Is eating locally produced food a bad idea?

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.
(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

Green Tomatoes 2In yesterday's Palladium-Item, editorial board member and local blogger Matthew Hisrich proposed that eating locally, and other kinds of localized consumption behaviors, might be ineffective, or even bad for us:

[W]here does this drive for relocalizing come from? Perhaps it has to do with a vague sense of ethical rightness more than anything scientifically verifiable. University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt classifies such efforts as attempts to attain (and potentially guilt others into) a sense of moral purity. "Food," he says, "is becoming extremely moralized these days."

The problem, of course, is that purity is hard to come by in a world as complex as ours, and simplistic answers often have consequences that their proponents do not intend. Consumers should think twice before jumping on the localvore bandwagon.

I'm all for thinking twice before jumping on any sort of wagon, but I think Mr. Hisrich's logic is flawed in a number of places. Read on for my point-by-point analysis of his column:

In April, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University published a study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that all of the transportation associated with the American food supply chain accounts for only 11 percent of foods' climate impact.

You can view the full study online. The basic conclusion that they make is that the transportation of food isn't as big a factor in carbon footprint as the production and other factors, and so that we might be able to reduce our footprint more by changing our diet -- eating less meat and dairy, which create the most pollution -- than we will by changing where it comes from.

This study seems well done, and convincing in its assertion that food miles are only one part of overall considerations when it comes to the environmental impact of food choices. Of course, carbon footprint is not the only reason many people like to eat local; there are lots of other benefits, including the relationships that come with knowing who is growing your food and how, and the proud self-reliance that comes from being able to eat off of the land we live on.

And, "It's still useful to think about transport," says David Pimentel of Cornell University, an ecologist who has conducted life-cycle analyses of food's energy use. He recently calculated that if a typical American drives home with a 1 pound can of corn, 311 calories of fossil fuel energy are used to transport the 375-calorie corn in the can.

In fact, by focusing on local production, emissions may actually rise. This is because growing foods in the conditions best suited to their production can often offset the relatively small impact of transportation. In the United Kingdom, for instance, fewer emissions are released by importing milk and apples from New Zealand and tomatoes from Spain than devoting the energy and resources necessary to produce them locally.

One of the core tenets of the local food movement is not only to eat food that is produced locally, but to avoid foods that can't be produced locally. Mr. Hisrich is correct that if we try to grow avocados and oranges here in Indiana in the dead of winter, we'll of course use much more energy to do that than someone growing those foods in a climate naturally suited for it. So while the point is technically correct, it unfairly ignores some of the ethos of the local foods movement - few people are suggesting we try to grow every kind of food here just to satisfy our "exotic" cravings.

[W]hat the growing local advocates encourage often has less to do with an actual weighing of the costs and benefits of local farming than it does with a value judgment about what should be good for rural economies. While one might be able to argue that eating local improves the lot of a particular group, it is more difficult to argue that spending more for local produce improves the economic well-being of either local shoppers or the local economy as a whole.

I'd ask Mr. Hisrich to back that assertion up with some data, the "actual weighing of costs and benefits" of which he speaks. By definition, dollars that are spent on locally produced goods and services, given to vendors that live and work here, are dollars that will tend to stay in the geographical region to be spent again on other locally produced goods and services. This is why every economic development organization in the state works to bring businesses to their towns that will pay good wages to local workers who will then turn around and spend it locally. This is why local currency and time banks are popping up everywhere, and why our own Chamber of Commerce has a "buy local" program. Just because we're talking about food, the principles don't become any more mysterious.

What about impoverished farmers in developing countries who merely seek the chance to compete on a level playing field? This movement provides advocates of protectionism another rhetorical tool in their effort to prevent that from happening.

Quite to the contrary, the local food movement is part of a larger cultural perspective that seeks to remove the artificial protections that prevent people from sustaining themselves on their own land-base. If you take into consideration the subsidies, trade tariffs, import/export controls, immigration policies, monopolies and compulsory price controls, and injustices related to wage and labor standards that help create the "impoverished farmer in a developing country" in the first place, it's clear that the leveling of the playing field needs to happen well before we get to the buying choices of the end consumer.

By encouraging communities to be more self-reliant, we actually help all communities move toward being able to make a sustainable living for themselves.

John Cloud, however, points out that local does not necessarily mean safe. When he asked Joseph Mendelson III, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, a liberal Washington group that supports strong organic standards, whether local food should be favored, Mendelson replied, "I don't know what local means. Do they use local pesticides? Does that mean the food is better because they produce local cancers?"

This is an unnecessarily flippant remark in a serious conversation, but I'll address it anyway. Not every local food effort advocates the banning of all pesticides and chemicals from the growing process, and communities can set their own standards as they see fit.

