Are Local Food Sources Better?

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locavore Perhaps this seems obvious to many of you but the debate does rage on. The controversy as I see it boils down to one specific reason frequently offered for why local is better. The argument is that local is better because the food you are buying travels fewer miles to reach your table and thus has a smaller carbon footprint. If you read through some of my past posts on this issue, you can see that I have objected to the validity of this supposed benefit of right from the first time I saw it stated in print. There may be 100 reasons why local food is often your best choice; unfortunately a lower carbon footprint is not always one of them. Yet, the carbon footprint argument is the one you see offered by 99.9 percent of the people pleading the local food cause.

Well now a new book by James McWilliams, a professor at Texas State University, addresses this issue head on. I have read part of this book and heard the author interviewed twice. Although I don’t agree with many of his opinions, a substantial part of his argument about food miles is exactly what I have been telling people for a couple of years.  Local does not always mean less oil is consumed to bring food to your table.  Sometimes it uses less fuel to bring 20.000 pounds of broccoli by train from southern California to Massachusetts than it does to bring in that same amount by truck from 30 local farms.  That does not mean that the factory farmed broccoli by train is the best or greenest choice.  It just means if you rely solely on the food miles hypothesis, (as most people do), you will often lose the argument for the advantages of buying food locally.

If you are interested, you can read part of the first chapter of his book at this link.  There are also many rebuttals to his book online.  A strongly worded one is here, and another is here.  The second link by Susan Wittig Albert is a very well written article, but you will notice in her paragraph titled “The first elephant” she falls into the fossil fuel depletion trap of the local food discussion.  Keep reading her article, though, as in the very next paragraph she gets the genetically modified food dilemma exactly right.

Sometimes local food uses more fuel getting to market than the same amount of food brought in from a long distance away.  Heresy to some I know, but a reality none the less.   As long as us advocates of localizing our food sources continue to rely solely on the food miles argument we will be seen as uninformed zealots, unwilling to concede that local does not always equate to a smaller carbon footprint.  But when a local food choice is available, it is always the best choice for a number of other reasons.

So visit your local farmers market, roadside farm stand, or food co-op and buy local as much as you can.   Consider altering your food choices when certain things are not available locally.  For example, peaches are in season here right now and I am eating several a day.  But once they are gone, I will choose other fruit until next summer.  I will not be buying peaches flown in from another part of the world.  On the other hand, I do buy broccoli year round, even thought it is trucked north from California 10 months of the year.  Be reasonable, make informed choices, do what you can to improve both the health and the greenness of your diet and you are doing your part.  Don’t fret every last detail and don’t take every opinion you come across, (including mine), to heart.  What works for me may not work for you…. just be sure you are doing what you can.

In closing let me say that  local food is definitely the better choice when available.  Non-genetically modified vegetables are a better choice all the time for most, but maybe not all, of the world. Organic is indeed better for you and the earth, (regardless of what Mr. McWilliams seems to think).  Grass fed beef and dairy products are better for you and taste better than grain fed beef and dairy.  But in trying to influence people to make these choices we need to remember that, not everyone can afford the better choice all the time and in some places and at some times of the year, all the produce we need to keep our diets healthy is coming from somewhere other than a local farmer.

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Will Sig
1 Steve

Hi Will,
As usual, you see both sides of the issue!
I’m glad you’re helping support our California economy with your broccoli purchases (my favorite veggie). We need all the help we can get!
With beer, most of what I buy (when I do) is from Firestone, a local brewery that is only about 100 miles away. I suppose I could brew my own, but I tried it once long ago, and it is just too much work (and I don’t need the calories). It pains me to see how popular imported beer (and bottled water) is, but that no one mentions the fuel burned shipping it.
Anyway, keep eating broccoli! ~ Steve, the broccoli-loving trade show guru
.-= Steve´s last blog ..Zombie Boot Camp =-.

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2 Will

I have not heard of Firestone beer but I looked them up and it seems like they have some great brews available. I am always trying various micro brewery beers and it seems the selection just keeps growing.

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3 Dennis the Vizsla

We try to buy locally when we can mainly because the fruits, vegetables, and honey taste better when they haven’t had to travel. Our friend recently came back from a farmers’ market with baseball-sized figs that were the best we’ve ever had, and almost every year we head out into eastern San Diego County to buy buckets of persimmons from the orchard (an entire bucket there costs about as much as five individual fruits in the supermarket).

We’re fortunate in that we have lots of agriculture here with a long growing season, but on the other hand, pretty much all the water that goes into producing these crops is imported from far away or diverted from the Colorado River. So, environmentally, I doubt we’re doing the world any favors by just living here, let alone by growing all the crops they do in what would otherwise be semi-arid or desert terrain.
.-= Dennis the Vizsla´s last blog ..Overheard Around The House =-.

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4 Will

Hi Dennis – Yes you are correct about the water. But “baseball sized figs” and “buckets of persimmons”. Amazing!!!

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5 Stephen Settle

I love the street food in INDIA, Spices used there are awesome in taste.

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6 Lucas

It’s nice to see somebody make such a layed out argument for BOTH sides of this issue. I have friends that refuse to buy any produce from farmers markets, yet prefer to buy it from the grocery store, despite that it was flown in from New Zealand.

My argument for buying local foods has always been, it’s usually fresher and tastes better. And mainly, I like to keep my money in my local economy and support the smaller farmers that work their butts off. For me, personally, that’s much more rewarding than anything else. Maybe because my grandpa was a farmer and I know how hard he worked.
.-= Lucas´s last blog ..The Health Benefits of Oregano Oil =-.

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7 Will

Lucas – That is the way to go and for all the right reasons too!

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8 thinkgreen

I think that depends on which country or city you are from. In our case there’s no train available to transport food. Local food is still the best option.

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