October 16, 2017
The Complex Realities of Eating Local
Have you ever given much thought to where your food comes from and how it’s made? Buying and eating local food is a popular fad, especially in more rural areas where farms are located just miles away from consumers. This current uptick in the local farming business comes from like minded individuals who aim to be both environmentally and health conscious with the food they choose to put in their bodies. If you consider yourself one of these individuals, it is important that you educate yourself on what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ of your food. Firstly, we have to determine what local food really is. The 2008 Farm Act tells us that food can qualify as local if it originates within 400 miles of its selling point. But consumers tend to think of local food in closer terms.
Oftentimes, locally farmed food is considered better for the environment simply because it generates less ‘food miles’ or carbon dioxide from production to consumption. This view is too simple and limited, because the issue of local vs factory farming is in reality far more complicated. In order to really understand the issue, we have to look at the multiple variables at play to determine a food’s true environmental impact.
The argument most commonly used by proponents of local farming is that buying local saves carbon dioxide emissions by traveling fewer miles from the farm to your kitchen table. There are a few flaws with this argument. First off, many of the trucks driven by local farmers are not energy efficient and dispel more carbon dioxide emissions per-pound (of groceries) than do many larger scale transportation methods. (Foley, 2016) But, carbon dioxide emissions are not the only criteria when it comes to the sustainability of local farming. There is also a common misconception that CO2 gas is the worst of the worst in terms of greenhouse gases. In reality, other gases such as nitrous oxide or methane are just as if not more dangerous to the environment.
Surprisingly, a common source of methane emissions comes from rice paddies. These paddies soak up toxins from fertilizer and when drained, release toxic methane gas. If rice farmers are aware of this, they can reduce some of their environmental impact by draining the paddies at specific times within the growing seasons. The largest culprit of methane emissions however continues to be cattle raising; for meat as well as dairy purposes. Cows can be responsible for producing 250–500 liters of methane per day. In addition to this, cows and other livestock are often fed grain diets. The land and emissions used to grow this grain must also be taken into account when evaluating the environmental impact of beef.
Many people choose to forgo red meat or to become vegetarian/vegan because they are aware of these negative environmental impacts. The similarly dangerous effects of rice are not as widely known, resulting in a steadily high level of consumption. Rice continues to be a staple in millions of people’s daily diets. Educating yourself on food sustainability can give you the power to make your own informed choice about what to put on your plate and what to buy at the store. It’s not just what you buy though, it’s how much too.
Food waste is also a significant factor in greenhouse gas emissions. How often do you buy a large bunch of bananas that go brown before you can eat them all? Or maybe you buy a box of strawberries and half end up getting moldy and you wind up tossing out the box. Restaurants and food production facilities also contribute large quantities of food waste that goes unused or uneaten. Unimaginable amounts of food are thrown out every day. Not only do other millions of people go hungry as we throw away our food, we also have to consider the emissions wasted creating that product that wasn’t even eaten. This chart from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN shows that food waste accounts for 3.3 gigatons of climate change pollution every year. Put into perspective in the graph, that number makes food waste the third most responsible culprit in climate change, just after China and the United States.
It turns out that the most important factor in your food’s environmental footprint is the level of sustainability in the production system. In fact, a 2008 study from Carnegie Mellon found that transportation accounts for only 11% of food’s greenhouse gas emissions, while production occupied a whopping 83%. Environmental impact can be discussed in many ways including but not limited to emissions, energy use, chemicals used and waste. For example, large scale industrial farms have stricter regulations on fertilizer use than many small farms whose ‘natural fertilizers’ often end up contaminating nearby groundwater stores. (King, 2016) Another potential benefit for large scale farming is that they are able to ship in large volumes, which makes them more efficient in energy expelled per pound. (Foley, 2016)
“Consumers need to understand trade-offs and to keep up to date on information of what is best to buy.” (Martindale, 2017) While ‘food miles’ do play a role in the environmental impact of your food, there are many more factors that need to be considered in order to fully understand how you eat is affecting the environment. Though eating and buying locally grown food can be both delicious and beneficial, there are also considerable environmental trade-offs that come with buying from large agricultural businesses.. There are many food choices you can make that can benefit the environment instead of contributing to its degradation. Being aware of this information is an effective way to empower the consumer in us all to make the best choice we can for ourselves and our planet, while we still can. All it requires is a little more effort on the individual to inform yourself on the history of your food before it reaches your plate.
- Cho, Renee. “How Green Is Local Food?” State of the Planet How Green Is Local Food Comments, Earth Institute Columbia University, 4 Sept. 2012, blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/09/04/how-green-is-local-food/.
- Desrochers, Pierre, and Hiroku Shimizu. “Eating Local Hurts the Planet.” Salon.com, 16 June 2012, www.salon.com/2012/06/16/eating_local_hurts_the_planet/.
- Foley, Johnathen. “Local Food Is Great, But Can It Go Too Far? — the MACROSCOPE.” The MACROSCOPE, The MACROSCOPE, 17 July 2016,
- Johnson, K A, and D E Johnson. “Methane Emissions from Cattle.” Acsess DL, Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Societies, 2007,
- King, Blair. “Local Isn’t Better When It Comes To How Your Food Is Grown.” HuffPost Canada, HuffPost, 23 Nov. 2016,
- Martindale, Wayne. “Is a Vegetarian Diet Better for the Planet?” CNN, Cable News Network, 6 Feb. 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/02/06/health/vegetarian-diet-conversation/index.html.
Weber, Christopher L, and Scott H Matthews. Food Miles and Relative Climate Impact of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science Technology, 4 Mar. 2008, pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/es702969f.