Eat Local If You Want, But Not For Climate Reasons

Food & Drink

A new year is when many people pledge to improve their diets – whether to better their own health or the planet’s.

One aspect of our diets where we can generally give ourselves a break is how far our food has traveled from the point of production. These food miles make up only 5% of the overall greenhouse gas emissions of food, and even less for carbon-intensive foods. While recent research has suggested that scientists have been undercounting these transport emissions, most people view food miles as the distance from producer to consumer. When calculating these food miles, the transport emissions of food are trivial.

One reason is that how food is produced has a much bigger impact than how it’s transported. Growing seasonal produce under the sun and then exporting it generally results in much lower emissions than growing it domestically in energy-guzzling greenhouses.

And what’s being produced is essential. Beef is always going to be more environmentally damaging than just about all other foods, regardless of where it comes from. Local meat is generally more carbon intensive than plant-based food shipped around the world.

When it comes to transport, it’s not just the distance that matters, but the mode of transport. Air freighting is high in emissions, but only 0.16% of food is air-freighted. The majority of food shipped internationally comes by sea.

So why does the food miles myth persist? It’s one of the most tenacious fallacies when it comes to the environment. In a Purdue University consumer analysis in October 2022, the majority of people surveyed believed that local food is better for the environment. As the report counters, “These beliefs, however, do not appear to be motivated by better information, as a statement like local food is better for the environment is largely unfounded while the idea that eating less meat is better for the environment has significant scientific grounding.”

“This idea is pervasive,” believes Nicholas Carter, an ecologist who co-founded Plant Based Data. He continues to hear the food miles myth from ordinary people as well as climate scientists. It’s rooted in a combination of not understanding where food’s environmental components come from, plus the psychological aspects of buying local.

On the one hand, the world is awash in claims about health and environment, and it can be easy to long for simple, intuitive answers that give you a feeling of control. “There’s a lot of fear around food insecurity. There’s a lot of fear about things coming from outside your country,” Carter acknowledges. “But the reality is that we live in a global food system. And to then shift to produce certain things locally at 10 or 20 times more environmental impact, that doesn’t make sense.”

Carter refers to the feelgood effect of “locavore romanticism.” Meanwhile, Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, refers to the halo effect of buying local. The perceived quality of local food in one dimension can trick people into thinking that it’s superior in other ways too.

There are clearly other benefits to buying food produced nearby, like supporting local economies and strengthening communities. Vegetables from a neighborhood garden are both low-emissions and local.

Yet the buy-local mantra risks ignoring other kinds of communities. Buying from distant areas can be even more of a lifeline for low-income farmers. This idea led to the development of a now little-discussed concept: fair miles rather than food miles. That is, accounting for sustainable development in producer areas, rather than single-mindedly focusing on the distance that food travels, is ultimately better for both people and the planet.

And benefits in terms of local community strengthening don’t necessarily translate to environmental benefits. Carter understands the yearning for strong local economies. “As long as we understand that this is not an environmental solution, then we can address the other community and economic aspects” in more efficient ways, he proposes.

As for improving the environmental efficiency of our diets, the emphasis on food miles can be harmful. Carter believes that buying from local butchers or farms allows people to feel better about eating meat. “The whole buy-local movement is…a last-ditch effort to prop up animal farming.”

The unscientific popularity of the food miles movement is a reminder that there’s just no way around it: a diet that’s kinder to the planet has to involve cutting down on meat.

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