Math Lessons for Locavores

Stephen Budiansky in the New York Times:

Lettuce_iceberg-laitue_iceberg Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.

The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food. One popular and oft-repeated statistic is that it takes 36 (sometimes it’s 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast. That’s an apples and oranges (or maybe apples and rocks) comparison to begin with, because you can’t eat petroleum or burn iceberg lettuce.

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.

It takes about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail; that works out to about 100 calories of energy.

More here.