Attacks on agriculture don't quite add up
Stephen Budiansky's recent op-ed column in the New York Times, Math Lessons for Locavores has been an eye-opener for proponents of the local food movement who may have been under the impression that more traditional agriculture is an energy hog and therefore bad for the environment.
Mr. Budiansky makes some thought-provoking points in his piece—particularly when he notes that those touting the energy-saving benefits of buying food locally may not have all the facts on energy costs and what it takes to bring food from the farm to your table, whether the farm is 3, 30, or 3,000 miles away.
The article's bottom line is that producing food—whether locally or traditionally—involves very little energy, especially when compared to the energy that you and I use in our households on a daily basis. In fact, while agriculture accounts for a mere two percent of America's energy usage, our own food preparation and storage at home accounts for a whopping 32 percent of energy use in our nation's food system.
Yet, as Budiansky notes, "In return for that quite modest energy investment [on the production side], we have fed hundreds of millions of people, liberated tens of millions from backbreaking manual labor and spared hundreds of millions of acres for nature preserves, forests and parks that otherwise would have come under the plow."
He goes on to say, "Don't forget the astonishing fact that the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910."
In terms of the energy costs of transporting food, Mr. Budiansky remarks that, "the statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus."
Mr. Budiansky then closes with some common sense advice to all of us: "The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies—and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy."
Mr. Budiansky's insightful commentary has reintroduced many Americans to the fact that American farmers are still leading the way in efficiently and sustainably producing food and fiber. As The Hand That Feeds U.S. has reported in the past, farmers are the ultimate stewards of the land and continually adopt new, sustainable methods to maximize the use of finite resources. As Frederick Kaufman of OnEarth Magazine, who studied non-organic farms in California and was impressed by their resource-saving techniques, suggested: "[traditional] agriculture, is not only essential to, but could also be the future leader of, sustainable food production."
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Nevertheless, Budiansky observes that some still want to pit the local food movement against traditional farming, warning "the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent—and self-defeating—do gooder dogmas," and noting that "arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel…and the result has been all kind of absurdities."
We in America are blessed beyond measure with safe, affordable, and abundant supplies of food. The local and organic food movements are wonderful opportunities for farmers to receive a premium for good quality products and to meet customers and provide fresh produce to consumers. And traditional farming is the bulwark that feeds the nation and much of the world. There's no need to pit one against the other.