05/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sacred Bull

As spring settles in, I've been starting seedlings for this year's vegetable garden. And that has caused me to reflect on Charlie Murphy's bull.

From the time I was 8, I spent a large part of every summer on Charlie Murphy's farm in southern Ontario. I'd help with the haying and bringing the cows in for milking, but most of the time I just hung out with Charlie's younger son Michael and his daughter Julie Ann. Agriculturally speaking, Charlie had just enough to make a go of it; one of his few luxuries was a dairy bull. There were other, less expensive expedients for inseminating his cows, but Charlie was proud of his huge bull, which he claimed was a benevolent beast. I never saw much evidence of the bull's good nature, but that undoubtedly had to do with my favorite game. Julie, Mike and I would, each in turn, climb over the fence into the bull's pasture, sneak up behind him, and then nail him in the rear with a hard thrown clod of earth. The competition was to see who, city slicker or country kid, could get closest to the bull before letting fly and still make it back over the fence untrampled.

I still find sacred cows (and bull) to be an irresistible target. Which raises the issue of "food miles". This is the presumption, almost universally accepted as fact by the environmentally responsible members of the public, that a foodstuff's cost in fossil fuels, its carbon footprint, is directly related to how many miles it must travel from its point of production to reach its point of consumption. Authorities on the sustainable life style, for example, insist that vegetables and fruits grown in California and Mexico and then shipped to New York are an abomination because the shipping requires the expenditure of so much diesel or gasoline.

Judged by this criterion, the tomatoes and lettuces I will grow in my own garden should reflect the ultimately sustainable diet. However, I have an insider's knowledge of those crops. I know how considerable the input of labor is to raise this very modest harvest. I also know how expensive the labor is (my lettuce picker won't live in a migrant worker's dormitory and consumes far more resources of every kind than his colleagues in the Rio Grande and Imperial Valleys). Besides, I've read Pierre Desrocher and Hiroko Shimuzu's report, Yes, We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the "Food Miles" Perspective.

This study, published in October of last year by George Mason University's Mercatus Center, explores in depth the issue of food miles and whether the carbon footprint and environmental cost of locally grown foods are actually lower than that of imports from the major agricultural producer nations. What it concluded was that for the principal population centers in northern Europe and the United States, this was simply not the case. Drawing on research United Kingdom Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Desrocher and Shimizu found that in many, if not most cases, the exact opposite was true.

This is partly because transport in bulk by rail or ship is so much more energy efficient than moving foods in small quantities from farm to market by truck. Even long-distance bulk trucking is more efficient than short-haul shipping in the back of a pick-up or panel truck. In fact, taking produce home from the market via automobile consumes more fossil fuel and produces more CO2 (the principal greenhouse gas) than shipping it to Britain from producers in another hemisphere. This is true even of many kinds of air-freighted foods: a British consumer driving 6 miles to market to purchase a typical portion of Kenyan green beans, DEFRA calculated, generates more CO2 with his or her car per bean than was generated in flying the bean from Africa to the UK.

To reduce the carbon footprint of our food, Desrochers and Shimizu, conclude, individuals can have a far greater impact by better menu planning and food preparation -- currently UK consumers discard 61% of the produce they purchase. And if your goal is only to conserve fossil fuels, the authors suggest, you would do far better to by making only periodic trips to a supermarket to purchase unprocessed ingredients in bulk than to follow the locavore pattern of driving from farm stand to dairy to bakery to butcher.

There are many good reasons to patronize local food producers. Charlie Murphy was a good father and (in retrospect) astonishingly patient with visiting children. His farm preserved green space in a area increasingly under pressure from vacation homes and resorts. Cattle, of course, are a notoriously inefficient, polluting means of food production, but one could argue that his grass-fed herd was superior in that respect to most. What Charlie himself discovered was that sacred cows are unsustainable. To my regret, he eventually sold his bull. Likewise, we all need to address environmental issues on the basis of facts, not sentiment.