Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Are We Too Locavoracious?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

If you open the latest Merriam-Webster's Collegiate dictionary, (or use it online) you'll now find an entry for "locavore". The New Oxford American Dictionary made it the "word of the year" way back in 2007, so no kudos for the Websterites...they're bit late to the party. In any case, Webster defines it as "one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible."

But the bigger question is why? The three reasons I hear come up most often are:
  • it helps the environment,
  • it's healthier and fresher, and
  • it supports small farmers in your area.
I'm all for fresh and healthy food and supporting local farmers, and the locavore movement is also a statement against the many negative aspects of the global corporate food system. (Having recently seen Food Inc, these negative aspects in particular are fresh in my mind.)

But when it comes to helping the environment, local is not always better. "Food miles" aren't typically the largest component of the carbon footprint of a product. One Carnegie Mellon study put the transportation piece in the 5-10% range on average. Our own in-depth study of beer put transportation in the 3-4% range, jumping to 10% if your product is shipped cross-country (intermodal). Significant, but the use of recycled glass, organic grain, and green energy all have a potentially larger impact.

Another study from New Zealand found that New Zealand pasture grazing lamb was 4 times less carbon intensive than feed lot lamb. Not only does this negate the food miles, personally I would rather buy pasture raised meat from overseas over that from a local high density feed lot. Similarly, a local non-organic source may not be 'better' than an organic alternative from farther away, and a locally grown hothouse tomato may use a lot more energy than an outdoor tomato from another state.

One local supermarket chain in my area is advertising their produce section as an "indoor farmer's market" (yikes!), and "all natural" seems to be the most misleading adjective of the decade. We need to look beyond marketing claims, and try to really understand where our food comes from, and how it's produced. As one of the Carnegie Mellon scientists pointed out "for the average consumer, buying local is not as important as what you eat."

Photo: Creative commons license - copyright swanksalot at

No comments:

Post a Comment