Thursday, July 24, 2008


Some people don’t care about the global warming implications of what they eat, but more and more people do. For the latter group, several core ideas about sustainability have taken hold in the past several years:

- It’s better to eat locally.

- It’s better to eat organic.

- The widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer and genetically engineered crops is something we should move away from.

An email from a friend showed up in my inbox the other day linking to a recent study commissioned by the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. The study attempts to make a scientific accounting of how valuable these practices truly are. It was an interesting read, because many of the findings were surprising and counterintuitive.

Check it out:

As my own editorial comment, I’d add that I’m usually skeptical of number crunching scientific reports that discover everything we think we know is wrong. In May, for example, Wired magazine ran a number-crunching cover story titled “Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green,” that made statements like “Crank up the A/C! Kill the Spotted Owl! Keep the SUV!”

Here’s the story:

And here’s the story being ripped to shreds:

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong or misleading about this U.K. study, but I’m still taking it with a grain of salt. For example, one part of the study compares the energy requirements of shipping orange juice from Brazil to Europe to the energy requirements of buying apple juice from a local juice squeezer:

“Take the carbon footprint of your morning glass of orange juice. One 2003 study looked at the energy requirements of orange juice produced on a large scale in Brazil, and shipped as concentrate to Europe, versus apple juice processed on a small scale in Europe. A local juice-squeezer driving his car only 10 kilometers each way to sell 100 liters of fruit juice carries an energy burden equivalent to that needed to send fruit concentrate from factory operations in Brazil to Germany.”

So the argument here is that buying local juice doesn’t save any energy compared to buying juice shipped from far away continents. The local food movement is a fraud!

But not really. What I think is that the study compares a mature economy (the super-commercial, highly efficient orange juice shipping operation) to a developing economy (the highly inefficient operation of one guy driving to town to sell his apple juice.) The study, literally and figuratively speaking, compares apples to oranges.

Imagine instead if all Europe truly embraces local eating and a few years down the road most everybody is buying local apple juice instead of foreign orange juice. No longer would the apple juice guy need to drive to town with just a few liters to sell because a mature, highly efficient local distribution system would be in place that brings larger quantities of his goods and the goods of all his farming neighbor to market in the back of a big food truck, probably running off biodiesel.

Crunch those numbers, and I bet they’ll stack up favorably to the orange juice from Brazil. And the point is, if people don’t start buying locally now, this day will never come.