The good of New York City

Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma,

Originally I assumed Joel’s motive for keeping his food chain so short was strictly environmental — to save on the prodigious quantities of fossil fuel Americans burn moving their food around the country and increasingly today, the world. But it turns out Joel aims to save a whole lot more than energy. (240)

However, it isn’t clear from what follows that Salatin’s distribution system actually saves energy at all. Pollan proceeds to tell us that many customers drive “more than an hour over a daunting (though gorgeous) tangle of county roads” (241) to buy Salatin’s meat straight from the farm. One customer even tells Pollan, “I drive 150 miles one way in order to get clean meat for my family” (242).

To Pollan, the distances people are willing to drive for Polyface meat are evidence of just how good and clean Salatin’s product is, but they stand in striking contrast to earlier claims about the environmental benefits of the farm. Pollan has, for example, written, “Joel’s pastures will, like his woodlots, remove thousands of pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year” (197). Of course, Pollan makes no mention of the environmental impact of having customers drive so far to the farm. While the food might not travel as far as, say, the Mexican blackberries that Pollan enjoyed in his Whole Foods meal, there’s a certain efficiency to moving things in large quantities, even if it means moving them a little bit further.

To show that this can be significant, I’ll attempt a calculation. I’ll look not at the extreme case of the customer driving 150 miles each way, but at the more common example of the customers driving more than an hour to the farm. Assuming that a customer drives 45 miles each way in a car that gets 22.1 miles per gallon (corresponding to the EPA’s estimated average fuel ecomomy for passenger cars), each trip would require a little more than 4 gallons of gasoline. Based on the EPA’s estimate that burning a gallon of gasoline releases 19 pounds of carbon dioxide, this results in the emission of 76 pounds of carbon dioxide per trip. If such a customer were to visit Polyface just once a month, the fuel burned would release 0.41 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

To put that into perspective, a 2008 study estimated that delivering food consumed by a typical U.S. household in a year to the store is responsible for the release of 0.36 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. In other words, driving an hour each way to the farm once a month results in greater carbon emissions than can be attributed to the average American household’s food miles.

Of course, Salatin doesn’t cite environmental concerns as a reason to avoid selling to grocery stores. For him, it seems to be more about rejecting the “Western, reductionist, Wall Street sales scheme” (248). The above calculation seems to show, at least, that Salatin’s strongly anti-industrial views are sometimes in conflict with environmental values. This tension is perhaps best seen when Pollan asks Salatin about the broader applicability of his kind of farming:

When I asked how a place like New York City fit into his vision of a local food economy he startled me with his answer: “Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?” (245)

Pollan doesn’t really answer Salatin’s question, instead pointing out that New York City would continue to be inhabitated by people who need to eat, but New York City does do some good.

To Salatin, a big city like New York is a symbol of the industrial world, but there are considerable environmental advantages to having things close together as they tend to be in large cities. A 2008 study by the Brookings Institution reported that America’s 100 largest metropolitan areas have lower per capita greenhouse gas emissions from residential and transportation sources. The study attributes this smaller “partial carbon footprint” to less car travel and residential electricity use. In 2005, the average New Yorkers had a partial carbon footprint, with 1.495 metric tons, less than 60 percent of the average American’s partial carbon footprint of 2.60 metric tons.

The Brookings study gives us reason to be cautious about considering food in isolation when it comes to environmental decision-making. While moving food long distances results in substantial greenhouse gas emissions, we tend to produce even more greenhouse gases by moving people around. It makes environmental sense to have cities, where a relatively small proportion of people can eat local food, if these cities reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from other sources.

This isn’t to say that Salatin’s vision of a world without New York City is necessarily less sustainable than the world we live in today. He may well prefer a world in which people didn’t travel by car at all, and in which he simply sold meat to neighbors who visited the farm on horse-drawn carriages. However, that is a world that most of Pollan’s readers (and probably many of Salatin’s customers) would find less appealing to live in than the more industrialized world that we have today.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] used to transport his industrial organic fruits and vegetables from distant farms.) When Pollan tells us that one customer drives 150 miles each way to the farm, it’s merely to be taken as proof of […]

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