These days, your food may accrue more frequent flyer miles than you do. The distance food travels from farm to refrigerator can be as much as 2,000 miles and can encompass a variety of travel modes, from cargo freighters to trucks or airplanes. Many people find themselves hitching their appetites and hopes for a greener planet to the local food movement, assuming locally-farmed produce, meat and fish are fresher and have smaller carbon footprints than foods shipped from far away. But is this really the case? Locavores may think so, but the greening of food miles is only a small piece of the local food movement story.
The Myth of the Carbon Footprint
While there is no definitive consensus on what constitutes locally grown, locavores from San Francisco to South Hampton typically cite the 100-mile rule, thinking that anything transported from farther away automatically creates a larger carbon footprint, more pollution and greater damage to the environment. However, it’s not only how far you go but how you get there that counts. What’s often not taken into account is the mode of transport housing those tomatoes or strawberries. Unless local farmers en masse have signed an unknown pact to drive only fuel-efficient vehicles, they are probably producing just as much carbon dioxide on their short runs from farm to farm stand as the conventional distributors are when they drive cross country. Big rigs transport thousands of pounds of food at a time, which will grace at least that many tables. Locally grown produce may travel a shorter distance before it lands on your plate, but less food is being transported during any given trip. Local farmers, particularly those driving gas-guzzling pick-up trucks or SUVs, are producing more carbon dioxide per pound of food than the average food wholesaler does. And what about those fossil-fueled greenhouses? Buying produce grown outdoors in faraway, tropical climate may be a greener choice than opting for those grown indoors in nearby colder climates.
What About Those Pesky Chemicals?
While it is true that conventionally grown food typically relies on the use of pesticides and insecticides, many locavores assume that locally grown and organic are synonymous, yet that is not always the case. Many farmers and local food manufacturers rely upon some use of chemicals or additives in the foods they produce. In order for food to be labeled “organic,” government standards must be met. If food is not labeled as organic it probably isn’t, even if it was grown a mere 10 miles away. This is true for meat and eggs, too. Don’t assume the tender sirloin steak sold at the farmer’s market comes from grass-fed cows or that all brown eggs are from free-roaming chickens. Local does not always mean healthy, organic or cruelty-free.
Of course, you only want to serve your family the healthiest food possible. There is no dispute that freshly picked produce is vitamin packed and nutrient rich, but healthy food that goes uneaten does no one any good. It’s a rare toddler that begs their parents for sautéed kale or blueberry-infused goat cheese. Popular fruits such as bananas and pineapples typically make their way to thousands of American homes from tropical countries like Costa Rica and Guatemala. They may have traveled thousands of miles to get here, but these child friendly foods are popular for a reason – kids eat them. And what about those veggies? People forget that much of what we eat in the United States is grown here, yet not considered local. Take, for example, carrots. A harried working mom hitting the supermarket at the end of a busy day in Queens, New York may be reaching for carrots grown in Bakersfield, California, where around 85 percent of carrots eaten by American families are grown. They might not be local, but they are a great nutritional choice.
Who isn’t on a budget these days? Ask anyone who shops; healthy foods like organic arugula, wild salmon and honey crisp apples can be way more expensive than some other alternatives found right next to them on supermarket shelves. You have to feed your family and make wise nutritional choices, yet stay on track money wise. While no one would dispute the nutritional benefits found in freshly picked food, a steady diet of locally grown produce can become very expensive for the average family. Even those committed to buying local might wish to balance the cost of some favorites with conventionally grown produce in order to save a few bucks and stay on budget.
Can You Be a Citizen of the World and a Locavore too?
Were we all to go truly local, our tables (and palates) might miss the pleasures of Florida oranges, Maine lobster, Colombian coffee and other items grown in abundance elsewhere. While many argue that local food movements equal local jobs, remember that the United States not only supplies our own citizenry with most of the food we eat, but exports a considerable amount to other countries as well. If all people everywhere determined to embrace their own, local food movements, the American economy and jobs would suffer just as much as those in countries like Chile or Mexico. It’s great to have local pride, but the truth is, we’re all on this planet together.
Who knew eating could be this complicated? Whether your food choices represent a political manifesto or you are simply trying to eat healthy and not break the bank while doing it, what you eat and why is a personal choice. No matter your priorities, from saving money to saving the planet, do your homework before you reach for that next apple, no matter where it was grown.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.