David Langford/AP

Local Food Not as Environmentally Friendly as Once Thought

March 19, 2009 03:20 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Research suggests that food produced locally may leave as large a carbon footprint as food created on an industrialized farm.

Adding Up the Food Miles

Eating locally may not be as environmentally friendly as leaders of the locavore movement had previously thought.

Local eating has been touted as the next wave in sustainable living. Although no exact definition of “local” exists, proponents of the local food movement, such as Local Harvest, generally believe that produce should travel no more than 100 to 200 miles from its original source.

The carbon footprint of local food, which requires little transportation, is believed by many to be smaller than that produced by large-scale industrial farming, which ships edibles thousands of miles.

But new evidence suggests that hidden carbon costs may significantly increase the environmental impact of local food production and distribution. “Local food systems are often built around small-scale logistics,” says Chris Foster, a food researcher. “You begin to make more trips in cars. More food is shifted around in small trucks and vans, which are relatively energy-inefficient ways of moving.”

Roberta Kwok at Salon.com examined the carbon footprint of her local farmers market, attempting to determine how much greenhouse gas was emitted in the transportation of four foods by both local and industrial-scale farmers. According to Kwok, “Local farmers [proved] more carbon-friendly on squash. … But wholesalers beat local farmers on the four other produce items, boasting fewer average carbon dioxide emissions per pound of apples, oranges, lettuce and greens.”

According to a New York Times piece published in 2006, “There are many good reasons for eating local—freshness, purity, taste, community cohesion and preserving open space—but none of these benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces fossil fuel consumption.”

But the Times emphasized that the environmental impact of farming cannot be measured without taking into account all factors of production, including “water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications,” and much more. Deforestation caused by an increasing number of local farms can also damage the environment.

Nevertheless, there are clear positive aspects to local eating, such as the quality of food produced and the economic boost to the community. One food blogger writes, "Eating local protects us from bio-terrorism.”

Moreover, researchers have not fully determined all of the variables involved in measuring the environmental impact of food production on both a local and industrial scale. Food researcher Holly Hill noted, “There are so many complexities. Trying to make those real exact calculations is nearly impossible.”

Whatever its ultimate environmental impact, it's clear that local farming is becoming more popular. A recent census report showed an increase in small organic farms.

Background: The hidden carbon costs of local food and farming

In the green era, farming is becoming popular again. But it's not always the answer to a more sustainable lifestyle. On a case-by-case basis, it’s not entirely clear that farm existence yields a smaller carbon footprint—or a higher quality of life.

Opinions & Analysis: The global picture of local food

According to researchers in Europe and the United States who attempt to account for all the resources required to produce food, including fertilizer, fuel, greenhouse building materials and heating, cooling and packaging equipment, “‘local’ is not the best way to think about food and energy, or the best basis for food-buying decisions.” The Boston Globe notes that “Judged by unit of weight, ship and rail transport in particular are highly energy efficient.” Thus, large-scale farm transport can cause less environmental damage per item than small, independent trucks

In his opinion piece, “Is eating locally a crock?” Jacob Grier recognizes that, despite some “farfetched” claims made by local food proponents, local eating may “connect the buyer to a community, put him in touch with seasonality, introduce him to less common cultivars, [and] make him feel better about his environmental impact (though local isn't always better).”

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have received a grant to study the public health impact of local eating. Although there’s no solid evidence that local food has a higher nutritional value, eating locally may prompt people to eat a greater variety of foods, and keeps processed foods off their plates.

Related Topics: Is organic farming a rotten idea?

India's farmers are shying away from modern methods, but critics doubt organic farming's helpfulness and say food shortages necessitate use of technology to increase yield.

Only a tiny fraction—5 percent—of Indian farmers have gone organic, according to US News & World Report. But even modest growth in the sector could have a huge impact on the country’s agricultural industry, at a time of heightened concern over the world’s food supply.

Reference: 100 Mile Diet

The 100-Mile Diet is an initiative to get people across North America to commit to eating food produced within a 100-mile radius. The 100-Mile Diet Web site shows you how to get started with the challenge, allows you to tell your story and helps you track others on the diet.

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