The point is that when you can visit your local grower and see what practices they use to create the food you eat (or perhaps even help yourself!), you have much more control over and knowledge about what you put in your body. We only have to look back to this past summer and remember the food-borne illnesses that came from unsupervised, poorly conducted growing processes in an industrial agriculture setting to see how the safety of our food is improved when we're more engaged in where it comes from.

So, back to the original suggestion Mr. Hisrich shared:

So where does this drive for relocalizing come from? Perhaps it has to do with a vague sense of ethical rightness more than anything scientifically verifiable.

I'll promise not to be insulted by the suggestion that people in the relocalization movement only make certain decisions just because it might be the right thing to do, if Mr. Hisrich promises not to be insulted by my suggestion that he doesn't quite know what he's talking about here. 🙂

All across the country and world, communities are experiencing the forced contraction that comes with rising energy costs, failures of over-dependence on the global economy, and the isolation and disconnection of the culture of "suburbia." Communities that are working to reclaim their identities and self-reliance are finding positive ways to move past those contractions, taking matters back into their own hands instead of waiting for the next factory closure or government bailout to set the course.

The local food movement is a core part of this, and while participating in it will mean different things for different communities, it deserves a bit more consideration than Mr. Hisrich's column gives.  I do really appreciate that he's taken this issue on and generated some conversation around it! I hope he'll join us at the next 100-Mile Radius Potluck here in Richmond so we can continue that conversation together.

12 thoughts on “Is eating locally produced food a bad idea?

  1. thanks for responding to this, Chris! i think you've succinctly and sufficiently pointed out the holes and false assumptions in the editorial, but i wanted to mention two more things:

    ONLY 11%!? even if this c-m study is correct, that's still a serious number to be considering. and other unsustainable food production practices (namely, raising beef) contribute far more to climate change.

    this doesn't mean no one should eat beef (though for health reasons, we might all want to stop!) but that we can no longer raise cattle in ways that leave cesspools of cow crap that release climate changing gases into the atmosphere, and then buy petroleum-based fertilizers. many farmers right here in east-central indiana have it right - use cow crap to fertilize fields!

    and the other point: even if a local farmer is using some "local" pesticides, and even if i get some "local" cancer from eating this farm's food, at least i have a better chance of tracing it. pesticides are something we can avoid whether or not we eat locally (though it means trusting farms and the USDA organic certification if we don't know the farmers).

    of bigger concern are dangerous bacteria like salmonella and e.coli. this summer it was tomatoes, before that, organic spinach. it took days, even WEEKS, to figure out where the affected (life-threatening) produce came from. so yes, i would rather get local e.coli, because i would know whose farm it came from, call the farmer and say, "keep cow crap out of your spinach!" and save my friends and neighbors a lot of stomachaches.

  2. Hello Chris! Thanks for commenting. I love nothing more than a point-by-point rebuttal, and it's an honor to be on the receiving end of one. Give me a day or so and I'll try to get a response up.

  3. Hey Chris,

    I hope this can be published as a rebuttal in the Pal-Item.

    I'm glad that there are people around like you who can articulate things like this so well!

  4. Hi Chris, great blog post!

    Quite to the contrary, the local food movement is part of a larger cultural perspective that seeks to remove the artificial protections that prevent people from sustaining themselves on their own land-base.

    This is the part of the locavore movement that I really admire the most. However, I think that it should be considered that in terms of sustainability and carbon production, the diet that would be superior for both our bodies and the planet is a vegetarian diet.

    Also, as someone who faithfully shopped the farmers markets all season, I can say that the other thing buying local does is that it builds a sense of community. You get to know people that might otherwise be outside your social sphere. Besides, walking outside from stall to stall squeezing tomatoes is a lot more fun than wandering from stand to stand under the cold fluorescent lights at Meijers.

  5. Here's another angle on the UK study I already commented about on the P-I article: Matthew wrote: "In the United Kingdom, for instance, fewer emissions are released by importing milk and apples from New Zealand and tomatoes from Spain than devoting the energy and resources necessary to produce them locally."

    Regarding the milk, Chris already pointed out that eating less dairy is a more sustianable alternative to either producing it locally or importing it.

    Likewise, tomatoes are not native to the United Kingdom, only appearing there in the 1500s (according to Wikipedia). Eating locally should also mean eating more of what is well suited to grow in the local area, which could mean eating less tomatoes in the United Kingdom.

    It's true that localvores shouldn't lose sight of the larger purpose, and should keep in mind which foods are efficient to grow locally, and possible eat less of those are can't efficiently be produced locally.

