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.

The criticism of food miles as simplistic has merit, and I will listen to it, but I also wince when I hear the word “efficiency.” Efficiency is a word better suited to machines than to living things, and so often it is the idol of faceless markets that tend to treat meat as if it were a widget, and not a sentinent animal, and soil and energy as though they were bottomless resources. Nor are efficiencies perfectly efficient, either; they always have a trade-off. And we typically use them to argue for big solutions, when I am convinced what we need are a myriad of small solutions.

The real question we have to ask about our food is: What kind of inefficiencies are we willing to tolerate? Do we let a field lie fallow or fertilize it? Do we grow tomatoes farther apart and save water, or closer together and save ground and weeding? Do we finish calves in a giant lot that saves sourcing time, transport costs and space, or on multiple farms that spare us waste lagoons, overused antibiotics and animal misery? One kind of gain here generally creates a loss over there.

The fact is that a viable, safe and stress-resistant food economy requires the inefficiencies we are least likely to tolerate, these days–in seasonal availability, say, or time, and probably amount (though much of our farmland is underfarmed). Certainly any retailer will tell you it’s easier and more efficient to source all your eggs from one big basket. But then anyone who’s run his own business will tell you to diversify your clients and your sources–because you never know.

Maybe we will not live to see the energy boom fall, but surely we should give some thought to worst cases. If the time-and-space efficiencies of large-scale farming become harder to maintain in the years ahead, then a local patchwork of season-bound farmers may be necessary to our ability not just to eat well, but to eat. In the meantime, these farmers are feeding their neighbors, with all the relationships and recycling of local dollars and pure pleasure of eating that can involve.

Many factors go into our decisions about food, among them cost, availability, tradition, taste and more. People have to make their own calls given their own situations. But I want to eat in such a way as promotes the health, resilience, community ties and economy of what’s nearest by—my family and friends and neighbors first, my state and region next, my country after that, the world last. I wish Mexican farmers and New Zealand herders all good things, but I not only feel but ethically I have more responsibility towards Mr. Jackson in Indiana. The concentric rings of moral responsibility Thomas Fleming writes about in The Politics of Human Nature apply to eating as much as to any other act. And they enable us to sit down to dinner without agonizing.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Egypt, to be sure, is a stirling exhibition on the fleeting charms of the great Modern Moloch “Efficiency”. We’ve all heard the smiling lectures of the Globalists and their proclamations that our larders should be stocked with the produce from where it might be produced “best”. Wine and Truffles from France, Rice from Asia, Pasta from Italy, Coffee from Columbia, chocolate from die Schweiz and of course, some packaged and chemicalized affront produced at a factory near you. Seems prudent until one comes to the realization that it takes a combination of finite oil reserves and the structuring quality of the Cold War to maintain this shoppers paradise of “choice” and “change”.

    The detractors you cite are simply holding on to the swan song of the Globalist Potemkin Village. They pander to a captive audience which lusts for sacred cows to be skewered but do everything in their power to ignore the biggest sacred cow in their midst: The idea that someplace several latitudes distant is just as important, if not more important than the ground they stand upon. To hell with terrorists, we need terroirists.

    • Yes, coffee from where it can be produced best. Right now I’m going to go roast some Kenya Kirinyaga Karimikui Peaberry and some Costa Rica Lourdes de Naranjo – Finca Genesis. I buy green beans from Sweet Maria’s. Tom (Maria’s husband) works with other buyers and coffee producers around the world to get small growers to separate the best of their produce from the ordinary beans and sell it separately, for which buyers like him will pay a premium. It’s hard to make that work, but it’s good to be part of a global program that supports the smaller growers who are also the ones who tend to be better for the environment. Good social program, good environmental program, and it’s globalism at its best. It also gets us the best coffee to drink. And the only practical way for that coffee to be at its very best is to roast it at home.

  2. “(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).”

    In my case… I dunno. I am from rural western PA. It was mostly a virgin wilderness until after the Civil War. Even the Seneca refused to live up here. So it’s nearly impossible to discern what’s traditional, what’s local. So if I make a conscious choice of one tradition over the other… how do I do that? My mom is from a family of Italian immigrants. They of course could get very ferw of the ingredients they were used to in the Mediterranean, so I grew up on a tradition of bastardized Italian mixed with my dad’s bastardized German, with a liberal sprinkling of Kraft macaroni and cheese and frozen Swanson dinners. But of course, now the grocery store DOES offer al the trappings I wold need for an authentic Italian dinner. Including semolina flour. But it’s shipped in from Italy. So is that “better” than shipping in the Kraft? Not in terms of miles. Not in terms of truth to my actual upbringing. Eat what’s grown locally? Apart from apples, there ain’t much. Even the deer and turkey were reintroduced from Michigan many decades ago. Criminiy, the trees aren’t even local.

