Locavore-ism busted by green studies prof

Here’s a factoid for advocates of locavore-ism to choke on.

University of California-Santa Barbara environmental studies professor David Cleveland reports,

… more than 99 percent of the produce grown in Santa Barbara County is exported, and more than 95 percent of the produce consumed in the county is imported…

Cleveland then concludes:

Most of what’s grown here is shipped out. And most of what’s eaten here is shipped in. That just seems crazy.

So exactly how much celery and strawberries should Santa Barbarans be forced to eat to be green?

Here’s the full UCSB press release:

To David Cleveland, a professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara, it seemed as though Santa Barbara County would be a great example of what many are advocating as a solution to the problems of a conventional agrifood network –– a local food system.

Santa Barbara County ranks in the top 1 percent of counties in the United States in value of agricultural products, with 80 percent of that value in fruits and vegetables. Farmers here grow some of the best fruits and vegetables in the country, and organic practices, farmers markets, and Community Supported Agriculture networks are thriving.

Trucking or shipping county produce elsewhere increases the number of food miles, or the farm-to-retail distance. The assumption by advocates is that a local food network would reduce those miles and, therefore, greenhouse gas emissions while improving nutrition.

So Cleveland and his students decided to launch a comprehensive study of just how “localized” –– meaning what is produced here is also consumed here –– the agrifood system for fruits and vegetables is in Santa Barbara County, and to try to determine the effects of localization of the food system on greenhouse gas emissions and nutrition. The results of their research, conducted in 2009-10, were recently published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es1040317?journalCode=esthag). The research was supported by funding from Cleveland’s award as the first UCSB Sustainability Champion in 2009-10.

The researchers found that more than 99 percent of the produce grown in Santa Barbara County is exported, and more than 95 percent of the produce consumed in the county is imported, some of it from as far away as Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand. The study also found that, surprisingly, if all produce consumed here was grown in the county, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions less than 1 percent of total agrifood system emissions, and it would not necessarily affect nutrition.

“Most of what’s grown here is shipped out,” Cleveland said while standing in a tomato field about a mile from the UCSB campus. “And most of what’s eaten here is shipped in. That just seems crazy.”

Corie Radka, second author of the study and a recent UCSB environmental studies and zoology graduate, added: “I think that, for people living in Santa Barbara County, it’s a privilege that a lot of Middle America doesn’t have. We have so much produce here, so much healthy food here, so you just assume there’s localization, which results in better nutrition and decreased environmental impact. If that can’t happen here, how can it happen anywhere else?

“Other research has shown that direct transport doesn’t contribute that much greenhouse gas compared to other parts of the agrifood life cycle,” Radka added. “It’s called the local food trap. The word ‘local’ should mean better nutrition, and a decrease in greenhouse gases, but that’s not necessarily so.”

“Localization per se is not going to change people’s access to food,” Cleveland said. “So that’s why groups like the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County and the Public Health Department provide food assistance and education outreach to try to get people access to food. Just having the local food there isn’t going to change people’s ability to buy it, or their ability to cook it, or prepare it. Again, it’s the food trap. Just replacing imported fruits and vegetables with ones grown in the county, that’s not going to do it.”

Make no mistake, Cleveland and Radka said, localization is important. But their idea of a localized food system doesn’t agree with what researchers heard when they interviewed local grocery store managers, who spoke with pride about their “local produce.”

“I talked to a manager who was very excited about his local fruit, Santa Maria strawberries,” Radka said. “But he said he got all of his strawberries from the warehouse. I asked him where the warehouse was, and he said that it’s not in the county. Turns out it’s in the Bay Area. So strawberries from Santa Maria are transported by truck to a warehouse in the Bay Area and then trucked back here to be sold in stores. To them, that’s local. There’s a lot of evidence that keeping money from sales of food grown in the county is a boost to the economy but, if that’s included in your definition of local, then obviously the definition of local used by some chain grocery stores is not adequate.”

Going local, according to Cleveland, is just a start. “We have to not let local become the goal,” he said. “I think that’s the take-home lesson of this study. Local has to be a strategy for getting to the real, bigger goals we have.”

For example, according to Cleveland, one important aspect that is often overlooked is the extent to which local agriculture is dependent on imported labor. “Localization of the Santa Barbara County agrifood system may be at the price of de-localization of communities in Mexico and Central America,” he said.

