Eating locally has been gaining cultural clout in the past few years bringing with it waves of seasonal recipes in the food sections of newspapers, a slew of popular books on the subject, and the new chic name of “locavore” for eaters of local food; named word of the year in 2007 by Oxford American Dictionary.
While going local has increasingly resonated with people trying to green their food consumption, the movement is not without its detractors. An Economist article in December 2006, which subjected the “ethical food” movement as a whole to a barrage of criticism, is credited for instigating the trend. In August 2007 an op-ed in the New York Times argued that buying locally grown food does not necessarily decrease one’s carbon footprint, and most recently, a February 2008 article in The New Yorker took similar swipes at the food miles concept.
Food miles—the distance that food travels from farm to fork—alone may not be the best way to determine the environmental impact of food. How food travels, and not just how far, is a key factor. Transporting food by airfreight for example, is responsible for far greater greenhouse gas emissions than transporting it by rail or ship. There is also the issue of post retail consumer transport. The combined impact of individual consumers driving to the farmers’ market or supermarket and back can drastically outweigh the lower energy impact of buying locally grown food. Tom Philpott, food editor over at the online environmental magazine Grist, has a solutions based idea on the matter: what if local governments invested in local food systems by means of creating more farmers’ markets and making sure that they are accessible by public transportation? Beyond consumer access, socially and environmentally viable food systems will also require a re-investment in regional infrastructure, so that produce from small sustainable farms can be efficiently distributed to retailers.
Researchers interested in evaluating the carbon footprint of food are turning to a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach that quantifies environmental impact—and especially greenhouse gas contributions—at each stage of production, including growing, processing, packaging, transportation, and cooking. LCA is being put to use by researchers at UC Davis and the Leopold Center at Iowa State to identify “hotspots” of high greenhouse gas emissions along the chain of food production. This process is extremely useful for identifying global impacts like carbon emissions, but it does not necessarily account for the localized effects of the global industrial food system.
Air pollution from rail yards, ports, and diesel trucks at food transportation facilities are responsible for high levels of smog, sooty particulate matter, and increased rates of asthma in neighborhoods where these facilities are located. The neighborhoods that bear the brunt of this pollution and the accompanying health effects are often low-income communities of color. Ironically the food that is shipped through these neighborhoods is often carried right out: many of them lack supermarkets and access to fresh produce.
The winner of the prize for putting down the important benefits of buying locally was conducted by Lincoln University in New Zealand, which used LCA to show that apples, onions, dairy and lamb shipped from New Zealand to England use less energy than producing the same products for local consumption in Britain. Not surprisingly, this study was paid for by the New Zealand lamb industry; the very industry that the article would benefit.
For example, the study fails to compare “apples to apples” as it looks at the energy use of grass fed New Zealand lamb to conventional, UK lamb, which is locally available. Similarly, the study concludes that tomatoes shipped into England from Spain had a lower energy impact than those grown locally in hothouses. An astute letter to the New Yorker noted that eating hothouse tomatoes is not what most devotees of local food have in mind. Heated greenhouse production is one of the hotspots identified by researchers at UC Davis as extremely energy intensive.
For people who are eating locally, or regionally, as a low impact food choice it means eating food that was grown seasonally and in accordance with local ecosystems. It is about reveling in what the season has to offer, which may mean bounty at times and scarcity at others. It means a greater connection to the environment that we live in, and better tasting, healthier food, grown for flavor and nutrition, not for long distance shipping or the fluorescent glow of supermarket lights. It also means getting to meet the people who grow our food, see the farms where it comes from, and directly supporting local businesses that will reinvest in our communities. These are benefits that may not be easily quantified by Life Cycle Assessment or reflected in the size of a carbon footprint.
Online, National Resources:
The Omnivores Dilemna by Michael Pollen
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
The Revolution Will Not be Microwaved by Sandor Ellix Katz
Photo courtesy of Community Alliance with Family Farmers