved in your area, what food is naturally abundant- if you live in Vegas, I guess it is cactus and falcon stew.

When Buying

1. First hand is best
2. Knowing the farmer is next- as you can talk with them about their techniques, what is in season, what is fresh, etc..
3. Buy organic. It is clear that travel is an issue, but organic food is healthier for you in the long run, and is usually a better long term bet for the environment- even if it comes from NZ.
4. Buy Local. Even if it is not organic, or whatever (define for yourself), supporting your local community has ancillary benefits for everyone.
5. Lastly, splurge on exotic items from far away lands, as long as it makes you happy- because nothing should be absolute- and I need my chili peppers.

Posted by: Tim McGee on 28 Feb 07



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