Buying “local” food is a fast-growing trend in the United States. Farmers’ markets are cropping up across the country and consumers are beginning to demand that grocery stores carry local produce and products. There’s even a term for those who seek out locally-grown foods: “locavores.”
“The average item of food in America has traveled 1500 miles from the farm to your plate,” said Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma, in a video clip from the PBS special, Nourish. “It’s burned up an incredible amount of fossil fuel just to get there.”
So it stands to reason that buying food that doesn’t have to travel far (i.e. local food), is better for the environment, right?
“For the consumer to understand how much energy goes into their food, I think all they have to understand is if it’s local, it’s less,” said Pollan.
Not necessarily, according to Sharon Collinge, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“The scientific literature reports that transportation of food from where it is produced to where it is consumed (“food miles”) represents a relatively minor contribution to overall greenhouse gas emissions of food production,” she said.
In a 2008 study published in Environmental Science & Technology, researchers concluded that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83 percent of the average U.S. household’s annual C02 footprint for food consumption, compared to only 11 percent for transportation of food.
“In other words, the most energy-intensive phase of the food life cycle is the production phase — the cultivation and harvest of crops, or the production of meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals,” said Collinge.
The researchers concluded that “shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG [greenhouse gas] reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”
So while “food miles” certainly aren’t inconsequential, diet changes, especially away from red meat and dairy, are much more effective at reducing your diet’s carbon footprint.
But there are still plenty of other benefits to buying local.
“Buying local allows consumers to support local farmers and strengthen local economies. It allows for greater knowledge of how food is produced and usually, but not always, will result in more environmentally-friendly production practices,” said Collinge. “And when production practices are similar between two locations, buying the locally-produced item will result in lower CO2 emissions.”
While “locavores” intentions are certainly good, a food product is not necessarily better for the environment just because it’s “local.” Unless, of course, they’re vegan “locavores.”