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Why an Anti-Locavore Rant in the New York Times Is Just Plain Wrong

Stephen Budiansky, self-proclaimed "liberal curmudgeon," needs to be taken out to the foodshed and pummeled with his own lousy logic.

Stephen Budiansky, self-proclaimed "liberal curmudgeon," has stuffed together another flimsy, flammable straw man out of boilerplate anti-locavore rhetoric on the New York Times op-ed page, with the patronizing title Math Lessons For Locavores.

It's a familiar formula: start by establishing yourself as the voice of reason by professing your own deep appreciation of the merits of locally grown food as evidenced by the bounty of your own back yard. Then, launch into a diatribe against a mythical army of dour, sour food mile nazis, including 'celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations,' whose support for local farmers is based on wildly misguided and naive notions about curbing one's carbon 'foodprint.'

Throw in a bunch of dubious and/or irrelevant statistics that appear to be truly locally sourced -- i.e. pulled out of your own behind. Add a few disingenuous claims about the environmental benefits of industrial agriculture. Wrap things up with a statement so ludicrous that you have to publish it on your own website because hey, the New York Times is only willing to go so far:

"...eating food from a long way off is often the single best thing you can do for the environment, as counterintuitive as that sounds."

Budiansky's argument tars all eat-local proponents with the same broad brush, warning us that we're turning into a bunch of joyless, sanctimonious schmucks who are flimflamming an unsuspecting public:

For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

Sinful according to whom? As I wrote on page 27 of Rodale's Whole Green Catalog:

Bear in mind that buying local is often the most low-impact choice -- but not always: an out-of-season local tomato grown in a fossil fuel-heated greenhouse could consume more energy than one that's been field grown and shipped from Mexico.

But hey, what do I know? I'm just one of those local-food advocates who brandishes statistics that are "always selective, usually misleading and often bogus" to back up our "doctrinaire assertions."

That describes Budiansky's own modus operandi in a nutshell. His op-ed focuses almost exclusively on the question of how much fossil fuel is used to grow and ship food, and concludes that the amount of energy used is negligible in the grand scheme of things.

Sure, and because eggs weigh less than the grain it costs to feed the factory farm hens that produce them, it was presumably quite energy efficient to ship those 380 million factory farmed eggs that have since been recalled for possible salmonella contamination from Iowa to fourteen other states.

But energy efficiency is only one small part of the equation when you add up the reasons to buy local. Other factors include: flavor and nutrition; support for more ecological farming practices; reduction of excess packaging; avoidance of pesticides and other toxins; more humane treatment of livestock and workers; preservation of local farmland; spending one's dollars closer to home; the farmers' market as community center, and so on.

Budiansky totally ignores these issues, except to challenge the assumption that sustainable agriculture is better for the environment than industrial agriculture. After establishing the folly of food miles, he goes on to note:

Other favorite targets of sustainability advocates include the fertilizers and chemicals used in modern farming. But their share of the food system's energy use is even lower, about 8 percent.

Again with the energy usage! Geez. As if that were our big beef with fertilizers and chemicals. What about soil erosion, pollution, loss of biodiversity, the rise of superweeds and antibiotic-resistant infections, the dead zones in our oceans and rivers, exposure to contaminants, and all the other environmentally disastrous consequences of 'conventional' farming?