Homegrown Confusion: the Local Food Backlash

By Adam Brock

There’s no doubt about it – the local food revolution is kicking into high gear. Yet even as farmer’s markets and CSAs sprout across the country like the the veggies they’re selling, a number of environmentalists have begun to question the “closer is better” mantra. The controversy began with a study released last year by New Zealand’s Lincoln University, which heretically claimed that meat and dairy grown in New Zealand and shipped to Europe had a smaller environmental impact than the same products grown locally. Skeptical at first, many greens soon began to come around to the study’s main point: inputs like fertilizer, water, and animal feed often contribute far more to a food’s footprint than its transport. When these are factored in, it turns out that, in certain cases, it’s better for the environment to buy food from far away than the same food grown locally.

What’s going on here? Does this mean that the 100 mile diet just a trendy conceit, and we can go back to those juicy Trader Joe’s mangoes? Not quite. For the most part, local is still better – but it’s only one of a plethora of factors that determine a food’s environmental impact. How important it is to buy local also depends greatly on what kind of food you’re considering: non-local dry goods (grains, nuts and the like) have a much lower transportation footprint than fruits and vegetables, because they don’t spoil as quickly and therefore don’t need to be air-freighted. Animal products, of course, have the largest impact of all – especially if they were raised on cultivated fodder, which has a considerable footprint in its own right.

Local food, especially produce, is still by and large a much better choice for your health, your tastebuds, and the environment. But if the food you’re fond of requires massive inputs of energy to be grown locally, it might be wiser to buy it imported from a place where it thrives naturally. To that end, many greens have begun to conceptualize how we might lessen the impact of the foods we do end up importing. An op-ed recapping the controversy in Monday’s New York Times suggests that we focus on building an efficient, hybrid-powered transit infrastructure. Alex Steffen has posited transnational CSAs, which would bypass the conventional system and establish trade links between local food retailers and distant small farms. Finally, Feral Trade takes the decentralization concept a step farther, utilizing the power of social networks to conduct trade on a person-by-person, item-by-item basis.

It’s possible that, one day, we’ll be able to enjoy fair-trade organic bananas from Central America without incurring any green guilt. Still, we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that the amount of exotic food we’re accustomed to eating today can ever be sustainable. In the post-fossil-fuel era, faraway foodstuffs will be treated as specialties, the way they’ve historically been treated for milennia. In their place, we will find ourselves rediscovering a plethora of foods, both native and exotic, that grow well wherever we happen to live – and enjoy a bounty far more rewarding than anything that comes in a package.

Does eating local lower your footprint? Usually, though not always. Does it make your diet more nutritious and tasty? Without a doubt. But ultimately, local food is about much more than freshness and food miles – it’s a way of reconnecting ourselves with the systems, both natural and social, in which we live.

Photo credit: Flickr

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