Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Choices, Choices -- Local Not Always Better

Friend and reader David Z. sent a pointer yesterday to the op-ed in yesterday's New York Times on local eating. Reducing your "carbon footprint" seems to have been the buzz in NYC for months now and finally, eating locally and narrowing your personal impact on the world have hit head on. At issue? The fact that we eat fruit, veg and meat from 1000s of miles away. Local has to be better right?

A study in the UK on "food miles" -- the distance your food travels to get to you -- asked the same question and came up with surprising results. Instead of just looking at transportation costs, they looked at all factors:

Instead of measuring a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production — what economists call “factor inputs and externalities” — like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, 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. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.
The results aren't that surprising. Just as the central plains in the United States became America's Breadbasket in the early 20th Century, it's reasonable to believe that certain parts of the world can produce foods to feed a planet -- and produce them well. It also makes sense that large scale operations for lamb in New Zealand can be not only cost but ecologically efficient. Not only can long distance food be cheaper, know that sometimes it's better for the environment as well. Local is better except when it isn't. The trick is knowing the difference.


christine (myplateoryours) said...

Guess it all depends on what the meaning of "better" is. Sometimes local just plain tastes better.

Maybe the lesson in all these food wars is simple: don't be a knee-jerk. Use your head, decide what's important to you, get educated, and then you can make wise decisions about what you eat.

terrykirts said...

Seems to me you can't really go wrong with local farmers' markets in terms of environment, and, in most instances, flavor and food safety. This time of year, I want to kick everyone at local megamarts buying corn and tomatoes. But the mentality is so indelibly ingrained in shoppers' minds. I've heard many, many people say that it's just too much of a hassle and that they'll "just pick it up later" at Marsh or Kroger. Have they tasted a summer-warmed tomato or an unwaxed cucumber from a local farmers' market stall? While one could say that Americans' culinary knowledge is at an all-time high, that doesn't always translate into taste, and far too much of that "knowledge" comes through the marketing (including cooking shows which are just big overproduced ads). Local farmers don't usually have advertising agencies, and they are terribly unglamorous. But give me their corn any day over ANY you can buy in an air-conditioned store.