    I still try to buy my eggs from the goat farm up the road, but I am acutely aware that this is nothing more (and nothing less) that a posturing and signalling maneuver on my part. I suspect I am not saving the world. I am not saving the whales. I am not saving thhe polar ice caps. But he’s a nice guy.

    The guy who runs the local grocery chain is a nice guy, too. So I continue buying my Kraft macaroni and cheese from him. And strawberries from Chile in the depths of February.

    • Great article. So well articulated — makes a firm point with a balanced and sane voice. Thank you. Also, thank you to Sammacdon for the honest response. I think a great many people are stuck in this very place — what kind of tradition do many of us really have to stand on? Many of us are children of the suburbs. From birth, our connection to the land has been obscured and we feel like strangers amongst agrarians. In an intellectual sense, maybe we understand the importance of transitioning back to local. But that is going to be worked out in a hundred different ways in a hundred different places. Again, small answers instead of big ones. In the meantime, people get exhausted. They want a creed. They want a manifesto to unite locavores everywhere. But such a creed doesn’t exist exactly because it’s contradictory to the real change being advocated by localists. Still. Still.

      • These are good points and grist for another milling. I’ll just say that buying from people you know is not a symbolic effort. It’s an effort.

        There were Swanson pot pies in my childhood, too, though I’m lucky to have many good cooks in my family. But if there’s not much tradition to conserve, you have to restore it. That could mean cooking less like your mother and more like your grandmothers or great-grandmothers, which might require educated guessing. It could mean something else, too; there are many reasonable ways to eat.

        Even without any Italian relatives, I give myself dispensation for the occasional semolina gnocchi with imported flour, and Sammacdon might further consider roasting one of his neighbor’s goats. My sister and brother-in-law have done so, to the culinary delight of their friends, and think how amused yours would be.

        • “That could mean cooking less like your mother and more like your grandmothers or great-grandmothers”

          But there is then the question of whether a tradition chosen is a tradition at all. Rather, it seems like an aesthetic preference. Why not go back to the great grandmother? Or her grandmother? And which tradition to follow? Am I seeking to be true to my Italianess/ To the ground on which I live? To be honest, these are competing traditions. My grandfather was at war with the land and himself his whole adult life as he tried to make wine from grapes that were not the same as the ones he grew up with.

          So then we come back to the idea that this is a constant struggle, and the real tradition, especially in terms of Italians, is a tradition of making do as best you can with local environment, as defined by culture and growinng seasons and politics and economics. Which is why one region of Italy will make a sauce with butter, and the other will make the same thing with olive oil. They made do as best they could, not because of a preference for butter or oil, but out of necessity.

          Following this tradition where I live now would seem to argue for Swansons frozen dinners and strawberries shipped in from Chile in February. Because my “enviroment” involves cheap transport, instant communications, terrible soil, a short growing season. And Wal-Mart. Fighting this would seem akin to my grandfather continuing to plant and grow Umbria grapes where they do not belong. Or continuing to use butter in a sauce when the land wants to grow olives, not grass.

          In short, it seems to me that the Italian tradition is one of surrender to environment. To reality. So you do the best you can to stay “Italian” while adapting to what’s in front of you.

          My grandfather, by the way, never surrendered with regard to the wine. he gave up on Pennsylvania Concord grapes and had better ones shipped in from California every year. I wonder: Was this very Italian of him? Or was it a first step towards American consumerism?

          • @Sammacdon: “the real tradition, especially in terms of Italians, is a tradition of making do as best you can with local environment.” I think I would probably agree with/come to terms with your idea about how to handle tradition; where I would differ, however, is that I would disagree that Wal-Mart, Swansons, or Chile are a part of your “local environment.” Your analogy doesn’t seem to hold. You say that one Italian region made a sauce with butter and the other with olive oil not out of preference but because that’s what they had. True, but they had it because they created it; one region had a better olive tree growing environment, and the other had better pasture to graze cattle and make butter. They made do with what was indigenous to them. Chile is not a part of your local environment. Neither is cheap transport, because the oil that provides that cheap transport comes from the middle east and the reason it’s cheap is dependent upon the “military-industrial complex” (to employ an admittedly deficient shorthand). In short, I agree with your premise but don’t agree that the conclusions you’re drawing follow. To do the best with what you have might mean learning to hunt and eating more venison than beef if you don’t have good pasture land in Western PA. Buying ground “beef” patties from Wal-Mart, however, could never validly be considered “doing the best with what you have.”

