Local food is talked about a lot, especially for those trying to be environmentally sustainable, but is it really better than imported food?
Phil and I were listening to a podcast on that topic while we were travelling and it generated some interesting thoughts.
If you want to listen to it, it’s a Freakonomics podcast called You Eat What You Are.
It brought up some really interesting points and statistics about the economic and environmental impact of local vs imported food.
One stat that blew me away was that the difference in greenhouse gas emissions between locally grown and imported food was a tiny percentage – less than 1% of total emissions from food per household.
Most of the emissions happen as a result of growing the plants or animals, and transportation contributes a small percentage.
Then the difference in emissions for transportation between
a) importing and distributing through grocery stores and
b) growing and distributing through farmer’s markets
is even smaller, and that’s the real impact that we have on the environment by buying locally.
They pointed out that the most greenhouse gas-intensive food is livestock animals.
So reducing your consumption of animal foods has much more of an impact than buying locally grown food (whether plant or animal).
I went for a very fun trip to some farm stands, and it got me thinking about this issue again, and I wanted to see what your thoughts are…
They also looked at the economics of supporting your local economy vs supporting the economy of a less-developed country, and pointed out that there’s a reason people (and countries) specialize in producing certain things – they can do it better!
If you tried to grow grapes in Alaska, you wouldn’t have much success. And if you tried to grow apple trees in Rio de Janeiro you’d be out of luck.
People get more efficient when they specialize in one thing, rather than trying to be too well-rounded.
So – the moral they came to in the podcast was that buying locally isn’t as big a deal as many make it out to be.
The last line made me mad, though… they were going in the right direction but at the last minute veered off.
He said, “If you really want to help the environment, lay off cow products.”
He talked about how cows are the highest-emissions animal, since their methane emissions (aka farts) have more impact than carbon.
Then, “You can’t imagine cutting back on burgers? Well, perhaps you’d consider a substitute.”
“The kangaroo, for instance, doesn’t emit methane. It’s meat, a little rubbery, but tasty.”
“So, if you really want to help, what you’ve got to do is learn to love the ‘roo.”
At which point I yelled at my ipod, ‘NO!! Have a VEGGIE burger!!’
What I liked from their conclusion was that they said local food isn’t the answer to all of our problems, especially when local food focuses on locally raised animals.
The answer is more to do with choosing the right foods, that don’t have as many emissions, and somehow improving the current production methods to be less carbon-intensive.
So if less animals is better, wouldn’t that make eating no animals the best solution?
Now, my husband is an organic gardener, so I recognize the value of manure – but I don’t think the necessary conclusion of that argument is that you have to eat the animals that produce the manure.
Phil and I thought their conclusion really missed a lot of good ideas we can take away from the information they shared.
They interviewed people who were shopping at local farmer’s markets and made them sound as if they only had emotional reasons for wanting to buy local – ‘because it feels good to support local farmers’ and stuff like that.
But for Phil and I, we have a lot more reasons to buy local, fresh produce.
What they didn’t mention is that you can’t get certain varieties of fresh produce in grocery stores, like the purple peppers and red russian kale you can get at farmer’s markets.
Those different varieties of vegetables and fruits have slightly different nutrients, and they also help maintain biodiversity in our ecosystem – especially when farmers are growing heirloom plants.
Another thing they may have mentioned, but didn’t focus on, is that when food is allowed to ripen on the plant before it’s picked, and when it’s eaten fresh, it has the most amount of nutrients and flavor.
They didn’t really mention the value of creating a more vibrant community, local food security, or of people being more in touch with how food is produced and valuing the work of farmers when they talk to them at markets.
The conclusion I draw from the information in that podcast is that I can have the biggest impact in reducing my greenhouse gas emissions by eating only plant foods, whether local or not.
I choose to eat locally grown foods to get the most nutrients, flavor and variety.
The only thing that changed slightly in my viewpoint after listening is that I don’t have to feel as guilty about eating my imported pineapples (although I know there are problems with growing tropical fruit other than the carbon emissions of transportation, like deforestation of rainforests and labor standards…)
What do you think about local food?
Is it important to you to buy from farmer’s markets, and does the info on emissions change anything for you?
If you have been eating locally grown meat, dairy or eggs, does that info change anything for you?
I’m so curious to hear what you think! Leave me a comment below with your thoughts.