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Cost of food must be measured in more than miles

First Lady Michelle Obama sets an eco-example for the nation by breaking ground for an organic herb and vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House.

First Lady Michelle Obama sets an eco-example for the nation by breaking ground for an organic herb and vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House.

Buying locally grown food is in. Just ask the new occupants of the White House and the Agriculture Department’s executive suite.

The first lady has put in a garden in the White House lawn. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack installed one in front of USDA’s headquarters.

For aficionados of the local food movement, this is a dream come true. They’ve been concerned that the existing food system, which relies on transporting food across continents, and in many cases, across oceans, can be bad for the environment.

But is it really? Even supporters acknowledge now that the distance food travels from farm to plate doesn’t measure all the energy that goes into producing, moving and preparing the food.

“Re-localizing the food supply, shrinking the distance that food travels, isn’t in and of itself going to achieve these goals of sustainability that we’re after,” said James McWilliams, a historian of agriculture at Texas State University.

He points to studies such as one in Europe that found that fuel consumption for catching cod could be reduced significantly by switching to nets that produced less drag on the boats. It’s also more efficient in some cases to eat imported meat from grass-fed livestock than domestic grain-based products.

And does it make sense, McWilliams asks, for water-short cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas to import water to raise their own food?

Economists at Iowa State University helped popularize the concept of “food miles” as a way of measuring the inefficiency of a lot of the produce and meat now in supermarkets – be it lettuce from California, strawberries from Mexico, or grapes from Chile.

McWilliams says it makes more sense to measure the full energy cost of a food product, rather than just the shipping distance, much the way that economists now analyze the “life-cycle” cost of biofuels.

Others have raised additional concerns about the local-food movement.

Artisan cheese makers in Italy stay in business in part by shipping their product to the United States.

Farmers in poor countries such as Burkina Faso in West Africa often benefit from selling their food overseas, says Susanne Friedberg, a Dartmouth College professor and author of a recent history of the perishable produce industry. For them, globalization is a good thing.

Some researchers have looked at various diets and the types and amount of land required to produce the food. The resulting measurements are called a “food print.” Researchers at Cornell University found that a diet with a small amount of meat was actually more efficient than a vegetarian diet because livestock could use lower quality land.

Rich Pirog, an economist at Iowa State who worked on the food-mile measurements, said the concept was never meant to be a “proxy for environmental impact.”

In any case, there’s no question it’s a new day in Washington for the local food movement. Vilsack has repeatedly said he wants to help the nation’s smallest farms get bigger by increasing the market for their fruits, vegetables and other products.

He was preaching to the choir last week before the House appropriations subcommittee that writes his department’s annual budget. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, pitched the idea of vertical growing systems for cities that are known as “food deserts” because they have few farms nearby. One form of vertical farming is to grow vegetables in stacked pots.

“Many of these food deserts can actually produce their own food, but we need help from USDA,” she told Vilsack.

Fine, but those cities may want to check their food print first.

Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines Register. E-mail: pbrasher@dmreg.com

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