Cleveland, Radka, and other students will be hosting a workshop soon to discuss the potential for localizing the Santa Barbara County agrifood system. “We’re talking about localizing as a strategy instead of a goal,” Radka said. “Our end goal is to decrease greenhouse gases, increase everyone’s access to local produce, improve nutrition, and strengthen the local economy –– and make sure that the localizing strategy meets those goals.”

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15 responses to “Locavore-ism busted by green studies prof

  1. Before the practice of exporting nearly all of Santa Barbara’s agri-foods is condemned, it seems that the reasons for this practice should be analyzed and understood. I suspect that the researchers are clueless about the current, efficient, distribution system, including costs. If so, how can they determine if the comparative costs and benefits of an alternative approach are superior?

  2. chuck in st paul

    My guess is that the food is ‘exported’ to packaging and distribution centers then ‘imported’ to the stores. I’d like to see the numbers on how much stuff is full circle.

  3. Obviously Santa Barbara produces products of such quality and at such a cost that there is an ongoing market demand outside that area that provides a nett monetary advantage to the area. New Zealand also falls into this category – we produce horticultural and grassland farming products more naturally than most others at an efficient cost so that the bulk of that production is exported to the four corners of the earth. We still have to eat and therefore much of our food is imported from others who do that particular product better than we do. i.e. we do not grow rice and lots of our grain comes from Australia – its horses for courses. Why am I not surprised that these eggheads at universities come out with such idealistic pronouncements when in fact they know little and understand less, the complexities of just how mother nature has given certain areas of the world environmental conditions that are conducive to producing their particular products. I think we have to accept that a result of being informed through this great web site is that most of those making these pronouncements on a wide variety of subject matter lack the basic understanding of logic.

  4. Walter Sobchak

    Locavore-ism has to be the dumbest idea ever. It is a watermelon* idea, based not on careful analysis of energy budgets, but on romantic anarchist** ideas of wanting to end not just capitalism, but all trade and commerce.

    It is a silly notion. International trade in food was established in antiquity. The Golden Age of Athens was feed by grain imported from the north coast of the Black sea, which was paid for by exports of wine and olive oil. Imperial Rome ate food from North Africa. The England of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare imported food from the Baltic.

    In the modern age, trade in food has expanded even more, and it is good thing. I like being able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables all winter. The locavores can’t turn the clock back far enough to abolish trade in food. They are promulgating nonsense and they should be called out on it.

    *Green on the outside and red on the inside.
    ** As in the 19th Century sense, like characters from a Dostoyevsky novel.

    • I have never heard the term “watermelon idea,” but it’s absolutely fabulous. If you coined it, you are a genius in my book.

  5. In computer science this would be called an optimization problem. “What combination of inputs produced the optimum output?”
    The difficulty lies in the definition of ‘optimum.’ Does optimum mean ‘maximum availability of food’, ‘cost effectiveness,’ ‘minimum GHG emissions,’ ‘maximum profit,’ or what?
    Once the definition of ‘optimum’ is settled by establishing *quantitative* priorities, then the procedure for optimizing the output can be established.
    Locavores seek to minimize the distance traveled by the food between producer and consumer. This necessarily occurs at the expense of the other priorities, such as cost and GHG emissions.

  6. I know I can’t start my own discussion thread, so I guess this is as good a place as any to ask the question. I’m confused. Perhaps you can clarify. Is this a post about junk science? It reports the results of a study you like, with snarky comments about a general movement rather than directed against any specific junk science.

    Maybe the broader context will help me: Most of the posts here seem to be tilted against environmentalism/climate change/energy policy kinds of topics when, in fact, junk science straddles both sides of any issue. There seems to be a selection bias. Is this site agenda-driven (in which case it potentially meets your own definition of junk science because it’s promoting a hidden agenda), do you really believe that most of the junk science out there happens to be one-sided, or is there some other reason I’m not seeing?

    I mean, you even have tabs at the top for “junk science” about specific issues, but the “junk” listed comes from only from one side of the issue. Maybe I’m not understanding the purpose of the blog, but it sure doesn’t seem to be objectively evaluating junk science in the broad sense described by the “What is…” section of the site.

  7. I am a conservative and I think JG has a very good point.

  8. Re: Snarky and one-sided comments

    While I understand the concept that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, the junk that is high-lighted in this blog is generally harmful to people. If you find treasure in that, you are certainly looking in the wrong place for the other side of the debate.

