Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Local=Better? Not So Fast

Food That Travels Well - New York Times: "Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit."

3 comments:

Will said...

I think that's a very well written and sensible article that makes some excellent points about food production and distribution. At the same time i'm extremely disturbed by this new notion that the "green-ness" of every activity can be measured purely by carbon output. Certainly this is an important thing to be aware of, but it seems to have taken on a strange similarity to a few years ago when the healthfulness of all food became measured entirely by carbohydrate content thanks to fear-monger/heart-attack-victim Dr. Atkins. It seems like carbon output has simply become the fashionable scapegoat for climate change.

Perhaps what we should take away from these numbers is not that we should all import our lamb from new zealand but that we should reexamine why it takes such an incredible amount of carbon to raise sheep in the rest of the world. Or maybe we should just stop raising sheep on such a massive scale; it seems like i also see story after story pointing out the inexcusable inefficiency of livestock farming, but many of them write off vegetarianism/veganism as the last resort of radicals/hippies/communists.

Also, regardless of the carbon output, I suspect eating a locally grown sheep still consumes substantially less fossil fuels than importing from New Zealand which, while also not the end-all-be-all of the earth's problems, seems to be causing us plenty of grief in the middle east right now.

That said, it is a relief to see an article that actually pays heed to many of these points. I have just become excitable due to the volume of overly-simple and sometimes completely ridiculous articles i have seen printed on carbon output within the past week or so.

Scotty said...

Hey David,

This is one example where local may not be better. I don't eat meat, and I don't live in europe, so this pretty much doesn't apply for me.

However it's pretty much a no brainer that buying locally grown fruits and vegetables is better for not only the environment but the local economy as well, when compared to buying fruits and vegetables that were shipped hundreds or thousands of miles.

David said...

I generally try not to engage true believers, and I would lean toward thinking that while meat can be problematic that fruits & vegetables will be less so. But...

I think the real point from the article is that it isn't simple and that local isn't automatically better. We'd do better by coming up with something quantitative and rigorous as opposed to qualitative and political.

The local food movement suffers I think from a dithered message. If there are something quantitative that could be vetted and cited I think it would get a lot more traction.