Thinking About Shopping Local? Think Again

Many things drive us to shop locally. We believe it helps the environment, it’s healthier, and it’s a way for us to support our local farms and community.

Farmer’s markets are becoming the place to be. It’s the newest shopping place for one’s weekly groceries or just the newest hangout spot. This growing trend has brought individuals together, a sense of feeling like a part of something or making a difference. Restaurants have joined in the movement to incorporate local produce to diversify their menu. Bookstores have shelves full of books discussing the benefits of shopping locally. There is definitely a positive light when one automatically hears the word “local.” Words like “fresh” and “sustainable” also immediately come to mind to continue the positivity.

However, is it truly the better choice? We sometimes fail to see in between the lines and forget to follow the whole life cycle of food.

Let’s start with drawing the line in what “shopping locally” even is.

There’s been a constant debate with what we consider “local.” Where do we draw the line? The biggest question is “How?” How do we decide on a universal cut off?

The Indiana State Department of Agriculture conducted a survey on individuals’ thoughts about what they considered “local.” Most surveyed considered 50 miles to be local, but there was still 20% who considered 100 miles to be acceptable as well. Do city, state, or country lines define the line? Because say if I used the 100 miles as the cut off, I could still be shopping local from my college town of Chico in my hometown of Rocklin which is 63 miles away. It can be odd or acceptable to some.

One of the biggest concerns people have with non-local food is in how it got to them.

People have the idea that shopping locally means less fossil fuels are used to transport products thus it’s more sustainable. While that is true, part of it is false. We tend to forget how there are different forms of transportation: truck, train, plane, boat, etc. One needs to remember certain types of transportation are more efficient than another.

Transportation only accounts for less than a tenth of agriculture’s carbon footprint. In a study by Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews of Carnegie Melon University, they calculated that even if a family were to reduce all of their “food miles” to zero, it’s equivalent to just driving a 1,000 less miles per year in a 25-mile/gallon car. As you can see, transportation isn’t the only thing that contributes to a bigger carbon footprint.

There is also production. Don’t forget about the crops themselves.

Production is what accounts for the majority of agriculture’s carbon footprint; 83% to be precise. Every crop is unique in the sense that it demands unique conditions to grow. Does comparative advantage ring a bell? When the world was evolving and economy was growing, the human population relied on specification to be efficient as possible when it came to manufacturing and producing. This is still relevant today.

Because of its mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soil, no wonder California produces all of the U.S.’ almonds and 80% of its strawberries and grapes. Similarly with Idaho, it has warm days and cool nights during the season with volcanic soils that makes it the most ideal conditions to produce 30% of the country’s potatoes. Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptic Society, said, “an acre of land in Idaho can produce about 50% more potatoes than an acre of land in Kansas.” Obviously those buying “local potatoes” in Kansas aren’t as efficient as they think.

You could say not eating locally is sustainable too then.

With the current population of 7 billion expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, the population is going to have to rely on the global food system to feed them. It’s estimated that within the next 50 years, the global food system will need to produce as much food as it has in the previous 10,000 years COMBINED.

Shopping local will continue to have its benefits. Supporting your local communities is a great feeling and you’ll probably find some better produce at a farmer’s market than your closet Winco. It can be also be sustainable, just not as sustainable as we thought. People are benefiting from it, but so are people who aren’t taking part in it.

If you were worried you weren’t being sustainable from not eating locally, worry no more.

Work Cited

Fontes, Joao. “Sourcing Locally is Better: Myth Or Not?” PRe-Sustainability: Putting The metrics behind sustainability, n.d. Accessed 20 March 2017.

Pomeroy, Ross. “The Biggest Myth About Buying Local Food.” RealClear Science. 1 June 2015, Accessed 20 March 2017.

Sexton, Steve. “The Inefficiency of Local Food.” Freakonomics. 14 Nov. 2011, Accessed 20 March 2017.

Truitt, Gary. “The Myth of Local Food.” Hoosier AG Today. 15 June 2015, Accessed 20 March 2017