I spent a good hour the other day weeding a still-yet-to-be-planted vegetable bed in my backyard — all in the name of locally grown produce.

'Local' could lose its trendy sheen

Andy Nelson
Markets Editor

The rest of the yard gets the lazy man’s treatment — Roundup — but because this bed borders my neighbor Lynn’s real, live, fully operational vegetable bed, I hold off on the poison there.

I’m not complaining. In payment for my efforts, this year I’ve received a grocery bag each full of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

I hope it’s not the last such harvest. After all, there are rumblings that “local” may soon be boarding the express train out of Trendyville.

I listened to a speech recently by the Supermarket Guru, Phil Lempert, on industry trends. Interesting stuff overall, but the Guru really got my attention when he said that “local” would soon be going the way of macro diets and organic.

“Local,” Lempert said, will be replaced by “locale.” People will still be concerned where fresh fruits and vegetables come from, but they won’t necessarily be obsessed with making sure they’re grown in their own county or state.

I tucked Lempert’s prediction away for future use. Not three hours later, I opened the opinion page of that day’s New York Times and began reading a column by Stephen Budiansky, “Math Lessons for Locavores.”

Now, this was the New York Times, and the columnist bio identified Budiansky as the author of a blog called liberalcurmudgeon.com.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a nice, robust defense of local.

Instead, Budiansky’s column casts serious doubts on the sustainability of the local movement.

He begins by bragging, rightfully, about his own garden, which makes my neighbor Lynn’s look like the single tomato plant my son neglected a couple of summers ago.

Budiansky sings the praises of his own locally grown Eden, then proceeds to poke holes in several trendy local-gone-loco pieties.

“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.”

It is on that issue of cross-country transportation of produce — one of the locavores’ favorite targets — that Budiansky is particularly insightful.

“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” of growing that head of lettuce — which, he says, is about the same whether it’s grown in Maine or California, or whether it’s conventional or organic.

Why not, Budiansky argues, treat fresh produce like every other commodity: Grow it where it grows best, using the best-available technologies, then ship it at a fraction of the “energy cost” it takes to grow it.

“Sometimes,” he writes, “that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica.”

OK, good, so it’s still OK to eat Lynn’s vegetables for a few weeks each summer and fall. And now I have some more ammo (when my wackier friends get all high and mighty on me) to defend the practice of eating those same vegetables from all over the place all the other weeks of the year.

E-mail anelson@thepacker.com

What's your take on the sustainability of the local movement — or its popularity? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.