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This is the Camino Real farmer’s market in Goleta, California. It’s in Santa Barbara County, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The produce is bountiful, and it’s local…

[SHOPPER] You use that on ribs?

[SHOPPER] Yeah! It’s so good.

[JEFF] We’ve got lettuce, and greens and chard, leeks and fennel, and turnips, and artichokes, and spinach, and cabbage, broccoli and about everything else you can get your hands on this time of year. Our farm is about two miles away from where we are selling right now at the farmer’s market.

[SHOPPER] It’s just amazing.

Santa Barbara County has a lot going for it: the beach, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and farming — it is in the top 1% of agriculture-producing counties in the U.S., about $1.2 billion worth a year. Now, imagine for a moment that everything is interrupted by some kind of a natural disaster.

David CLEVELAND: In 2005 there was a mudslide at La Conchita, which is a community in the southeastern part of Santa Barbara County, right on the coast.

That’s David Cleveland. He teaches environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara. The mudslide he’s talking about killed ten people.

CLEVELAND: And also blocked off the 101 freeway and the railroad, which are the main transportation connections with Los Angeles. And these transportation links were closed for at least a week.

So Santa Barbara couldn’t ship its produce down to the distribution centers in L.A., or anywhere else, nor could it ship produce in. But that wouldn’t seem to be a problem, since Santa Barbara grows so much. You’d think the grocery stores would still have plenty of fruits and veg.

CLEVELAND: So we had produce sections that were empty. And here’s farmers with boxes of harvested fruit and vegetables that they can’t, their distributors can’t pick them up. And so farmers said oh yeah we went and talked to the produce manager at this grocery chain and we said, “Look, we got stuff that we can’t get out and you can’t get anything in, let’s make a deal.” And they were told, “No, sorry, we got a contract.”

DUBNER: Did you feel it was absurd or along the lines of borderline criminal?

CLEVELAND: Often those two things go together, I think.

*      *      *

Today, the second episode of our two-part podcast, “You Eat What You Are.” Last time out, we heard from the food-obsessed economist Tyler Cowen.

Tyler COWEN: There’s another kind of food snob where everything has to be like a farmer’s market, everything has to be sustainable, everything has to be in some way modest or geared down, or hippie-like.

And from food-philosophers Michael Pollan and Alice Waters:

Michael POLLAN: You know, one of the things we need to do in this country is raise the prestige of farming, and recognize the work that good farmers do, which is really important to us. We depend on them, and yet they’re, for most of us, totally anonymous.  

Alice WATERS: I do really believe that… I think that the work of the farmer, it needs to be elevated to a very important and vital place.

And so, today, we try to find out: is going local the way to go? That’s why we’re starting in Santa Barbara County, which, it turns out, is a pretty good microcosm for just how complicated — or just how messed-up — our food network is. Here, you’ve got a place that grows more than a billion dollars worth of food a year but, as you just heard, when transportation is cut off for a week, the produce sections at grocery stores start to empty out. Isn’t that bizarre? You’d think, with all that local produce, that Santa Barbara would be the epicenter of the local-food movement. So what’s going on here? David Cleveland, the U.C. Santa Barbara professor, he decided to find out.

CLEVELAND: Time Magazine, I think it was four or five years ago, the cover of Time Magazine was “Local the New Organic,” and you know, that kind of… One of my students brought that in and said, “Hey, have you seen this?” And I said, “No I haven’t seen that.” Because I had been teaching a class on rural agriculture for last ten or fifteen years at UCSB, and localization hasn’t been an explicit part of what we talked about. And you know, I just realized that this was being promoted as a remedy for a lot of the problems that people, many people saw with the mainstream food system.

DUBNER: And when you see this being promoted as a remedy, or maybe even a panacea it sounds like you’re saying, yeah?


DUBNER: And what was your first reaction to that then? Was it like, yeah this is what we need, or, uh oh, this might not be the right prescription? Or, I don’t know, maybe a combination?

