The 100-mile myth
Kevin Libin, National Post
At the annual convention of the North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association in Calgary a couple of years ago, organizers offered a seminar entitled "The New Classic: Creating an upscale urban farmers' market with down-home country Chutzpah." For years, local farmers' markets weren't anything you'd hazard to call "upscale," but the rise of the local food movement and the best-selling environmental-soul books, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The 100-Mile Diet, has made buying locally grown, rather than well-travelled food, as trendy these days among the eco-yuppie crowd as hybrid Lexuses and Baby Planet strollers. "Farmers have been involved with selling local product for decades. What's happening now is that the consumer side is catching on," says Charlie Touchette, executive director of the marketing association.
In part, farmer vendors charge more because they've been suddenly blessed with customers willing to pay more. But locally grown food, in many cases, is also more costly to produce, because Canadian labour and, often, land is worth more than in Brazil or China. Above all, though, local growing conditions for most foods are less productive than elsewhere. Every climate, obviously, has its strengths and weaknesses, and frequently, locally grown food is less efficiently produced than the imported stuff. Accounting for "food miles" -- the key measure used by locavores (local produce eaters) -- tells you how far food travels. It doesn't tell you how much energy -- and greenhouse gas emissions -- went into growing it. When you add that in, and if your aim is to conserve fossil fuels and emissions, the best way is actually to skip the farmers' market and eat global.
"If you are concerned about the carbon footprint of your diet, focusing on transportation is kind of like worrying about the air pressure in your tires of your car rather than whether you have a fuel-efficient car or not," says James McWilliams, an environmental and agricultural historian at Texas State University, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, and a former part-time locavore. "What matters so much more than how far it travels from farm to fork is what kind of methods were used to produce it."
"What I really do see ... is that buying local is a political act. It's a gesture that, in essence, thumbs its nose at globalization," he says. If left-wing posturing and green-posing is your priority, then stick with your 100-mile diet. Leave it to average consumers, buying the globally sourced groceries at their local, corporate, big-box retailer, to do genuine good for the planet.
This article focuses on the fact that efficiency in production is the key in determining a food’s impact on the environment. And no where in the world is modern agriculture more efficient than here in the United States. We are producing more food with fewer inputs than at any other time in the history of this planet. I think buying local is a great way to support local farmers and ranchers, and I hope that people continue to do so. However, if people think buying everything local is going to save the planet from some impending doom, they are sorely mistaken.