A Bit Too “Locavoracious”

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 copyright swanksalot at flickr.com.


LMj Sunshine

Good info and article, thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Good info and article, thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Good info and article, thank you.

P H.
P H7 years ago

Sir Walk,

You have made very good and valid points. I agree.

Pamela K.
Pamela K7 years ago

I am replying to Sir Walk F.--I think the point of the article is exactly that we need to look at how we define things like "local", "natural", etc. MOST of the time, locally grown products will be better and better for you and the environment BUT not necessarily if you live near a feedlot, factory farm or other industrial form of agriculture. Large producers can and do prey on people's ignorance when using terms such as "natural" , "locally grown", etc. to describe their products. THat said, SOME large agricultural producers are taking strides to improve their record.
I don't think the article said anything about "local" not being better--we just need to know exactly what we mean by that and that it is not the ONLY criteria to look for. Also, don't believe all the advertizing hype--check out the food source (even some Farmer's Markets allow vendors to bring food in from elsewhere).

James D.
James D7 years ago

Thank you, Sir Walk F.! Well stated and much more to the point, in long or short terms.

Sir Walk F.
Sir Walk F7 years ago

(Cont from below):

It will not be much longer (a decade?) before we dont have the luxury of cheap petroleum that allows us to ship food thousands of miles or more, and we have a good opportunity now to shift our energy and resources into our local, bio-regional food production systems, so that we can have a strong, stable source of food for the future that doesnt require so many expensive outside inputs.

Sir Walk F.
Sir Walk F7 years ago

You make some valid points, but are only looking at the picture through a limited lens. I really have trouble understanding the 'anti-local' sentiment that has been popping up lately. Local is almost always better.

Many factors, obviously, come in to play when discussing what 'local' means. But one important factor isnt just the 'food miles' in play for the one particular purchase, but the fact that when you spend money outside your community, that money leaves your economy basically forever. Numerous studies have shown that buying local is MUCH more beneficial to your local community.

And when you are buying from local farms, you have the opportunity to engage with the farmer, and discuss your preferences for more 'organic' practices.

Of course, when you present a dichotomy between pasture-raised lamb from New Zealand and Factory-Farmed meat in the states, with no other factors, the impact of the carbon footprint involved in transportation becomes minimal by comparison. But there are far more option for just about anyone in the states than merely worst-case examples.

Visit your local farmers market and seek out the local sources. Trust me, the long-term gain will be worth it. You will begin a relationship with the people producing your food, you will be voting with your dollars, and those dollars will be 7 times more likely to stay in your community.