Eating locally features many benefits, but is more complex than just a slogan.
Yesterday, I met with a close friend. He’s a great conversationalist and consistently inspires quality philosophical discussions. This chat was no different. He was in the market for some convincing evidence on the value of eating locally; a fair question, given the media propaganda we’re surrounded by. We’ve been told that eating locally reduces our energy impact on the world around us. From the Huffington Post:
A growing number of studies, including one recently published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, suggest that our food production and distribution systems are incredibly complex, making it increasingly difficult to rely on bumper-sticker solutions.
I truly dig the push to not take food movements (or anything related to how we spend money) at face value. We are a nation of trend followers at best, sheep at worst, and we must be consistently mindful of the incentive of the messenger.
That said, and to keep this concept simple, it’s difficult to make an argument that walking next door to your neighbor’s house to their chicken coop to grab some eggs is inferior to driving 5 miles to Whole Foods or Vons and buying even the highest quality eggs. This is not a complex environmental math equation. Our drive pales in comparison to the trip the truck driver might take to get the food to your supermarket. From Clemson University:
On average, most food travels over 1,500 miles before it reaches our plates. These are called food miles. That distance obviously has a negative impact on the environment. Transportation costs (by truck, rail, or air) must be added to the price each of us pays. The transporting vehicle burns fossil fuels that pollute the environment. Often, packaging is heavier to protect contents traveling great distances. And preservatives may be applied to maintain freshness. All of these things have a negative impact on the environment.
While this is true, there are far too many variables to consider to make this a black and white discussion. Eating a locally grown tomato in February southern California is drastically different proposition than eating a tomato “locally” grown in a hothouse in New York. The energy required to produce foods where they don’t naturally grow is a significantly higher cost than the energy required to transport those foods, even over long distances. If your dietary habits stay the same, eating local foods doesn’t benefit the environment.
There is, of course, another potential benefit to eating locally. Locally sourced food has a shorter time between harvest and your meal. Subsequently, the nutrient value is less likely to have decreased. Food imported from across states (and countries) is older, has traveled long distances and often sits in distribution centers before arriving at the doorstep of your vendor.
We can take much of the guesswork out of this conversation. Instead of blindly following a rule about only eating food from within (x) miles of your house, commit to eating mindfully, locally and seasonally. Go truly local whenever possible. We can grow our own produce and hunt or raise our animal flesh. We can befriend others committed to these practices and cut a deal. The closer we can get to that ideal, the healthier our environment and we will be.