CLEVELAND: It was a combination because, you know, I have an emotional… It’s emotionally appealing, the idea of yeah local food, going to the farmers’ market, and you know, all the stuff that goes with that. And at the same time my academic background was saying well, how do we really know if this is working? And we’re all familiar with the concept of greenwash and self-delusion, and you know, misplaced assumptions, and so I immediately said, well gosh, I wonder, we should really see how local the Santa Barbara County food system already is, because we have thriving farmer’s markets, CSA’s are growing like gangbusters, and restaurants are advertising their local food, and the UCSB dining residential dining is a major program to get more local food. And so I said will gosh let’s just see how local we are.

DUBNER: So how did you come to this? Did you come… Were you interested? Did you grow up on a farm? Did you grow up thinking and knowing a lot about agriculture, or did you come from the environmental side? Were you an environmentalist who wanted to get into the science of it?

CLEVELAND: I came from the food side. I think I…

DUBNER: Meaning you eat? Meaning? What does that mean the food side?

CLEVELAND: Meaning I’ve always been interested in food. It’s always been… My early years were on a farm. And I’ve always been interested in eating good food. You know, like a person always reads the labels when they buy stuff. So that kind of interest. And I guess that coincided with an interest in the bigger picture of the environment and population, and how do we deal with this stuff? When I did my dissertation research in Ghana, West Africa, in the northeast part of the county, it was during one of the major drought periods. And both years I was there was a major famine. And I would lie in my little mud hut at night thinking why are people in this part of the world struggling, working hard, they’re smart people who work hard all day long and yet they’re going hungry. And then there are other people in other parts of the world who don’t know nearly as much about how to grow food and don’t work as hard and they have too much food. And just, you know, just thinking about those issues kind of drove my interest in understanding agri-food systems.

DUBNER: So, David, I’m curious, can you just describe kind of, you know, your drive from home to the university? What do you pass? Are you passing strawberry fields and almond groves? What’s it look like?

CLEVELAND: Well actually, I ride my bike to campus. It’s only about five and half miles, and I live on the coastal bike path so it’s very nice. But I pass organic farms on the way. Actually yesterday when I biked into campus there were strawberries ripening on their plastic mulch, and fava beans growing. And I could smell the compost and manure.

DUBNER: So you’re describing what to me at least over the wire sounds like a locavore nirvana. You’re talking about these restaurants and even the university dining hall, you know, advertises its local food. And you bike to work through the lovely, alternatingly sweet and pungent smells of strawberries and manure. And so you must be, you know, from what you’re telling me so far I would think you’re living at like, you know, ground zero locavore central. Was that your assumption as well?

CLEVELAND: Yeah, yeah, it was like wow, this is so, let’s just see what we’re really doing because certainly the potential’s there, because I knew before we started the research that Santa Barbara was producing somewhere around 2.3 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables a year.   

So David Cleveland, along with about 10 students, worked for a year to track that 2.3 billion pounds of produce – specifically, to see how much of it was being exported and how much was being consumed locally:

CLEVELAND: This is what really shocked us, is we found that when you added up all these different ways in which locally grown produce got to people in Santa Barbara County we found that less than five percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Santa Barbara County were actually grown in Santa Barbara County, and the other ninety-five percent were imported.

DUBNER: It’s hard to even understand how that could come to pass. I mean, even if one believes in the ultimate efficiency of the most efficient markets — you’re growing the stuff right there, and then people are eating it right there, but the stuff that they’re eating is not the stuff that they’re growing. I don’t even get it.

CLEVELAND: I don’t either. Yeah, this is something… I mean, part of it is the way the market is structured.

DUBNER: Now, you’re not an economist, you’re an environmental scientist correct?

CLEVELAND: No. I’m an anthropologist.

