One of the hot issues in food shopping these days is locally grown food. According to the strict definition, a “locavore” is one who eats only food grown within a radius of 100 miles. That’s the so-called 100-mile diet: make sure that everything you eat is grown within that distance from your home. Proponents of this plan say that locally grown produce is not only tastier but also more nutritious. You will be supporting your local farmers, your local economy, and your community. By saving the cost of long-distance transport, you will save fossil fuel and reduce the carbon footprint of the food you eat—that is, the amount of greenhouse gases put in the air by producing, harvesting, processing, and transporting the food. How true is all this? The answers are not always clear.
Taste and nutrition
Locally grown fruits and vegetables picked just before you eat them will almost certainly taste better than those picked before they are ripe and shipped two thousand miles (tomatoes and corn come to mind). Still, not everybody lives close to a farm or even a farmer’s market. And if you buy only local foods, variety will be limited most of the year. If produce in the store is fresh and in good condition, it will be rich in nutrients and will taste good, wherever it was grown. Frozen and even canned fruits and vegetables are nutritious, too. They are convenient—a boon for cooks who have to get a meal on the table after a day’s work. It is not true, as some locavores claim, that frozen or canned fruits and vegetables are worthless.
Carbon footprints and greenhouse gases
You may hear you’re helping to save the planet by shopping at your local farm stand, but this issue quickly gets complicated. Not all farm stands are right on the farm. Many local farms sell at food co-ops that are not even near the farm. If large amounts of food are transported in big trucks or planes, how does that compare with smaller amounts in many small trucks? Researchers are now trying to calculate the carbon emissions per food item: what’s the energy cost of growing, fertilizing, planting, cultivating, harvesting, refrigerating, and transporting a given item? They come up with many numbers, and it’s hard to know what these add up to.
A study done in New Zealand in 2006, for instance, found that meat, dairy, and other foods produced there were grown and processed so much more cleanly and efficiently than British products that they were less polluting, even allowing for air transport to Britain. And a recent British study concluded that transporting foods home in private cars accounted for more environmental damage overall than shipping food by planes. This subject is full of surprises. Any crop grown anywhere by any method produces some ecological change. This has been true since humans became dependent on agriculture and animal husbandry.
It is thus arguable how much greenhouse gas emissions you save by being a locavore.
Organic or not organic?
Local produce may or may not be organic, but it is less likely to be USDA-certified organic. It’s expensive and time-consuming to qualify for USDA certification, and small farmers are less likely to apply for it than larger operations, though they may still be using organic practices. In any event, there is no clear evidence that organically grown produce is more nutritious or safer than its conventionally grown counterparts. Organic methods do have advantages for the grower and the environment. You can ask at the farm stand about how the food was grown.
Seasonality, imported foods, and variety
Some locavores follow the 100-mile diet year round, but unless they live in southern California, Texas, or Florida, strict locavores would have to give up lemons, oranges, and other good foods. Most fish would be off the menu. Goodbye bananas, pineapples, and mangoes. Farewell chocolate, coffee, and tea. Like their great-grandparents, they would have far fewer food choices during the winter. Some now advocate canning and freezing locally grown foods at home—which is fine, if you have the time and know-how.
We don’t recommend such a return to the “good old days.” It’s true that our great-grandparents didn’t eat Twinkies and McDonald’s fries (though fried potatoes were indeed a staple), but the diet of a hundred years ago was usually quite limited and not necessarily nutritious. Many foods now regarded as unhealthy were common, and many were fried in chicken or pork fat. Food poisoning was common. It was hardly an eater’s paradise.
Words to the wise
It is a great idea to buy local produce when you can, and for many people it’s already second nature. Shopping at a farmer’s market is enjoyable, and the produce is likely to be fresh and tasty. Many supermarkets also sell local produce in season (it’s usually labeled as such). It’s fine to support your local farmer. But interstate sales of food are a major part of our economy, just as producing food for export is important in many developing countries. You need not give up berries in January (though in summer local berries will taste better) or go without tropical fruits year round.
One sure way to cut carbon emissions while improving your health: Eat less red meat. Beef is the most environmentally expensive food of all. According to a recent article in Scientific American, “producing the annual beef diet of the average American emits as much greenhouse gas as a car driving more than 1,800 miles.” Moreover, the study showed that people who eat the most red meat are one-third more likely to die prematurely than those eating little or no red meat, and many other studies have had similar findings.
For information about Community Supported Agriculture, please consult the USDA National Agricultural Library: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml. You can find out how to become a “shareholder” in a farm in your area, so that you can buy directly from a farmer. You’ll also find links to information about sustainable practices in farming and advice on eating seasonally and regionally.