Friday, March 12, 2010

Is It Worth It To Eat Local? The Debate You May Not Know Existed

Hedonistic: the self-indulgent pursuit of pleasure as a way of life.

I was aghast when I read an article in which one person used this word to describe the locavore movement, which has interested me since I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Miracle. How could this effort to reduce pollution and use of fossil fuels and rely more on our local resources possibly qualify as self-indulgent?

There are two sides to every issue, and part of being well-balanced includes becoming aware of them. An August 6, 2007 article in the New York Times gave one example of how eating locally grown food sometimes causes an increase, instead of a decrease, in the carbon footprint. Their case in point: Lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-rich pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton. On the other hand, British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton. This was in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In this example, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Perhaps this issues is less pertinent to my fellow residents of California, who enjoy rich local resources; but what of those in a less human-friendly environment - say, Las Vegas, which used to be desert?

The potential good of locavorism is minimized in one study done by two engineers at Carnegie Mellon University, which declared that only 4% of all the greenhouse gases emitted by the food industry comes from transporting the food from producers to retailers.

In a Forbes magazine opinion article published in August of 2009, writer James Williams shares his stance: that the real answer to reducing one’s carbon footprint is to go meatless, rather than local, as raising vegetable life is so much less energy-intensive than raising animal life. He points out, "The average American eats 273 pounds of meat a year. Give up red meat once a week and you'll save as much energy as if the only food miles in your diet were the distance to the nearest truck farmers."

Despite these adverse opinions, I still feel there is a lot to be said for the locavore effort. On Wikipedia, I learned that a study in the 2007 Dewey Health Review included 100 individuals ages 18–55 eating local food grown within an 80-mile radius. The study revealed that a locavore diet resulted in a 19% increase in sturdiness of bowel movement and an overall drop in sleep apnea and night terrors.

Besides health benefits, there is a certain level of social responsibility that weighs upon us as consumers as well. To paraphrase Kingsolver’s observation in Animal Vegetable Miracle, we would hate to have our posterity wonder why we used up the last of our fossil fuel resources so that we could eat pale, flavorless watermelon in January.


  1. Hmmm.. interesting. I like local foods because it tastes better.

  2. I think the problem is that people always want to polarize things into absolutes... there's no magic bullet, no 'this is the one right way all the time for all people.' But -- other things being equal -- local food and veggie foods tend to have less environmental negatives than their distant/ mass-produced/ animal-based counterparts. So, thoughtful consumerism is part of the deal... but still: eat local/ veggie *to the greatest degree possible for you*, and you'll come out ahead more often than not. People get really defensive about any proposed change to their eating habits; and big ag has a huge financial interest in arguing AGAINST local food enthusiasm; and sometimes, people just like to argue... but the locavore movement is STILL a good idea!


Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me!