First: why am I up? Because I can't breathe. T. gave me his cold, which I think he picked up flying, and I am now really uncomfortable.
More importantly, R. told me about reading this article in Science News on the carbon impact of eating locally vs. eating less red meat and dairy:
As is often the case, this was something really interesting to me that I could not make heads or tails of from his summary. It took a little while to track down on line, but once I found it, I was able to do some tracking through the blogosphere to see what people made of this.
Obviously, this is contentious ground. There's more reason to consider eating locally than carbon impact, and the assumptions built into the model used by Christopher Weber et al don't necessarily apply to small, local producers. For example, if a significant chunk of the carbon impact of beef comes from _fertilizer_ and you are eating locally produced beef that is entirely grass fed (or, say, bison), it seems reasonable to suppose that the fertilizer impact is overstated in the calculation. Further, if manure handling is an issue (lagoons) and the manure associated with the beef (bison, whatever) you eat is being used as the sole fertilizer input into the organic, local veggies you are also eating, ya gotta figure that's going to have an impact, too.
OTOH, cows (and, presumably) bison fart, whether grass or corn fed, and regardless of what you do with their poop. Those farts are largely methane and they have an impact.
A dedicated locavore (which I am not) could really have some fun picking apart the assumptions built into this model, which essentially assumes that the local you are buying is the same conventional food processor nonsense as whatever was shipped (or flown) from thousands of miles away. And odds on, judging by the poster children of the locavore movement, that assumption is not justified.
All that aside, this does put some hard numbers on the eat-lower-on-the-food-chain side of the debate. Weber et al went to some effort to point out that this is a continuum and cereals (no, not Cocoa Puffs; wheat, corn, etc.) contribute on a par with chicken, eggs, etc. It's a little hard to tell from the summaries (I haven't laid hands on the full text) how this works out on a per calorie basis; if you switched to all veg, for example, would you really net out lower than, say, veg + cereals + chicken + etc.? It's particularly nice that they showed how this stacked up to driving a 25 mpg car 12000 miles/year; it suggests some fascinating carbon budgeting possibilities (bicycling to work to generate carbon offsets for eating steak, anyone?).
While my initial reaction was a bit of an eye roll (yes, what the world needs more of: dietary enthusiasts duking it out over vegetarian vs. local with the overly compliant all nodding and say, yes, we should all be locavore vegans! I get the temptation. I really do. But down that extremist path lies a backlash of epic proportions), until I realized that Weber et al are really just reinforcing what just about everyone else is saying: hey, back away from the cow. It's not good for you/us/the biosphere.
If we ever needed an indication that Atkins was So Over.