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April 27, 2012 at 4:01 PMComments: 5 Faves: 0

Locavores Under Fire: Is Eating Local Harmful to the Environment?

By Laura Hogg More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the NatuREport Blog Series

Welcome back to NatuREport! This week in the news: a new Freakonomics video is gaining notoriety for its claim that the locavore movement does more harm than good. Are they onto something – or missing the point?

If you’ve been following NatuREport for a while, you may remember that I wrote a blog in praise of the locavore movement, which advocates obtaining your food from sources as local as possible. I’ve always thought of it as a movement that makes a lot of sense to me, and one definitely worthy of support.

That’s why I was so shocked this week to see the new Freakonomics video that’s making the rounds. In the video, Stephen Dubner basically lays out the results of a 2008 study from two Carnegie Mellon professors. The study focused on “food miles” (how the distance food travels from farm to plate affects carbon emissions), the most often-cited environmental reason for going locavore.

Their findings?

83% of emissions associated with food consumption come from food production, not travel – meaning that “food miles” may not be as crucial as once thought. Because of this, Dubner suggests, a small farmer in upstate New York who trucks 50 pounds of grapes 100 miles to a farmer’s market in Manahattan might leave a bigger carbon footprint (per pound of grapes) than a commercial grower in South America who sends tons of grapes on a cargo ship.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible to reduce your carbon footprint by going local – just that the reduction probably wouldn’t be as dramatic as previously thought. “The results of this analysis show,” reads the original study, “that for the average American household, ‘buying local’ could achieve, at maximum, around a 4−5% reduction in [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

The Freakonomics treatment of this study spends so much of its time trying to shoot down locavore logic that it barely touches on the main point of the study: that there are better ways to use your diet to reduce your carbon footprint…

…and once again, if you’ve been reading my blogs for a while, you probably know what that solution is: cut down on red meat and dairy. (Sorry to be a broken record!) Back to the study:

 “Shifting less than 1 day per week’s (i.e., 1/7 of total calories) consumption of red meat and/or dairy to other protein sources or a vegetable-based diet could have the same climate impact as buying all household food from local providers.”

Less than 1 day a week?! That’s pretty incredible. So the real question: should we all ditch the locavore diet?

Not necessarily. Of course, there are certainly other reasons to go locavore - not the least of which is that it supports the local economy. I understand now that it may not necessarily be the most efficient way of lessening your carbon footprint, but I’m not totally convinced yet that it is actually harmful; I’d have to see more research on the topic. But in the meantime, locavore or not, one thing is clear: lowering your intake of meat and dairy (see, I didn’t even say “eliminating”!)  is one of the easiest ways you can go green.

What do you think of the video?

Does it change the way you view the locavore movement?


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  • Very good blog, although I see somewhat of their point, I still like knowing I am getting my fresh food locally and supporting my local economy.

  • I'm a bit confused. How were they saying it was harmful? From what you said, it just sounds like it is less beneficial than we originally thought. Regardless, I'd come to same conclusion you did - eating local is good for more reasons than my carbon footprint, so I'm going to continue eating local where I can. :)

  • If I remember correctly, the 4-5% figure means that you are buying absolutely all of your food - every single thing - from sources 0 miles from your house. (Or within walking distance, I guess.)

    The main point was that the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, not from travel. Small, local farms are much less efficient than huge, faraway farms - so per pound, food from small farms is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions. So, when compared directly, local food generally seems to leave a bigger carbon footprint.

    But as I said, there are other reasons to eat local :)

  • 4-5% maximum reduction is not an impressive stat, but food production takes energy wherever it happens, no matter how near or far. If anything, it seems the study says that eating IN GENERAL is harmful to environment, and that eating local or imported are not so different in terms of environmental impact, that people that say they are eating local for the good of the environment need to stop it. lol

    There are other, good and valid reasons to eat local - the economy as you said, and also, depending on how food was acquired, the chance to know with greater certainty that the practices used to produce it match with your own values. Buying local in and of itself might not be that much of an environmental benefit, but while I haven't done the research, I'd have to believe eating organically and in season would - both practices that are somewhat better suited to locally produced foods.

  • Personally I don't think it's even possible to get society to change, so in general I see the local food lifestyle as more a benefit to the community rather than the environment. I just wish eating local was cheaper and easier.

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