Louisville, Kentucky. “Local Food Is Miles Better.” Stickers like these are going to have to be scraped off that back bumper of yours, because locavorism as an environmental badge of honor is out.

Over the past three years Slate, Forbes, the Hudson Institute, the British press and even Oxfam have all taken aim at food miles as a way of determining ethical eating. Does the much-quoted (and now much-criticized) 1,500-mile traveling head of broccoli really mean anything awful, if it’s shipped with hundreds of other heads? (Let’s see: 1,500 miles divided by 150 heads equals 10 miles per head.) Does a hothouse-grown green bean from Britain use more resources than an African bean shipped to Queen Elizabeth’s table? (Oxfam says it does, and argues that locally-prejudiced Brits are depriving hard-driven African farmers of their livelihood, to boot.)

Given the relatively limited amount of produce my favorite Southern Indiana farmer sells at the Frankfort Avenue farmers’ market in Louisville, is Mr. Jackson using more gasoline traveling 25 miles to town to sell, than a California agribusiness would to ship its larger amount of produce two-thirds of the way across the country? (In this case I rather doubt it, but on a bad selling day it’s possible.)

Food miles are too simplistic a number for comparison, say the critics, when we use more energy producing and processing our food, and even cooking it at home, than we do transporting it. Fair enough. But the number they would advise we use as a replacement, while fascinating to contemplate, is very difficult to compute.

In fact it’s impossible, short of a study. It’s a “life cycle assessment” or LCA, and what an LCA does is give that beef stew you just pulled out of the oven a full carbon-emitting physical. It estimates the carbon used for transportation, water use, harvesting methods, feed and fertilizer use, pesticides, cooking, drying or storing all ingredients, plus disposal of packaging and leftovers, climactic conditions and more–with a little credit for carbon absorbed through photosynthesis.

I just can just imagine Mr. Jackson’s face at the farmers’ market, if I were to ask him for an LCA on his (excellent) kale and apples.

So that leaves me asking instead: What I am supposed to do with this data improvement? After all, I don’t shop with a parliament of owlish grad students. My helpers are the sort that are glued to the gum display in the candy aisle, and will only relunctantly leave it. As we wonder about the LCA for our milk, we are reminded that modern meal-making is remarkably complicated, carbonly-speaking, once we get away from our own harvesting.

In that case, what is the point of eating local—or eating local food more often, which is generally what we mean? Is it really just an easily palatable upper-middle-class sop to political correctness? Or are we actually feeding something besides our own ego and gluttony?

If we aren’t just buying homegrown haricots verts out of season, then I say we are. If we are handling food more like our grandmother did, and less like a queen, then local food may well have the edge on carbon savings.  But it’s also true that locavoracity is spurred by many things besides fewer transport miles. It means retaining cultural memory, of how to cook and eat regional foods (in my case that’s burgoo, beaten biscuits, old ham, corn pudding, soup beans, cooked-to-death green beans, sorghum, chess pie, stack cake, and watermelon slices sprinkled with salt). It means remembering how to grow food and raise meat here, on this ground in this state, where there is plenty of variety in soil, water and temperature. And it means buttressing a local and regional food network, which puts people to work, puts farmland to its best use, and gives us a sourcing hedge against an uncertain future, when there may be less gas for transporting meat from Nebraska and fruit from California.

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