DUBNER: Okay so because you’re not an economist, I’m guessing, and forgive me I really am just guessing, I’m guessing you’re thinking, well if this is the way the economy works, in this case, then it’s dumb. It doesn’t make sense, right, to take food that we grow locally here, ship it off to a warehouse and then ship it back to here. So you know what, in some twisted configurations of incentives that has come to pass, but it’s stupid. Was that your thought?

CLEVELAND: Yeah, and my thought was that somehow this economic system, people are being rewarded economically for this kind of behavior one assumes, but somehow the reward system for economic behavior is totally out of sync with the reward system for good nutrition, for community, for environment. There’s this disconnect between economics and the reason that we grow food.

What Cleveland is saying certainly seems to make sensethat when it comes to food, the modern economy conspires against three very important factors: good nutrition, the environment, and communitymeaning local farmers and the people who support them. But Cleveland’s research was showing something different. We’ll start with the local farmers. It looked as if things were working out okay for themwhy else would they sell most of their produce for export, rather than keep it local? And what about the nutrition? Here’s another surprising fact that Cleveland found: a 100% local diet wouldn’t improve nutrition within the county. Higher income might; but a dearth of local produce wasn’t the problem. Still, what about the environment? As David Cleveland puts it: “Most of what’s grown in Santa Barbara is shipped out. And most of what’s eaten in Santa Barbara is shipped in. This seems crazy,” he says. Surely that is crazy, isn’t it? Coming up: the math behind carbon emissions and local food.

DUBNER: When your eyes saw that number what did you think?

CLEVELAND: We went back and redid our calculations.

And… is there a moral upside to not eating local food?

Ed GLAESER: I just keep coming back to feeling a certain amount of satisfaction that I’m eating grapes that are keeping up the standard of living in Chile.

*      *      *

Okay, so David Cleveland, who teaches environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that 95 percent of the produce consumed in Santa Barbara County, which grows $1.2 billion worth of produce a year, is imported, some of it from the other side of the world, whereas 99 percent of the produce grown there is exported. Now that sounds, on the surface, like an environmental travesty. So he began looking into those numbers too. What would happen, for instance, if Santa Barbara County went totally locavore, if all the produce eaten in Santa Barbara were also grown there?

CLEVELAND: Yeah, we wanted to look at, at what effect one hundred percent localization of the Santa Barbara County system, which is a physically, biologically very feasible thing to do because, you know, we have the land, we’re growing so much, and so forth. So what if we did one hundred percent localize the system, what effect would that have on greenhouse gas emissions? And we found that it wouldn’t make a lot of difference. Our savings in greenhouse gas emissions per household as a proportion of the total food system greenhouse gas emissions was less than one percent.

DUBNER: Wow. When your eyes saw that number what did you think?

CLEVELAND: We went back and redid our calculations.

DUBNER: I don’t blame you. You thought, how can this possibly be true?

CLEVELAND: Right, and so, you know, it wasn’t… We didn’t think it was going to be a huge number, but we were still a bit surprised that it was less than one percent. And when you look at that in terms of what the EPA estimated for example in 2008 for greenhouse gas emissions per person in the United States in 2008, it’s 0.01 percent. So, I guess the point that began to dawn on me and on the others was that even though our food system accounts for a huge amount of our impact on the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions, and localization is being promoted as a major cure to all that’s wrong with our current food system, in terms of one of the focal impacts, it doesn’t necessarily have a great deal of effect.

How can this be? As Cleveland says, producing food requires a lot of energy. So wouldn’t it make sense that we could use a lot less energy by transporting food shorter distances?

Christopher WEBER: Well, I mean, the take home message that we learned is that basically transportation is really only about seven percent of the greenhouse gas footprint associated with the overall average American diet.

That’s Christopher Weber, he’s a researcher at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington. Back in 2008, he and a colleague, H. Scott Matthews, analyzed the U.S. food network and found that the energy used in the transportation of food represents a relatively trivial amount of the overall energy used. Their paper made a bit of noise.

DUBNER: So this paper that you wrote, I understand that you’ve said no matter what you do… You’re a young guy, right you’re in your early…

WEBER: Relatively, sure.

