Is local food better, energy-wise?

ward and cassAn article in this morning’s NY Times calls into question whether or not local food is actually better, if you’re concerned about reducing energy consumption. (See Food That Travels Well, by James E. McWilliams, who wrote “A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America” and is a contributing writer for The Texas Observer. What’s the story on this guy, Austin folks?)

An example he provides is New Zealand lamb imported to England. Sheep put on weight very efficiently on the famously lush New Zealand pastures. Sheep in England need to be fed energy-intensive grains — enough apparently to make it cheaper (from an energy-use perspective) to ship lamb from down under.

This is no surprise to American dairy farmers. They know how much cheaper it is for pasture-based New Zealand dairies to ship milk powder into the U.S. market than it is for us to produce it here. Another counterintuitive example I’ve read concerns spuds. Turns out taters shipped by rail from Idaho to New York City use less energy than trucking potatoes to the Big Apple from Maine.

I don’t think this blows the local foods movement out of the water. But it does mean that we might need to be a little more sophisticated in our thinking about this issue.

This also reminds me that this whole local foods thing isn’t new. I remember when I first worked for Rodale back in the early ’80s. They sponsored The Cornucopia Project. The project staff did studies of how much food was imported and exported by each state and pointed out how many ‘food miles’ (as they’re called now) were invested in different commodities in different locales.

But the big thing I remember about their findings: When you think about all the energy that goes into the fertilizers and the plowing and the processing and the packaging and the shipping, do you know the least efficient step in the whole food system from farm to table?

Hopping in the car and driving to the store to return home with an average of 33 pounds of groceries.

Note on the image above: It’s an old one that I found on my hard drive, almost certainly shot in the ’80s by my old friend Tom Gettings, former photo director at Rodale Press. The farmers there are heroes — Ward Sinclair and Cass Peterson. Ward used to work the farm policy beat at the Washington Post before he and Cass started farming. Before CSAs were hot, they used to haul ‘shares’ to the WaPo’s offices during the season to appreciative co-workers. Ward died way too soon. I’ve lost track of what Cass is up to these days. But if there were a Sustainable Farming Hall of Fame, they would be charter members.

Update: Much discussion of McWilliams article at ReasonOnline.

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8 thoughts on “Is local food better, energy-wise?”

  1. I think one of the greatest reasons to grow your own has nothing to do with ‘carbon footprints’ and energy use. It is the simple but powerful feeling of independence one gets from knowing that the food on the table was grown by the hands that cared for it, picked it, and cooked it. It is true that our way of life in this country revolves around energy use and it is certainly time to think about that but the real problem is that many are so disconnected from their basic needs, i.e. food, water and warmth. Nice post. Always ‘food for thought’.

  2. I think my head will explode if I try to get more sophisticated about food choices. But you make some good points – including the problem of driving to the grocery store. For now, I’ll concentrate on growing what I can and buying in bulk.

  3. Craig,

    Ward Sinclair! He was a hero of Kentucky newspapering before he became a hero of farming. What a wonderful piece you have here, and great photo. Ward covered the environmental movement back when it was old ladies standing in front of coal trucks.

    Thanks for keeping things complicated (and historical),

  4. when you decide to ask these questions, it’s like you suddenly see how unintuitive all our systems are, and just how much detail there is to each situation. i keep coming back to the idea that we should be mindful of our behaviors, but often i find that the effort taken to find out what rules to follow is always much more than i think it should be. is going to the grocery store really supposed to be a full-time job? thanks for sharing your notes!

  5. I wonder whether there will someday be some common denominator listed on the label of each piece of food we pick up at the grocery store. So you can look at two 5# bags of potatoes and figure out which one took the least amount of energy per ounce to produce and make its way there.

    Of course, then you will also have to figure out things by calorie. So your amount of energy consumed per calorie is the most efficient–it goes on and on. There is so much to think about on this issue… and I’m glad that you’re pointing more and more of it out here.

  6. Craig,

    Found Ellis Hollow (and glad I did) thanks to, which I recommend. Ward Sinclair was my best friend and mentor, although the very thought of following his example (quitting journalism to take up farming full-time-plus) was enough to send me back to the typewriter. After he died, Cass Peterson published a collection of his WashPost columns, and copies of Truckpatch are still available at various websites. Great book… Cass (now Cass Doolittle) lives in NJ, and if you’ll email me I’ll send contact info. btw, on the subject of energy consumed, Ward would have wanted to factor in some imponderables such as the number of livelihoods dependent on Maine vs. Idaho potatoes. He was strange that way…

  7. Thanks everyone for the great comments.


    Good to hear from an old friend of Ward’s. I actually didn’t know him all that well. I had the Midwest corn and soybean beat back in The New Farm days while my co-workers (George DeVault, Tom Gettings) had the honor of spending a lot of time at W&C’s place. Still, I held him in awe because he was so dedicated to the farming even though it didn’t make a lot of sense economically.

    I think the imponderables and complexities is what made Ward so special.

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