The locavore myth or why vegetarians will save the world

by Kai Hsing

As the real-world benefits of buying local and organic food prove to be negligible, is going veggie our only hope?

localvore-lgIf switching from incandescent to CFL light bulbs is a first step towards indoctrination into ‘San Francisco values,’ then eating locally is surely a close second, with a dedication from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma before every meal. But even amongst those who haven’t read Pollan’s ode to locally grown, traditionally prepared food that would make your grandmother salivate, there’s been an obvious renewed interest in farmer’s markets and organic produce with a pushback against the industrialization of the food industry in recent years.

On a certain level, this passion for foodie culture is a perfect example of DIY grassroots activism done right, with a populist message and tangible results that can be achieved quickly and cheaply. Nearly anyone can make a consumer choice to support local farmers, especially with the number of farmers markets in this country nearly doubling in the past decade. Or better yet, anyone can grow their own vegetables, a trend confirmed by the White House gardens started by first lady Michelle Obama earlier this year. There’s also the issues the modern food movement touches upon – ranging from health to poverty and consumerism – that are anything but controversial for either side of the ideological seismic fault you happen to be on.

However, this almost perfect union of urban farmers, slow-food enthusiasts and compassionate environmentalists is showing signs of cracking, as heresy is brewing among the believers. For one, it’s become increasingly difficult to define what can actually be considered “organic,” or to even ensure that it’s not contaminated by outside sources, such as genetically modified strains of the same plant. Furthermore, the question of whether going organic offers any real health benefits continues to be split between those who see no measurable benefit to those who believe in its fully-operational nutritious powers.

OK, but what about the supposed environmental benefits of organic farming, as well as keeping distribution local? For those trying to save the world one heirloom tomato at a time, Mother Jones magazine published a feature earlier this year that debunked the supposed environmental benefits of organic farming methods as we know them. The story takes a look at local and organic food networks and how practical they would be to implement on a large scale – we’re not talking just about large metropolitan areas or states but a global agricultural and distribution system with billions of mouths to feed.

Writer Paul Roberts argues in the Mother Jones piece that many existing models of organic production simply don’t provide enough yield per acre and may be too labor intensive to work effectively on a massive scale. Also, our current understanding of local and organic as a means to reduce environmental damage from transportation not only ignores challenges facing more desolate populations, but fails to realize that it only accounts for barely 10 percent of total greenhouse emissions from agriculture. In addition, there are other factors to consider – for example, the carbon emissions produced in the transport of fertilizer. Whether it’s chemical-based or manure, the fact remains that it’s still often more efficient for fertilizer to be produced elsewhere and then brought on site, which only adds to the total carbon footprint.

That’s not to say that there aren’t ways to improve efficiency. Roberts cites work being done across the globe to create more self-sustainable and naturally replenishing farming methods where livestock consume crops grown on site that are then fertilized with manure derived from those same animals, creating a sustainable feedback loop that comes closer to resembling a natural food cycle. There have also been attempts to create diverse and intensified polyculture farming systems with larger yields, as well as developments in hydroponic vertical growing that could be promising for future organic agriculture.

Another consideration is that the way a food product is transported can often take on a greater importance than how far it travels. A story from the New Yorker last year cited a study that found it was actually more eco-friendly for Manhattanites to get wine from Bordeaux, France via cargo ship than by truck from California, since shipping by sea produces less than one-sixtieth the carbon emissions as by truck.

The picture gets no clearer as one delves deeper into the complexities of food production, if one considers these two examples from New Zealand, from the New Yorker story:

The environmental burden imposed by importing apples from New Zealand to Northern Europe or New York can be lower than if the apples were raised fifty miles away. “In New Zealand, they have more sunshine than in the U.K., which helps productivity,” Williams explained. That means the yield of New Zealand apples far exceeds the yield of those grown in northern climates, so the energy required for farmers to grow the crop is correspondingly lower. It also helps that the electricity in New Zealand is mostly generated by renewable sources, none of which emit large amounts of CO2. Researchers at Lincoln University, in Christchurch, found that lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped eleven thousand miles by boat to England produced six hundred and eighty-eight kilograms of carbon-dioxide emissions per ton, about a fourth the amount produced by British lamb. In part, that is because pastures in New Zealand need far less fertilizer than most grazing land in Britain (or in many parts of the United States).

If we’re left to believe that the whole idea of “food miles” doesn’t make much of difference in preventing climate change, what are we supposed to do? The answer lies not so much in how we get our food, but rather what we’re actually eating. Many of the aforementioned articles and studies highlight the importance of how resource intensive it is to produce a certain type of food rather than how much it takes to transport it.

The real answer lies in simply eating less meat (full disclosure: I am not a vegetarian). Since raising animals for food is grossly inefficient both in terms of yield and its effect on the land, the way to make the most immediate and significant difference on carbon emissions is to reduce the number of animals consuming resources and polluting methane gas into the atmosphere.

Granted, this will be no small task, with meat consumption expected to increase as rapidly developing economies such as China, India and Brazil continue to raise their levels of red meat consumption, which has already risen 33 percent in the last decade and expected to double worldwide between 2000 and 2050. Despite this dramatic increase, the U.S. remains the largest consumer of meat per capita in the world – by far. While Europeans eat about 83 percent more meat than the average Chinese, Americans take the steak and eat it too – consuming about 129 percent more every year.

What’s interesting to think about here are the reasons why people from these countries have increased their consumption of meat. Sure, plenty of it is pure economics – their increased wealth has led to increased demand for greater and costlier goods. This doesn’t mean just having televisions and computers, but buying more expensive food with more calories.

However, as we’ve seen in Japan and other nations that have become more “Western,” much of the trend towards increased meat consumption is purely cultural – that is, there is a sense that having a diet heavy with meat is an enviable Western trait. Think fast-food burger joints and all their cultural associations – and there suddenly becomes a lot more at stake in thinking about reducing meat intake than your personal well-being or even that of your immediate environment. It’s also an opportunity to kickstart changing food habits throughout the world, because if there’s one area where America still has the greatest influence – it’s with its culture.