  6. Chris, how ironic that you should post this article just days after Matt and I had a heated discussion about this topic. Only a year ago, I would have jumped right on board with the writer of the Pal-Item article and claimed that eating locally was a fairy-tail dreamed up by overly morally righteous people.

    However, after participating in a number of the 100 mile radius pot lucks you and Anna Lisa so graciously organized, I see the importance of eating locally. Not only from a social justice stand point, but also from a health stand point.

    On the other hand, I think it is important to acknowledge the level of privilege that comes with being able to make the choice to eat locally. Local food is often more expensive and time consuming to prepare (you can't just pull it from the freezer and pop it in the microwave). Individuals struggling to make ends meet, correct or not, may feel they are not able to make that choice for themselves and their family. It will take re-educating those individuals about how to relate to their food and offering opportunities for them to work with others who have already mastered the art of eating locally before they will be able to begin thinking about making what might seem like a drastic change.

    So while I do not agree with the writer of the article, I do think that it is vital that we acknowledge that eating locally is a privilege, and it is up to those who can to share that privilege with others.

  7. exactly, Mark. as Chris already pointed out, eating locally for many of us means not eating avocados anymore. it sure is a shame!
    i've been excited about raw food at various points in my life, but don't see it as a real option living in Indiana. no coconut, no avocado, fewer nuts, etc. while there are some sustainable greenhouse models, i only know of one in Richmond, and that won't feed very many of us:-)

  8. This study seems well done, and convincing in its assertion that food miles are only one part of overall considerations when it comes to the environmental impact of food choices.

    Ok, so we’re in agreement that going local is only one component of the environmental impact of our food choices. Do you think that by focusing on local foods other considerations get pushed aside?

    Of course, carbon footprint is not the only reason many people like to eat local; there are lots of other benefits, including the relationships that come with knowing who is growing your food and how, and the proud self-reliance that comes from being able to eat off of the land we live on.

    I’m happy to hear that eating locally gives you a sense of proud self-reliance. I’m not so sure, however, that self-reliance is a particularly noble ethical goal. Is there any sense in which international trade can help foster a global community and increase our interdependence and the value we place on those beyond our borders?

    And, "It's still useful to think about transport," says David Pimentel of Cornell University, an ecologist who has conducted life-cycle analyses of food's energy use. He recently calculated that if a typical American drives home with a 1 pound can of corn, 311 calories of fossil fuel energy are used to transport the 375-calorie corn in the can.

    It’s unclear what’s actually being said here. If the author is suggesting it’s inefficient to drive the grocery store for a single can of corn, I would agree. I’m not sure what this adds to the discussion, though. The same could be said of driving to the farmer’s market for an ear of corn. I found the quote above this more useful: "Food miles are a very good idea, but not for the faint of heart," adds Gidon Eshel, a Bard Center Fellow at Bard College. "Counting transport alone won't do the trick; you need a full life-cycle analysis."

    One of the core tenets of the local food movement is not only to eat food that is produced locally, but to avoid foods that can't be produced locally. Mr. Hisrich is correct that if we try to grow avocados and oranges here in Indiana in the dead of winter, we'll of course use much more energy to do that than someone growing those foods in a climate naturally suited for it. So while the point is technically correct, it unfairly ignores some of the ethos of the local foods movement - few people are suggesting we try to grow every kind of food here just to satisfy our "exotic" cravings.

    Well, pretty much any food can theoretically be produced locally. So, unless we’re discussing foraging, the question becomes more one of where you happen to draw the line on how much energy and resources you are willing to accept as necessary to produce something and what you define as “exotic.” Furthermore, there is a question of energy required to prepare and store food. If part of the way those committed to local foods will vary their diets during the winter will be through canning, for instance, these expenditures need to be factored into any energy estimates and weighed against the costs of obtaining fresh food from somewhere else.

    As economist Art Carden notes, “Since the decision to buy locally is essentially the decision to forsake comparative advantage, every unit of agricultural output will be more resource intensive than it would be under specialization, division of labor, and trade.” (http://mises.org/story/3026) Now, 100 miles is not very far in terms of the global food market, but even applying that limit to Richmond will result in climate and soil variables that could result in differing levels of productivity for different produce. Is it justifiable to go outside that range in order to access produce that can be produced more efficiently?

    I'd ask Mr. Hisrich to back that assertion up with some data, the "actual weighing of costs and benefits" of which he speaks. By definition, dollars that are spent on locally produced goods and services, given to vendors that live and work here, are dollars that will tend to stay in the geographical region to be spent again on other locally produced goods and services. This is why every economic development organization in the state works to bring businesses to their towns that will pay good wages to local workers who will then turn around and spend it locally. This is why local currency and time banks are popping up everywhere, and why our own Chamber of Commerce has a "buy local" program. Just because we're talking about food, the principles don't become any more mysterious.

