When Eating Local Isn't Eating Green

By Laura Oppenheimer in Food on Dec 11, 2007 3:00PM

If green is the new black and localvore is the word of the year, then what does it mean when eating locally is not only not necessarily better for the environment, but could actually be worse? An article in the NYT challenges the notion that "fresh" and "local" add up to "green."

2007_12_greenisntlocal.jpgThe article presents data from UC Davis's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. Tom Tomich, director of the program, told the NYT that the distance that food travels is certainly important but so is packaging, growth methods, processing and transportation. For example, consider not-in-season strawberries:

If mass producers of strawberries ship their product to Chicago [from California] by truck, the fuel cost of transporting each carton of strawberries is relatively small, since it is tucked into the back along with thousands of others.But if a farmer sells his strawberries at local farmers’ markets in California, he ferries a much smaller amount by pickup truck to each individual market. Which one is better for the environment? Mr. Tomich said a strawberry distributor did the math on the back of an envelope and concluded that the Chicago-bound berries used less energy for transport.

Tomich also suggests that if your goal is to reduce your carbon footprint, it may be more effective to change your diet instead of focusing on where the food on your plate came from. He suggests a Diet For A New America-style switch over to vegetarianism, as a way of using less overall resources, since it costs much less, energy-wise, to raise a pound of potatoes than it does to raise a pound of beef.

So what's an environmentally conscious eater to do? We tried the whole localvore thing for a week and found it a challenging, but rewarding experience. It also happened to be in September, when nature's bounty is a little more... bountiful. And though aren't really too many clear answers coming from the UC Davis team—yet—they hope their research sheds lights on the issues ones needs to address when living an environmentally friendly lifestyle. They have come to once definite conclusion, however: "Don’t drive your sport utility vehicle to the farmers’ market, buy one food item and drive home again. Even if you are using reusable bags."

Image via Swanksalot.