DUBNER: Early thirties maybe, mid thirties?

WEBER: Yeah. Yeah.

DUBNER: Okay, and so you’ve got a long career ahead of you, and I’ve heard you say no matter what you do, unless maybe barring a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize, that what’s going to be on your gravestone is this paper that you wrote as your graduate thesis, yes?

WEBER: Yeah, it certainly seems that way.

One person who found the Weber-Matthews research interesting was Ed Glaeser. He’s an economist at Harvard who spends a lot of time thinking about where and how people live: urban density vs. suburban sprawl, things like that.

GLAESER: There’s a 2008 article by Weber and Matthews who actually go through the various environmental costs involved in food production, particularly carbon dioxide emissions. And they found that there’s about 8.9 tons of carbon dioxide per household per year from food consumption in the United States. Out of that 8.9 tons only 0.4 tons, so about five percent, less than five percent came from food delivery to you. And all agricultural transportation up and down the food chain that delivers only about one ton of carbon dioxide per household annually. So there’s a lot of carbon emissions involved in food, but you want to think about it as being in the very heart of food production, which is going to go on wherever you eat it or not. And there you’re going to, you know, you will make choices about what you’re eating. And obviously animals tend to be more energy intensive than grains for example. Those choices are going to matter a lot more as to whether the food is shipped long distances because it just doesn’t require that much energy to ship food fairly long distances in this world.

DUBNER: So in keeping with that argument, the idea is that a bigger farm, whether it’s a sheep farm or a produce farm, is going to be more efficient in its production per pound of food, let’s say, than a smaller local farm, in that the transportation is just not a big enough piece of the equation to really tip the scale?

GLAESER: That’s the usual argument. I find it fairly compelling. The second argument that’s made, and this has been particularly done comparing food production in England with other areas, so English researchers for some reason have been particularly aggressive on this. But, food production in the U.K., and I think it must be the same thing in New England for our climate isn’t that different, finds that the greenhouse gas emissions involved in eating English tomatoes are about three times as high as eating Spanish tomatoes because you require hothouses to grow these things, and, you know, you just have a better climate for food production. So, at the heart of economics, right, is this notion of comparative advantage. And if you think about David Ricardo two hundred years ago talking about what a great thing it is that the English could export textiles and import wine from Portugal, when you’re giving up on the global system of trade, you’re giving up all of that. And that’s not just about economic productivity, it’s also about energy intensity, because the places that are naturally productive at growing food are also places where you can do it with less artificial energy, with less artificial water and so forth.

DUBNER: Now, let’s say I believe you, and I have no reason not to believe you. In fact, I do believe you. But, it seems as though there’s a certain, maybe it’s a pretty small quadrant of our population, but they’re pretty noisy, who just seem to make a very compelling argument that it’s just a bad idea to live in a world where we’re shipping food from across the planet to eat here, that we should be better than that. Maybe… You know, so I guess what I’m saying is, I hear your economist argument, but then I think from my personal moral perspective, I don’t want to do that. I don’t like the idea. I don’t like the idea of a big sheep farm in New Zealand, or a big grape produce farm in Chile bundling up all these tons, and tons, and tons of stuff, putting it on a big ship, getting it all the way over to me, and then it trucks to my supermarket or my market and I buy it there. I just don’t… I hate that idea. Why is there more hatred for food and the complexity of the production and transportation of food than there is for, let’s say, a t-shirt or an iPad?

GLAESER: Well, food is so personal, right? I mean, it is our most basic of needs, right? And the idea of something wrong being with our food cuts to the very heart of our stomachs, of our souls, almost. So it’s not so surprising that people have these deep emotional reactions to food. And we certainly are right to worry a lot about whether or not our food is fresh, and good, and tasty. But I just keep coming back to feeling a certain amount of satisfaction that I’m eating grapes that are keeping up the standard of living in Chile.