    That’s funny, I thought I was asking local food advocates to back up their assertions with some data. I won’t argue that economic development agencies and Chambers of commerce are fans of buying local, but that’s not really data. These are the same types who advocated taxing Richmond residents to subsidize the construction of a privately-owned convention center in Reid Hospital. It’s no mystery why local business owners have an incentive to promote buy local campaigns regardless of whether residents would benefit from shopping elsewhere. If you are operating under zero-sum game rules where the only way trade benefits our geographical region is if our dollars stay here, then insisting on buying local makes sense. But, assuming that mercantilism represents an outmoded method of economic analysis, trade is most beneficial when all parties utilize their comparative advantage – producing those goods at which they can do so most efficiently and exchanging for those at which they can do so less efficiently. As you say, just because we're talking about food, the principles don't become any more mysterious.

    If you take into consideration the subsidies, trade tariffs, import/export controls, immigration policies, monopolies and compulsory price controls, and injustices related to wage and labor standards that help create the "impoverished farmer in a developing country" in the first place, it's clear that the leveling of the playing field needs to happen well before we get to the buying choices of the end consumer.

    On this we agree.

    By encouraging communities to be more self-reliant, we actually help all communities move toward being able to make a sustainable living for themselves.

    On this we do not. Again, trade creates wealth and so limiting trade options is no benefit to farmers here or anywhere else. Worse, the self-reliance you push for undermines those aspects of international trade which serve to build economic and cultural bridges between nations that foster peace. Economist Frederic Bastiat got to this point when he famously said that "When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will."

    The point is that when you can visit your local grower and see what practices they use to create the food you eat (or perhaps even help yourself!), you have much more control over and knowledge about what you put in your body. We only have to look back to this past summer and remember the food-borne illnesses that came from unsupervised, poorly conducted growing processes in an industrial agriculture setting to see how the safety of our food is improved when we're more engaged in where it comes from.

    I’m not aware of any data showing direct consumer oversight of agriculture leading to improved safety practices and health, but if there is some out there I’d like to see it. If the point of going local is that it offers a hobby of sorts that allows people to feel more connected to the land, that’s great. But the aims seem to be far broader. It is the claims to solve so many social, economic, and environmental issues that I find problematic, especially if the desire to promote this particular movement leads to the downplaying or dismissal of its limitations.

    I'll promise not to be insulted by the suggestion that people in the relocalization movement only make certain decisions just because it might be the right thing to do, if Mr. Hisrich promises not to be insulted by my suggestion that he doesn't quite know what he's talking about here.

    Hopefully no one feels insulted by discussing these issues openly. As for whether I know what I’m talking about, well, I offer the ethical rightness angle as one possibility. I base this on the loyalty to buying local in spite of the fact that there are better ways to reduce food-related emissions and no data to back up claims about health benefits, safety, or economic improvement. I’m open to alternative explanations, though. I’ll close with the final lines from the Pimentel article you link to above: “Van Wing read Weber's paper and found it a ‘holistic and helpful’ look at food miles. But the research doesn't change her outlook on food, she says. She will continue to buy from local growers, whose production practices she can see firsthand.”

  9. this is a great point, Becky! i think you're right, generally, that for MOST people in MOST poverty, eating locally will feel like it takes more time and money.
    but some of the very poorest people in the US (and definitely around the world) do eat locally - and do more things self-sufficiently. this is the main reason that rural poor tend to be "better off" than urban poor.
    transitioning from urban poor to self-sufficient is really tricky though - primarily due to lack of space and knowledge.
    i briefly mentioned the economics of eating locally on my blog recently.

  10. Some points for eating locally that haven't been brought up here yet:

    1. Garlic Mustard. Imported from Europe for use as a food in 1860, it is now an invasive species in the US that we can't rid of. Meanwhile, it's been strangling the valuable diversity of plants in our forests. Our own gorge here in Richmond is full of it now, (and has clearly less of everything else). Having pulled some of it myself, I can attest to the futility of trying to eradicate it. Meanwhile, it hasn't been popular to eat in the last century. This is just one example of where we suffer great losses by playing God and moving food plants into regions where they were not intended. Growing local food that is native to the region avoids this.

    2. Remember the day a few months ago when no restaurant in town would serve you a fresh tomato? That 30-state scare was thanks to our massively centralized food growing and distribution system. Had local food been the norm, the impact if any one contamination would have been vastly reduced-- a win for public health.

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