Friday, August 20, 2010

What's The Most Efficient Use of Energy?

I've been thinking idly of getting a CSA box for some time for a variety of reasons. One, I think it would force me to eat more vegetables and to become more adventurous in my meal preparations. Two, I like the idea behind Community Supported Agriculture and would like to support it. Three, it's just so convenient. To have produce delivered to my door seems like such a luxury.

Plus, it's good for the environment right? Isn't that what everyone's saying?

Well, after reading this article, I'm not entirely sure anymore. According to Stephen Budiansky, food transportation, fertilizers, and chemicals only make up a small share of food's energy use. Instead, Budiansky says, "The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far."

Now I have no idea where Budiansky got his statistics from. And frankly, I'm not really sure how meaningful they are ... are his statistics on industrial agriculture solely about crops? Is meat included? And, if so, can we conflate growing lettuce with producing hamburger patties in one statistic?

But Budiansky does have a point when he notes the energy costs required to drive five miles and back from the grocery store or farmer's market. (Note: I've never had to travel five miles to get to a grocery store. Farmer's market, maybe. Grocery store, definitely not. Does this mean I'm spoiled living in the city or is five miles a sort of weirdly large estimate?)

So I started thinking about it. Right now, we get our produce from Whole Foods which is blocks away from our house. Generally speaking, my boyfriend is able to pick up things we need on his walk home from work. We go through produce, especially fruit, very rapidly, so we shop several times a week, and don't use any transportation energy to do so. At Whole Foods, we buy primarily organic, and usually local/in state. The organic is a deliberate choice, the local partly choice, partly happenstance. Since California is the heartland for Industrial Organic, most of our produce just winds up being local. Earthbound Farms spinach? Local. Driscoll's berries? Local. We're lucky. I've been to Whole Foods in Florida and they carry the same Industrial Organic from California that we have in our Whole Foods. As for the produce taste itself? I have to say, I'm extremely happy with it.

Our other options would be farmers markets or CSA. Since we don't have a farmers' market in walking distance, either of these options would require us to expend some form of transportation energy. There are several farmers' markets within a half hour bus ride. But they are generally only once a week or in working hours, so we would either need to buy a lot and hope stuff didn't spoil, or supplement our farmers' market purchases with grocery store produce. Not ideal.

With a CSA, we'd have the convenience factor, but it would come at a cost. I don't know how much energy CSA trucks expend delivering grocery bags across the city, but I'm sure it's a decent amount.

All of this leads me to believe that actually Whole Foods may actually be the most efficient choice for us: efficient in terms of energy and also our time. It seems a tad heretical ... (but it's INDUSTRIAL ORGANIC!! WHAT ABOUT THE SMALL FARMERS?!!) And yeah, I know there are other things to consider. In an ideal world, I would support the small farmers. I would go visit exactly where my food was being produced. I would form a personal connection with the people growing my food. And I'd figure out a way to support small farmers in an energy efficient way.

But, I don't live in an ideal world, I live in a world with a lot of resource constraints. And when I'm thinking about the best use of my limited resources, Whole Foods just seems like the better option.


Crunchy Chicken said...

My husband and I spent a good half an hour this morning arguing about this op-ed. I think the writer left a number of things out of his article and massaged a lot of the data and, well, it would take too long to summarize in a comment.

Anyway, each person's circumstances are different and you need to look at that. But I do agree with you... 5 miles? Unless you live out in the sticks few people drive 5 miles to go to the store. And if you do, you go infrequently.

Color Me Green said...

I agree with crunchy chicken that everyone has to what's best for their situation. I feel lucky to live in NYC where it is easy to be locavore. Yes the farmers have to drive their trucks to the city but once there they are efficiently reaching tons of people who walked or used mass transit to get to the farmers market, which I think uses less energy than ppl in the suburbs having to drive to farmers market or various farms etc. The other thing that bugs me about this article is that it completely ignores that factory farms and pesticides are bad not so much because of energy but because of how they are polluting the environment. Farms may not be usingthat much more land but they are certainly adversely affecting the surrounding land.

Lee said...

Budiansky's figures, like all figures, are rubbery. I'm dubious about any article that starts quoting figures at me, simply because I know how dodgy such figures can be.

So I use old-fashioned common-sense. Which tells me that growing lettuce from a packet of seed in winter in my sun heated hothouse (constructed of recycled plastic and wood offcuts) is going to be more economical than anything from anywhere.

We have to use sense and moderation. I'm going to refuse to buy Mexican plums here in New Zealand, no matter what the figures guys say or how organic they are, simply because logic tells me that no fruit flown halfway across the world can be sustainable. Ever.

And there is NOTHING more sustainable than growing, and eating, your own!

Now I've made my liquid soap, and I'm off to go finish planting out my new orchard, as its sunny today! five more trees to go in! :-)

Leanne over at Cluttercut

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I've never bought into the argument that eating local will save the environment, but there are other important benefits to supporting small, local farms. I think it comes down to what our own personal values are. One person might think global warming is the most important issue and so would try to support the food system that uses the least amount of energy. For others (including myself), it's more important to support small farms and know exactly how my food was grown and raised (because I've visited the farm).