The Rest of the Story

Reader Contribution by Staff

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the ‘eat local’ movement, which centers around the premise that food from local producers is fresher, boosts local economies, and most importantly, completes the cycle of farm-to-fork without wasting massive amounts of fuel in transport. This makes a lot of sense to me, so I was surprised and disappointed to see an op-ed in The New York Times by James McWilliams, author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, in which he cited a study that challenged the theory.

How could cutting out the transportation factor not reduce fossil fuel consumption? According to McWilliams, considering a producer’s externalities, such as water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer and chemical use, renewable energy offsets and others, makes a product’s ‘food miles’ an inaccurate representation of its environmental impact. The study (conducted by New Zealand’s Lincoln University) found that residents of Great Britain would promote greater carbon dioxide emissions by purchasing locally raised lamb instead of lamb shipped across the ocean from New Zealand. The reason was that New Zealanders raise their animals on pasture, and the British rely on the use of feed.

Could it be that I’m wrong?  I’m willing to consider the possibility. McWilliams says that, ‘As concerned consumers and environmentalists, we must be prepared to seriously entertain these questions. We also must be prepared to accept that buying local is not necessarily beneficial for the environment.’

But wait. New Zealand is a tiny country. I had the opportunity to visit last year, and it is indeed forward-thinking in its agriculture policy. Nonetheless, New Zealand’s ag industry is dependent on exports, and a successful worldwide eat-local campaign is not something they’re likely to support. I was happy to see that my favorite Grist columnist Tom Philpott had the exact same thought:

‘But pasture-based organic U.K. lamb exists and is available. Wouldn’t buying that be the greener option for U.K. consumers? The study doesn’t comment on this option — perhaps because, as Small-Mart Revolution author Michael Shuman points out, its authors are funded by New Zealand agribusiness interests that rely on export markets.’ Philpott goes on to make many excellent points in his column.

I live in Kansas. I suppose if, in the interest of buying locally, I traveled a short distance to a feedlot for some steak, it is true that I would not be making a sustainable choice. Furthermore, it’s doubtful to me that any local-food advocate is buying from large, input-intensive, commercial scale farms. It’s not difficult to see how your local producers do business — I’m sure they’d be glad to show you around if you’d like.

So for now, I’ll continue with my plans to visit the farmers market tomorrow morning.