    I started reading the blog for the AGW stories. I find most of the “evil humanity” comments throughout the WEB. I come here for the “humanity doesn’t suck, just people who hate humanity” angle. If that is snarky, the so be it.

    • “I come here for the “humanity doesn’t suck, just people who hate humanity” angle.” That’s great. I’m not arguing anyone’s right to opine as they wish about any topic, nor am I arguing for or against global warming, locavore-ism, the DDT ban, or anything else high-lighted on this blog. But this blog is not called just “Junk.” It’s “Junk SCIENCE.”

      From the “What is Junk Science” link: “Junk science is faulty scientific data and analysis used to advance special interests and hidden agendas.” One would assume, given that starting point, that we would be seeing refutation of faulty scientific data and analysis. There seldom is: Many of the posts on the blog don’t mention science, data, or analysis at all, much less taking the opportunity to demonstrate good science, data and analysis. See the post that started this thread for an example.

      There is desperate need for scientific literacy, for the knowledge of what constitutes good science, good data, and good analysis. There is a ton of junk science out there that needs debunking, but this is not that. This blog, for the most part, appears to me to be an agenda-driven cherry-picking of what to rail against rather than a clear, scientific look at the issues. I believe it to be a contribution to the problem, not the solution.

  9. I suspect that JG is being a little pedantic – my dictionary says that ‘science’ is ‘knowledge of any kind’. I certainly and, I also suspect others on this list are not in fact ‘scientists’ in JGs obvious description/understanding of the word.
    I may be wrong, but had formed the opinion that the subject matter selected for this list is central to our every day lives and, as such almost certainly influenced by political agendas, as opposed to ‘say’ the science of using high pressure water as a cutting agent. Much of the content is unique to the USA however other items are International i.e.items such as climate and mans supposed influence upon it. How much influence does man really have on anything natural when you witness the power of Mother nature in the release 0f mega tonnes of ‘natural pollution’ into the air via Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMStcqHfwQ4). I do not need to be a ‘JG’ scientist or to embark upon a collated scientific study to draw ‘logical’ conclusions about many matters such are admirably presented on this list.

  10. The concept of eating local is an unsupportable throw-back to very early cave man days. It is forwarded based on bad science and even worse economics. To think that Vermonters (especially the city dwellers) would be able to grow enough food to keep them going and strong year-round is laughable.

    The so-called science behind that is pure junk.

    But, JG… you complained about the one-sided nature of this site. Let me repeat what I said: When I need to feel bad about being a human, I read all of the stuff I read on NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Al Gore, EPA, etc WEB sites. When I want to hear the other side, I come here. Don’t ask the balance to balance itself. junkscience.com is equal time. To include so-called equal time would have junkscience.com promote junk science in its own way.

    But, if you don’t like what you see here, the answer is simple: go away. While it should be, junkscience.com is not required reading.

    • Then present the science and debunk it.

      I don’t protest, solely, the one-sided nature of the site. Often science IS one-sided (vaccinations don’t cause autism, for example) and “balance” as reported in the media is false and destructive. But what is happening here appears has little to do with science and more to do with setting up straw men and swatting at them.

      I won’t be hanging around this site. I had high hopes for it after seeing it cited by sources I would have thought had better discretion, but I wanted to at least see if someone could provide an explanation. With none forthcoming, I’ll soon be on my way.

  11. With reference to the topic to which these comments address, I do not see how junkscience.com has violated any scientific principles.

    One of the problems with junk science is that it is pushing bogus theories as “science” or worse yet, “science agreed upon by a consensus” for the purpose of social engineering. You see it in all of the “evil humanity” points, such as anthropomorphic global warming, ozone hole, the ecology movement in the 70s, etc.

    When you get a whacked-out idea such as this locavore thing, which is deadly to economies and mankind, what more needs to be said other than what has been said here?

    I’ve been lurking on this site for a few years now. I have seen papers posted with such scientific content whose depth makes my eyes glaze over. The content is extraordinary and detailed. I have learned quite a bit. In fact, I have gotten to where I can say, “rare trace gas that is essential for the biosphere” without tripping on my tongue.

    Now I feel like a troll, having posted so much content that is off-subject for “locavore-ism.” But taking a lesson from what I have learned in this discussion, I think I’ll go over to the Daily Kos and tell them how they are doing their blog incorrectly.

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