I care about food and the food system a great deal so what I’m about to say is going to be considered heresy amongst most people who share those values. Bear with me.
Interestingly, I find that most “locavores” cite environmental benefits as the number one reason to eat local. There are many good reasons to care about your food and to buy local food, but to do so for environmental reasons is harmless at best and harmful at worst.
Do you make your own clothes? Of course you don’t, what a silly question. The reason is simple: the global division of labor allows for clothing to be produced more efficiently by people who specialize in and invest in producing clothing. The same applies for food. In other words, farmers are more efficient at growing food than you are both comparatively and absolutely.
The cost of fuel used to move food from California to Colorado pales in comparison to the inefficiency (and environmental damage) that would come from all of us trying to grow and hunt all our own food. As Russ Roberts at Cafe Hayek is fond of saying, “self-sufficiency is the road to poverty”. In his book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley also notes that it is fashionable to decry ‘food miles’ these days; however, these claims are grounded in emotion rather than logic.
Two economists recently concluded, after studying the issue, that the entire concept of food miles is ‘a profoundly flawed sustainability indicator’. Getting food from the farmer to the shop causes just 4 percent of all its lifetime emissions. Ten times as much carbon is emitted in refrigerating British food as in air-freighting it from abroad, and fifty times as much is emitted by the customer traveling to the shops.
Local food can be fresher, tastier, healthier, and it can help build strong communities, but the bottom line is that it doesn’t do much for the environment. This, however, is not an excuse for the industrial food system to be the way it is, but that’s a separate issue.
According to this article in Fast Company, “Food Miles Debunked”, “All the shipping of inputs to the farm, crops to the factory, and foods to the store contributes just 29% of your typical meal’s transportation footprint. The remaining lion’s share of emissions comes from your own driving to stores and restaurants.”
The bottom line is that eating local can actually be worse for the environment. As I mentioned earlier, I contend that there are still many good reasons to eat local and I still think it’s fair to condemn the industrial food system. However, if it’s the environment you care about, then riding your bike or walking to the grocery store should be higher priorities than eating locally sourced food.
Protect the environment: eat global!