Does eating local matter?
As a farmer, I have a hard time shopping for groceries in the winter. Sorting through bunches of kale and tomatoes shipped in from who knows where, I’m nostalgic for the heirloom varietals I fought mosquitoes, hail, and 100 degree days to grow during the Colorado summer. During peak growing season I almost exclusively eat what I grow. In the winter I’m left with way too many decisions on how best to spend my food dollars.
I’m an urban farmer and just about everyone who buys our vegetables lives within 20 miles of the farm. I’m also someone who cares deeply about climate change and try to eat as carbon-light as possible. So it has been comforting to know that most of the food I eat—in the summer anyway—doesn’t have to travel far.
But what about during the off-season? Should I concentrate on buying the onions under a Colorado Proud sign or jar of hot sauce with a Made in Boulder label? The answer is yes, no, and it depends.
the environmental impact of my local hot sauce
When measuring the environmental impact of your local hot sauce or onions it turns out that what you eat and how it’s grown typically matters more than where it’s grown—by a lot. Colorado Proud signs aside, much of the food in grocery stories travels a long way to get to us—about 1,000 miles in delivery and 4,000 miles across the supply chain, according to a study in The Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.
Even so, 83 percent of the average US household’s food carbon footprint comes from growth and production, while transportation costs account for only 6 percent to 11 percent of agriculture’s climate footprint.
This means that if you’re eating foods that generated lots of global greenhouse gases (GHG) in the course of being produced, such as beef, cheese, and pork, your impact on the environment is much greater than if you were to replace meat and dairy products with vegetables, regardless where they were grown.
Here’s another way to look at it: Replacing everything in your diet with all locally grown food for one year could save the GHG equivalent of driving 1,000 miles, while eating a single meatless meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles, according to a study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University.
Here’s another reason to rethink the value of “buying local”: the label has no official meaning. “Locally grown” is commonly considered food grown within 100 miles of where it was produced. But the definition isn’t standardized or overseen by any regulatory agency. If you’re at the grocery store, for instance, “local” can simply indicate the product was grown or raised within state lines.
In the meantime, even doing as little as replacing one day’s worth of red meat and dairy products with chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves a greater reduction in greenhouse gases than buying all locally sourced food.
Does eating local matter?
So do I just ignore those “local” signs the next time I’m buying groceries? Does it even matter where my food is grown?
As I write this, it’s mid-June. It has finally stopped snowing in Colorado (I hope) and my refrigerator is overflowing with greens—Swiss chard, head lettuce, collard greens, and lots and lots of kale. My garden is thriving, and so are the stands at the multitude of farmers markets in the area.
I’m going to continue to support other small farmers. For one thing, I know that most live nearby. But I also believe their work, our work, helps build a stronger community. I live for the interactions we have with our customers, like the mom who told me her kids have been asking all winter for our bok choy, and the woman who shook my hand and said, “you’re awesome!” when I told her that any green can work in a pesto recipe. I’ve introduced many people who had no idea they lived so close to each other, and immediately strike up conversations about all the greens in their CSA box (“how do you cook them?”) or agree to swap recipes. Growing organic food can feel like a privilege because it truly can bring people together.
4 TIPS FOR CURBING YOUR CARBON FOOD-PRINT:
1. Cut back on beef and dairy, or just get rid of it entirely. Rather than buying locally raised beef, an even better choice for the planet is to replace it with plant-based foods, or even chicken, which produce significantly fewer carbon emissions. Carbon emissions from the production of chicken and other poultry is five times less that of beef. At the end of the day, plant-based anything universally trumps locally grown food when it comes to global greenhouse gases.
2. Support your local farmer. Shop at the farmers market, or join a CSA. What’s a CSA? A Community Supported Agriculture program. Shareholders typically pay the farm a lump sum and, in return, receive a weekly bounty of produce throughout the growing season. Being a member is a great way to support your local food economy and meet your neighbors. A membership also makes it more likely you’ll eat your greens!
3. Plant a garden. Tending your own garden can be an inexpensive way to grow and eat what you want. Find out if there’s a community garden in your area. Acadia Tucker has produced two-in-one gardening books for environmentalists; she spells out in both books how to grow food in a way that helps reverse global warming. Check them out.
4. Eat organically when you can. The organic label has stricter standards than local, though it can be problematic as well, especially as applied to animal products. So look beyond the “organic” buzzword and try to find products that have been officially certified, such as Regenerative Organic Certified or California Certified Organic Farmers. Consumer Reports Greener Choices offers an excellent guide to navigating food labels. Environmental Working Group produces a list each year that identifies the “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” to help consumers understand which varieties of fruits and vegetables are likely to have been grown using pesticides.
TAKEAWAY: Eating local is important in terms of fostering community and can help cut transportation fumes. But the environmental impact of shifting to a more plant-based diet is significantly greater.
Katie Ketchum is a Stone Pier Press News Fellow based in Denver, Colorado.