Thursday, September 13, 2012

Loco for Locovores

"Man eats not for enjoyment but to live" - Gandhi

Farmers Market's are becoming very popular in urban areas across America. The Farmers Market in my Seattle neighborhood is a quaint market that takes up one block of old Ballard. Small local farmers and craftspeople are all lined up down the middle of the streets under pop up tents selling their organic vegetables, soap made from goats milk, meats and crafts. Kids, dogs and folks out for a stroll love hanging out at the market on Sunday, getting a snack and listening to the buskers playing music. These days the Market is bursting with produce as the harvest season is upon us. Perusing the lush produce I found myself ogling over a pile of bright yellow potatoes and beets purply royal when it occurred to me that this time of year freshly grown local vegetables are abundant, but soon they would be scarce. So if I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint by  reducing my purchase of imported vegetables my selection at the Market of green stuff grown in Washington in the winter would be very limited. Then I tried to imagine if I was in Kansas in the winter. What local greens are grown there? 

I recently read in our monthly Woodland Park Zoo newsletter that thirty percent of CO2 contribution in the US is related to food transportation.  Locavores contend that to ship a tomato from California to Kansas so the people of Kansas can have fresh tomatoes in the winter is a significant contribution to climate change. It would be nice if the economics and analysis were that simple, but it never is. It seems if I added up all the statistics that assess different activities that contribute to climate change I would come up with 2000%. I do not know where the Zoo newsletter came up with the thirty percent number for food related transportation CO2 contribution, they did not cite it. The Federal Department of Transportation puts all vehicle related CO2 contribution at 33% of the total U.S. CO2 production. I find it hard to imagine that food transportation accounts for 30% of CO2 production and commuting just 3%.

Food related transportation is really an issue of comparative scale. Because industrial farms produce food in such large quantities the energetic cost and the climate change contribution of transporting those foods is diminished. Assuming people in Kansas have a demand for tomatoes in the winter that will be met one way or another. Driving a few bushels of local winter grown greenhouse tomatoes to a Kansas grocer is proportionally (tomatoes produced per pound of CO2 released) a greater contribution to climate change than driving ten semi trucks of tomatoes to Kansas grown en mass on an industrial California farm. Even though a lot more CO2 was produced by driving the semi’s we have to consider the efficiency of the actions. An analogy would be taking the bus to work as opposed to driving alone. The bus burns more fuel than your car but gets a lot more people to the same place. Food transportation certainly is a significant contributor to climate change however its overall impacts are overshadowed by other activities in the dirt to table food production economy. When transporting food to our table tops open air refrigerated food storage in the grocery store, driving to and from the grocery store, and refrigeration of food products at home far outweighs industrial food transportation CO2 contributions.

 The locavore movement is huge though. So much so that McDonalds recently began a billboard marketing campaign in Washington state showing a potato under which it says grown in Richland Washington and a box of French fries under which it reads gobbled in Seattle making the point that French fries in Seattle come from Richland potatoes. Never mind that Richland potatoes are not the only potatoes used in McDonalds French fries. McDonalds French fries are produced outside Washington using potatoes from all over the country, some of which come from Richland Washington. But you know a movement has taken hold when McDonalds embraces it as part of its marketing scheme.  Big agra business like any industry has negative impacts. Industrial farming though is an interesting conundrum. The land area used for major American farms is nearly the same as it was over one hundred years ago and feeds three times as many people. The US is one of the largest food exporters in the world. An optimistic view of industrial farming says we have conserved land that otherwise would have gone under plow and are feeding hungry people all over the world. However this would not be possible except for the fairy dust that is used to grow so much food. This fairy dust known as fertilizer is produced from petroleum.  Fertilizer, top soil loss and pesticide use are the unfortunate consequences of getting more and more food from the same amount of land. Among a long list of environmentally devastating impacts from growing food using petrol chemicals and fertilizers is the huge dead zone that extends into the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The locavore concept of growing and selling food using low impact methods by caring for the soil and reducing transportation is important at the local scale. It supports the local economy and reduces agriculture related environmental impacts in the areas where the food is grown. However shipping food is an imbedded aspect of the economic and social structure of our country. As long as there is a market for fresh tomatoes in Kansas that produces a profit for growers elsewhere Kansas will have fresh tomatoes. The underlying mechanism that governs all the issues surrounding climate change and the geomorphasis that is taking place is fossil fuel use. Fossil fuels use in relation to food production comes in the form of globally inflated caloric production. America produces more food than the land it is grown on should be able to generate. This food production bubble in turn supports a greater population than the land it is grown on should be able to support. In fact the entire fabric of the American economy and much of the world rests on the petrol produced food bubble. Sea levels may rise, species may go extinct or occupy new habitats, weather patterns may intensify all as a result of climate change, but if the world cannot shift from a petroleum based food production paradigm then when the oil runs out famine will be commonplace. Is the assumption of continuing yield growth sound?


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