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Is Buying Local the Best Way to Go on a Carbon Diet?

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Is Buying Local the Best Way to Go on a Carbon Diet?

By TreeHugger

This guest post is an excerpt from Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, written by the Union of Concerned Scientists and published by Island Press. Find out more at

If the verdict is still out on organic food, what about food produced locally? Can we reduce our carbon emissions by buying local food? Are “food miles”—the miles traveled by our dinner from farm to table—a good measure of global warming impact?

At first glance, it sounds as if local must be better. If the choice is between identical food identically grown nearby or far away, local food is certainly the clear winner because it entails fewer transportation emissions. But suppose the local food is produced on a farm with higher emissions; how does that compare with the savings in transportation? In northern states, for instance, is it better to buy tomatoes grown in local, heated greenhouses or those grown in open-air fields hundreds of miles away?

Read More: 5 Online Sources for Local, Organic Food Delivery

To answer this question, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University studied food miles and the emissions resulting from U.S. food purchases. They calculated the total transportation requirements—and transportation emissions—of food production, not just delivery of food from farm to retail but also delivery of fertilizer, equipment, and other inputs to the farm.

Their results show that transportation accounts for only 11 percent of the carbon emissions caused by food production. Of that amount, so-called upstream transportation of inputs to the farm (or to farm suppliers) accounts for some seven percent of overall food-related transportation emissions. Most notably, perhaps, final delivery—the trip from the farm to the supermarket—accounts for just 4 percent of total food emissions on average. By comparison, production of the food accounts for 83 percent of the carbon emissions, with warehousing and wholesale and retail operations making up the small remainder.

What does this mean for you? The emissions from producing food are so much greater than those from transporting it that transportation makes up only a tiny part of your carbon “foodprint.” Even if local food eliminated all the emissions from transportation, long-distance food produced on a farm with 5 percent lower emissions might actually contribute less to global warming.

Read More: Misunderstanding Food Miles

Next: the important factors that determine a farm’s footprint

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8:24AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Love to grow my own on my small balcony, get produce from local farmer's market when the weather allows. Fresh is much more tastier!

10:32AM PDT on Jun 27, 2012

Nice article.

4:30PM PDT on Jun 24, 2012

local is definitely better!

7:11AM PDT on Jun 24, 2012

Thank you for sharing.

8:59PM PDT on Jun 23, 2012


10:35AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Grow your own! Raised bed gardening is the way to go. Naturalyards prod. is great!

10:35AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Grow your own! Raised bed gardening is the way to go. Naturalyards prod. is great!

9:29AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012


4:57AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

Complicated. At least when you buy from a local farmer, you can ask what their growing methods are. In addition, you are not supporting Walmart or similar giant factories. I wish products were required to be labeled with the total carbon footprint from raw material production to end of functionality and decomposition. That would make my life and my choices much easier.

7:33PM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

Great comments and interesting article! I think the point someone made about buying what's in season is very important to the size of the carbon footprint!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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