DUBNER: Let me ask you this, Ed, you wrote a little bit about Michelle Obama’s garden at the White House and her pretty constant efforts to talk about the value of nutrition generally, but also local agriculture. And you wrote this, “If the First Lady wants to help the environment she should campaign for high-rise apartments rather than plant vegetables.” Ouch, first of all, but explain.

GLAESER: Well I certainly meant no disrespect for the First Lady.

DUBNER: I’m sure.

GLAESER: But local gardens are unlikely to be any particularly great environmental benefit. And one way to think about this is it really is much more energy efficient to move food rather than moving people. Any time we put space between us as human beings we are increasing our own difficulties in transportation, any time we build at lower densities, meaning we are driving longer distances. And that’s a tremendous potential environmental cost, whereas moving the food around is just a very small cost relative to that. So, I think really, if we want to be focused on how we live and how it impacts our environmental footprints, we really do want to be thinking about how is it that we bring ourselves together, how is it that we eliminate space between us, not, how is it that we insert extra space that are buffers between humanity.

DUBNER: So, would your view of Michelle Obama’s position on local agriculture be that, well it’s mostly benign. She’s preaching that people should have more, kind of, local gardens and they may or they may not, and it really doesn’t make that much of a difference? Or is your view of her stance that it’s actually not a good stance because it may be counterproductive as it kind of steals mindshare for what would be smarter ideas for how to be more efficient and effective for more people?

GLAESER: I think it’s basically benign. The truth of the matter is, I think she’s really just pushing for greater awareness of food and greater attention to nutrition. And that’s basically benign. What I do wish, is I do wish both her and the president would actually start talking about the virtues of urban America. I mean, in some sense President Obama is the most urban president we’ve had since Teddy Roosevelt. And yet we’ve heard very little about, you know, how critical America’s cities are to our future. I mean, the fact that the three largest metropolitan areas in this country produce eighteen percent of our GDP while including only thirteen percent of our population. And they’re also important environmentally, so it’s also a frustration that… It’s fine for her to grow gardens, but I would love it if we just heard a strong message about what a great thing living in dense areas, living in high-rise apartments can also be for the environment. And indeed, we’re far more likely to get significant environmental benefits from those than we are from eating locally or from urban gardens.

At the Union Square Greenmarket, in the heart of New York City, the idea of buying local is pretty much gospel. I asked a few people, shoppers and vendors, to wrap their heads around the notion that going local isn’t saving the world.

KELLY: I would find that really hard to believe…

EDLAND: I may not one hundred percent be able to argue against that, but what I will argue for is why not buy it if it is grown nearby?

RUBY: For me, smaller is better, for me, local is better.

The responses were interesting and diverse: some denial, some rationalization, some switching over to the other ways in which local food is superior, like, it tastes better. When you make decisions about something as important as the environment — and as personal, as emotionally charged as food — it’s hard to hear that the factual foundation of your decision is a bit wobbly. It can be easier just to stick to your beliefs, your intuitive beliefs, than it is to deal with the weird complexities of the modern world. But here’s one piece of good news. That research paper by Christopher Weber about food miles, it didn’t stop there.

WEBER: There are a few types of food that are very greenhouse gas-intensive, per calorie, per kilogram, per however you want to measure them, and red meat and dairy are the especially bad players here. And if you are the average consumer, and again we were always looking at the average consumer, one of the big, you know, take home messages that we tried to get out to people is that you can do more for your carbon footprint by just cutting those two things out of your diet for one day a week than you can by buying every single thing locally all the time.

DUBNER: So there you go. If you really want to help the environment, lay off cow products. The cow is particularly greenhouse gas-intensive in part because, like all ruminants, it naturally emits methane — its manure, its exhalation, its farts. And methane is more than 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. What’s that, you say? You can’t imagine cutting back on burgers? Well, perhaps you’d consider a substitute. The kangaroo, for instance, doesn’t emit methane. Its meat? A little rubbery, but tasty. So if you really want to help, what you’ve got to do is learn to love the ‘roo.

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