Well-Traveled Food: Is Local Always Best?

It’s easy to think, “Local food is always the best answer,” and leave it at that; most of the time, it might be right, but new information is emerging that disputes local’s lofty position at the throne of TreeHugging food. The notion of “food miles,” the distance your food has traveled to get to your plate, is absolutely an important consideration, but, as it turns out, we might not be able to let the buck stop there.

In a piece for the New York Times [www.nytimes.com], James E. McWilliams, the author of “A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America,” argues that it isn’t as simple as sourcing your food from local farmers, at farmer’s markets and through community-supported agriculture, and calling it a day. While there are undeniable benefits of eating local — unbeatable freshness, which leads to better taste, a more meaningful connection with your food and where it comes from and a more mindful approach to eating, just to name a few — McWilliams believes that, though it’s quite intuitive, fewer food miles (and, you’d think, fewer greenhouse gas emissions) doesn’t necessary mean it’s better for the environment. What?

“It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator,” says McWilliams. “Instead of measuring a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production — what economists call ‘factor inputs and externalities’ — like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.” Given these ideas — a more life cycle analysis-type approach — the relative carbon footprint of foods, both local and otherwise, can change very quickly. To wit: lamb raised in New Zealand’s lush clover pastures and shipped to Britain “produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.”

Hmm. So what does that mean for the burgeoning “eat local” movement? It sounds bad, but, says McWilliams, it absolutely doesn’t have to be: “‘Eat local’ advocates — a passionate cohort of which I am one — are bound to interpret these findings as a threat. We shouldn’t. Not only do life cycle analyses offer genuine opportunities for environmentally efficient food production, but they also address several problems inherent in the eat-local philosophy.
“Consider the most conspicuous ones: it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer.”
For the most part, we think McWilliams gets it right; essentially, what he’s saying can be boiled down to a great quote, also from the Times: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” [www.nytimes.com] There is no room for blind consumption in the green world, and, like many other environmental issues, there is no silver bullet for eating green all the time, and no one method — all organic, all local, etc. — will a perfectly green meal make. Get all the details about this new take on local here in the New York Times [www.nytimes.com].