          • But political realities ARE part of my environment. They impacted ancient Rome as much as they impact my life and yours. Athens didn’t have a lot going for it, apart from a navy. In fact, it’s poverty of local resources encouraged the creation of the navy. And that navy brought about a new reality to which people reacted. land policies and politics have ALWAYS had a major say in what resources local people can and do use. And I live in an environment in which Wal-Mart and all that Chinese stuff is a real, as present and as attainable as any apple on any tree in my yard. I can get apples from Chile. That’s reality. The British could get spices and cotton.

            But let’s follow your line of reasoning. Cheap oil makes it possible for me to get just about everything I get. As mentioned, the land here is terrible. It’s not like we can grow peanuts. But nearby New Bethlehem is one of America’s foremost makers of peanut butter. They have a festival. They have local cookbooks and the whole place, for generations, has smelled of the stuff.

            Should they drop this? Does it not amount to tradition? Because the reality could not exist in a post-apocalyptic Amerca in which all the oil is gone?

            If it’s OK for them to put their mark on peanuts from Georgia (or maybe it isn’t?) why can’t my place get apples from Chile? Why can’t it be part of what we are? How far away CAN something come from? What if I live in a town with sawmills, that saws logs from 20 miles away? Sixty? One hundred? What if I live in a German sawmill town and the logs come across the ocean fro Pennsylvania?

          • An old adage says ‘Brighten the corner where you are.’ Wendell Berry says, ‘Think locally. Act locally.’ In other words, do what you can, where you are, in your given situation. One can take these issues seriously without being over-scrupulous, for in that way lies madness. Matters such as these are best viewed as ascetic rather than legalistic, and as such there are no blanket answers to individual, local questions.

      • I do think the question of “what kind fo tradition” is a serious matter. many of us make appeals to tradition, but I get the sense that this is, or can be, based in a pretty simple ordering of aesthetic preferences. The kind of unionized blue-collar labor that defined my region–and its traditions–only lasted a few decades. I would say that in terms of longevity, the suburb-ification and dendustrialization has held sway for long enough now that it hass developed its own traditions. People have grown up on TV dinners. So if you are REALLY interested in tradition, do you support TV dinners and consumerism because that’s the way things have been? The imediate response is that, well, this is not a REAL tradition. It didn’t last long enough. It is too new. But as I mentioned, it has lasted about as long as the “work pail” traditions that preceded it. Well, you say… go back to the agrarian roots that prevailed before that. Well… no. There were none. As I also mentionem, even the Seneca Indians couldn’t make a go of it in these highlands. So it seems that we actually have a tradition of scraping by and making do. And thhe way you do that NOW is to buy cheap stuff at Wal-Mart and send your kid off to scrape through some college somewhere.

        So, if we support tradition for the sake of tradition… that’s what we should be supporting. But in general, “we” don’t. But do you get to choose like that? If I move to some rich Virginia farmland but don’t LIKE the locally grown fare, I think localism argues that I ought to suck it up and learn to love the local culture, the locally gorwn materials, the local way of life. A respect for tradition dictates it.

        But if you can reject the local traditions in my region on aesthetic grounds, why should residents of Virginia not be permitted to do the same?

    • “I am from rural western PA”

      Whereabouts, Sam? I’m in suburban Pittsburgh, but I love rural Western Pa., or parts of it anyways.

      • Elk County, about 2.5 hours from the Highland Park Bridge. I lived in Bloomfield from 2005-2009. I liked it a lot.

        • I see. I’m not familiar with that area. Most of my rural excursions have been either N & W of Pittsburgh, or east to the Laurel Highlands.

  3. Your well written article seems premised on the assumption that large volume, industrial farming, is morally neutral vis a vis small organic farms. This, it seems to me (writing as a self confessed layman regarding such matters), is the crux issue guiding our ethical eating. The industrial farms that are able to produce large enough volumes to mitigate the travel costs are also stripping the topsoil and requiring ever increasing petrol based supplementation in order to sustain yield. Though they might be able to ship “energy ship”, the cost of creating them in the first place needs to also be taken into consideration. When you consider the social costs of disappearing small local farms, the topsoil erosions costs, and enormous energy demands of large scale farming, I’ll continue to have a preference (though not an absolute mantra) towards local, popular or not. Thanks for the thought provoking material

    • I don’t have any fondness for industrial farms, but do you have data showing that industrial farms are stripping the topsoil any more than small family farms, did?

