Doubters Get Vocal, Questioning Local

August 17, 2007

farmers' market summer display In the past few years, the local food movement has taken root and grown fervently. The “eat local” philosophy has birthed new words (like “locavore”) and generated much media coverage. But as the movement gains momentum, some are beginning to question the local food trend. Is it the panacea some claim it to be—the answer to the problems of our food system—or is it an oversimplified, romanticized notion?

“Food miles” (the distance food travels to get to its consumer), especially, have encountered some criticism of late. Last week, James E. McWilliams questioned their efficacy as a measure of victual virtue. In his New York Times op-ed, “Food That Travels Well,” he addressed briefly the many merits of eating local, but asked, “Is reducing food miles necessarily good for the environment?” Citing a study about the energy consumption resulting from the production and transport of New Zealand lamb imported to the UK vs. local UK lamb, McWilliams makes the point that that food mileage is not the only indicator of carbon footprint. In this instance, the New Zealand lamb was less polluting despite its distant origin, in large part because of the way it was produced. In short, the New Zealand lamb in the study was pasture-raised and grown more ecologically than the grain-fed UK lamb, and was therefore less energy intensive overall.

The question of local vs. ecologically grown has been well explored in the food world and the popular press, even gracing the cover of Time Magazine in March. But as author Michael Shuman suggests in a guest post on the Ethicurean blog (in addition to questioning the science behind the lamb study), this dichotomy is somewhat false:

Real localization means avoiding environmentally unsound inputs of outside fertilizer, feed, and additives. It means pruning away the vast economic waste associated with ad agencies and middle people. It means avoiding trucking food around either nationally or internationally. Account for these items comprehensively and fairly, and local food wins out environmentally over global food almost every time.

Most local eating advocates don’t elevate local above ecological, but bring it up as an additional concern. In California, we don’t have to make the choice—we can have local and ecological both. In a post on the Eat Local Challenge website CUESA staff member Julie Cummins writes in response to McWilliams:

For me, food miles are a convenient measurement. Like choosing organic, eating local is a way to opt out of the overpackaged, heavily processed, nutrient bereft, anonymous, pesticide laden, genetically engineered, multinational, unpronounceable, so-called food that’s common these days. I know local is not the only answer, but it’s a worthy touchstone. When I choose something local, I’m usually also choosing something fresh and flavorful, grown by a local family farmer.…I hope that nobody gives up on the Eat Local movement just because food miles are an incomplete way to measure our food’s environmental footprint. I hope we will keep doing what we’re doing, and expand in new directions.

The benefits of eating locally are many: increased food security, healthier rural economies, farmland preservation, and stronger communities, to name a few. Local isn’t the only answer, organic isn’t the only answer, fair trade and policy change are not the only answers. But all are part of the solution to a very complex problem.