Eating Local Means a Spectrum of Choices

by | Sep 1, 2011

In the past few years there appears to be growing interest in what has been termed the “localvore” movement. This seems to be a continuation of the earlier “buy local” initiative, in which consumers were encouraged to purchase their produce and other consumables from regional sources whenever possible. The most often cited benefits of this include healthier diet, better taste, and reduced energy consumption. Whether or not local foods are healthier is probably too complex an issue to get into here. And taste, of course, is a matter of opinion. Energy consumption, on the other hand, is a very concrete quality, one that has become increasingly important in these days of scarce resources and skyrocketing fuel prices, and thus worthy of serious consideration.

Carbon Footprints

When discussing the total energy cost of a food item, the term “carbon footprint” is often invoked. To get some idea of the concept, U.S. residents can consider the act of eating a raw grape in January. That grape was most likely grown somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps in Chile. It was probably grown in a modern commercial orchard, using cultivation equipment (powered by gas or diesel) and petroleum based fertilizers. The ripe grapes were then shipped thousands of miles to America, by diesel-powered ship or perhaps even a cargo jet, and kept refrigerated the entire way (more energy consumption). The grapes were then trucked from the dock or airport – again under refrigeration – to the store, where they were (you guessed it) kept refrigerated, consuming even more energy in the process. All this for you to take the grapes home, scarf down a handful, and (if your family is anything like mine) toss half of them out when they become stale a day or two later. For the other extreme, consider walking into your back yard in July, plucking a wild berry off a bush, and popping it into your mouth. Zero energy consumed, zero carbon footprint.

Obviously, fresh wild berries and similar local edibles are in rather short supply for most of us during winter; so if we want food choices less carbon-intensive than grapes or the other out-of-season fruits and vegetables offered up by the typical grocery store’s produce section, we have to start getting creative. For example, we could gather enough berries in summer and preserve them, which of course consumes energy during the canning process and results in soggy and often tasteless berries. Or we could convert the berries to jam, ensuring their tastiness but consuming energy and sugar (which has its own long carbon footprint) in the process. Perhaps easiest of all, we could just throw the fresh picked berries into a freezer bag and thaw them out as needed – consuming electrical energy required for freezing (unless we return to the days of the ice house) and the plastic freezer bag, most likely made from petroleum based materials. And this doesn’t even begin to get into issues such as the time and effort involved in finding and picking your own berries (not an easy chore unless you go to a pick-your-own orchard, where a habitat has been destroyed and replaced by an unnatural monoculture), especially when you’re competing with other like-minded localvores. In the end, most people would probably conclude it’s easier to just eat the grapes.

The point is, the whole localvore concept is a complicated issue with many facets to consider. Maybe it would be a lot simpler if we were all nomadic and just followed the seasons living off the land, a way of life that might work if our population were reduced to perhaps 10% of its current level. But until the day comes when we all give up our homes and stop producing children, eating local is going to require a significant amount of thought.

Self-Sustenance: Is it Worth it?

Recently there was some talk in my New England town of our becoming a model for self-sustenance, producing all the food we eat with nothing imported from outside. Not only is this highly unfeasible, it’s probably not even desirable from an ecological standpoint. For example, if one looks at an old photograph of rural New England taken around the turn of the 20th century or earlier, the landscape usually looks curiously barren and treeless, more open grassland than the present-day hilly forests. The reason for this is that back then New England produced a far greater percentage of its own food than it does now. And to support acreage-intensive foods such as grains and red meat, farmers had to cut down trees to create fields and pastures. Few would seriously propose we return to those days of denuded countryside. But to become truly self-sufficient, we’d either have to clear the trees again, or radically change our dietary habits. Many of us can probably imagine living without beef and mutton, but crops such as wheat, oats, and corn are too ingrained (pardon the pun) for us to do without. No bread, cakes and pastries, cereals, pancakes or waffles – it just isn’t realistic, especially given how relatively cheap flour is compared to other foodstuffs.

That’s why it’s probably best to view localvoring as a spectrum of choices, rather than an all-or-nothing proposition. And some of those choices seem so low-impact and trivial, it’s hard to understand why we don’t make them. For instance, as a New Englander, whenever I’m buying potatoes, I always look for those with the Maine brand. Oddly enough, a lot of times I can’t find any – yet potatoes from Idaho, California, or elsewhere always seem in abundant supply. It makes little sense to have one of the major suppliers of potatoes as a neighbor, yet still buy ones shipped clear across the country.

Localvoring: Trend or Fad?

In the end, serious localvores will likely need to significantly adjust their eating routines if they truly want to fully implement the concept into practice. Some of this may seem counterintuitive. For example, we’ve always been taught that fresh fruits and vegetables are the best for you. But in winter, the food you canned last summer and fall could be the more ecologically friendly choice compared to the fresh produce on your grocer’s shelf, grown half a world away. (Suddenly that fresh garden salad you eat for lunch on Valentine’s Day may not feel quite so virtuous.)

Perhaps starting a garden isn’t to everybody’s taste, unless you’re really into tomatoes and zucchini and the handful of other crops that seemingly anyone can grow. But simply thinking about where a food product comes from before taking it home can go a long way towards reducing the carbon footprint of your diet, and is fully in keeping with the spirit of the localvore ideal, even if you never grow or gather a single morsel of food yourself.

Whether or not the localvore movement is the wave of the future or just another passing fad remains to be seen. But its core principles, especially those concerning energy consumption and the concept of carbon footprint, appear sound. Perhaps we can’t all be farmers and gatherers, gently plucking nature’s bounty from dew-moistened vines. But we can choose which state to buy our potatoes from – and whether or not we really, really need those grapes.

Dick McCarrick is an analyst with Foresight Science & Technology.

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