      When my wife was a farmgirl in Iowa, the family farmers were very careless of their topsoil. She remembers the topsoil in drifts in the ditches, and the cavalier comments about how there was a lot more where that came from. Now there are fewer farms — they are more industrial in operation — but the farmers are a lot more attentive to their topsoil.

      If farmland is a commodity rather than a family heirloom to be passed down to future generations, one would think there are more incentives to just mine the soil for what can be gotten out of it in the short term. But do the data show that’s what happens? Early in our history small, family farmers treated land poorly when there was always new land to be had, further west.

      And before the coming of European-Americans, the Native peoples tended to practice swidden farming. Use the soil up, wear it out, and then abandon the fields in favor of new ones. A future generation might come back to the original, once the soil had a chance to renew. That system works if you don’t expect the land to support large populations.

      But do large farms really have larger energy demands than small ones?

  4. Here’s an idea. Let’s carry this concept to extremes and cut off all contact with people other than those in our own community. Let’s be like the apocryphal peasants who never traveled more than ten miles from their homes. Locavoracity to the max. We can develop the parochialism, narrow-mindedness, and intolerance that traditionally develop in those agricultural societies that don’t trade much with those who live farther away.

    We can also close our borders to foreign influences like Russia has done at many times throughout its history. We might need the services of some foreigners, but they can live in special communities such as the Nemetskaya sloboda, where they won’t pollute our local and national traditions. To foster a sense of place, we can do like Ivan Grozny did, and provide strong incentives for people to stay in the community where they were born. (This is also known as the beginning of serfdom in Russia.) Doubleplus Locovoracity.

    • mmmm… the reason I didn’t realize I was on the slippery slope of which you speak is because I’m not on that slippery slope – not advocating a Luddite return to tribalism and the dark ages. Ethics are nuanced right? So we need to navigate the maze, triaging choices while recognizing no system’s perfect. To answer your earlier question, the Green Revolution from 1950-1984 increased yields dramatically without increasing acreage, and was able to do so by subsidizing the soil with petrol based stuff.

      According to the good folk over at Polyface Farms, that’ll work for a little while, but is ultimately and unsustainable model unless we keep subsidizing it..which we do…both chemically and financially.

      • But the benefits and problems of the petroleum-based Green Revolution apply both to industrial and family farms, don’t they?

        Now maybe you can make a case that organic farming (however you might define it) can be done only on a small scale. You got me scratching my head here, ’cause I get to attend research seminars on these topics at my workplace, and I’m trying to think of whether anyone has addressed that issue systematically. Not sure about that one. There are lots of researchers there who address issues of how to get larger-scale farms to use sustainable techniques and not lose out, economically.

  5. I continue to read FPR, despite feeling at odds with it in some fundamental ways, because in other fundamental ways, I am in complete agreement. But the idea of localism as a primary value continues to strike me as in some way ant-Christian. It doesn’t seem to fit too well with the idea that there is neither Gentile nor Jew….If I am truly catholic (or Catholic), then the French Catholic is in a profound way closer to me than my neighbor who is Calvinist or atheist. How to balance the local and the universal? That’s the fundamental question.

    • MMH: I would certainly allow that the tension between the local and the universal (not to be confused with the “global”) requires of us some complexification. But I would also point out that in the New Testament the question “And who is my neighbor?” elicited, by way of answer, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

  6. An elegantly-written piece which notes the predictable way those beady-eyed utility-maximizers will try to rain on practically any ethical parade. Granted, fair trade is one form of the new ethonomics, but local food is simply another. Seems to me Ms. Dalton is correct to shoo away the efficiency fetishists: as is plain to see, their ideas have too many social costs.

    Mental note: must look at Fleming’s book. Thanks!

  7. Excellent article and interesting comment thread. The move toward localism (in food and other areas) is connected to an urge to improve one’s connection to community. While we may find some sense of community on line via FB or FPR these “communities” remain far different from the communities in which we actually live, work, and interact face-to-face. As far as food goes we have a hierarchy of preferences that goes local organic, local conventional, (inter)national organic, (inter)national conventional. A complex mix of aesthetics, politics, economic theory, and practicality comes into play in making and acting on such a hierarchy of food choices. To be honest, my wife and daughter are employed by Whole Foods Market so that also adds complexity. We like to buy our locally sourced carrots at WFM. We get the advantage of their team member discount and support a local grower who is attempting to increase and smooth out their income flow. In season we patronize the local farmer’s market where I enjoy knowing some of the farmers by name and all of them by face and the produce they do best.

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