Thursday, 4 February 2010

Do Locavores Have it Wrong?

In 2007, locavore was the New Oxford American Dictionary's word of the Year. I remember first hearing the word in 2008.

The movement
has since really taken off, helped by wonderful book written by two Canadians- Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon-The 100-Mile Diet. Click here for a previous blog about the book.

Food miles is the cornerstone of the locavore movement: the distance food travels from the farm to our plate.
It's estimated that the the average food we eat has travelled 1500-3000 miles... oftentimes more than that.

What are the Benefits of Eating Locally

According to its many advocates, eating local foods (which hasn't really been defined yet, but within a 100-mile radius is what the 100-mile diet is all about) not only minimizes the fossil fuels used to bring the food to us, but results in food that tastes better, is better for our health, better for local economies. It also allows us to reconnect with the seasons and with the people producing our food.

Is Local Food Healthier?

Kind of.
In a recent publication of its Current Issues (Jan 2010),
Dietitians of Canada's concluded that there is no evidence that supports that local foods are healthier...

Limited evidence does show
that certain foods (like broccoli, kale, green beans, red peppers, tomatoes, apricots and peaches) lose nutrients when they travel long distances. Preliminary studies indicate that local grass-fed meat may also be more nutritious.

Eat Locally: Not the Answer?!

Lots of people also cho
ose to eat local because it's a way to stand up to our current "messed-up" food system : "local is a way to counter the global". There's the well-known expression: "voting with your fork". While I'm not a locavore, I've become very conscious of where my food comes from... and haven't eaten a banana or citrus fruit in months!

According to James McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where locavores get it wrong and how we can truly eat responsibly, I'm not alone.
Since 1990, there has been a 4-fold increase in farmer's markets with more and more people wanting to know where their food's coming from.... which is great!


According to McWilliams, focusing on eating locally is a form of denial. Not only, is it not globally sustainable, it's flawed to think that food miles is what's bad for the environment, and simplifying the issue into "distance is bad, local is good" prevents us from finding real solutions.

Life-Cycle Assessm
ent: Food's Carbon Footprint

McWilliams talks about the Lif
e-Cycle Assessment (LCA)- a measurement that goes beyond food-miles and looks at the carbon-footprint of food- at all the stages. It factors in things like water usage, waste, harvesting techniques, pesticide use, climate, storage, etc.

LCA tells us that the the production and processing of food actually uses the most fossil fuels (45%)... transportation uses the least (11%)!

What Does This Mean?

According to the LCA, and McWilliams, if you live in th UK, it is 4 times more energy-efficient to buy grass-fed lamb imported from New Zealand than to buy local grain-fed lamb (this point was corroborated by Michael Pollan in an interview )!

An LCA of the Danish fishing industry found that changing fishing method could reduce fuel-use tremendously- using a net hanging vertically in the water (a seine) used 15 times less energy than using a trawl (a weighted net dragged across the ocean floor). So, it would make more sense to ask about fishing method rather than food miles....

A great paper written by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimuzu- We Have No Bananas- agrees with McWilliams. They point out that importing produce from areas where they grow naturally emits less greenhouse gases than growing them locally in greenhouses or cold-storing them to extend their shelf-life.

Their argument is summarized in the following statement:

" miles are, at best, a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production. At worst, food miles constitute a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption and the environmental impact of modern food production and the affordability of food".

Hmmm. Interesting...


Tangled Noodle said...

Excellent, even-handed synopsis of a very complex issue about which so many are passionate. I've read some of your references and look forward to reading the new ones. Many thanks!

Rachael Fernandes said...

Hi Sybil,
I really appreciated your piece on "Do Locavores Have it Wrong?" I myself try to live as sustainably as possible and in reading your blog realized that sometimes its not about eating local it's thinking about the whole process. I found it really interesting that we are so concerned with the miles food has to travel, yet at the same time, the process is what can be harming our environment just as much, if not more! In reading your blog I was wondering what your stance is on this issue? Also do you feel that if as a society we became more informed of how food is processed we would change our eating accordingly?

john said...

The questions surrounding whether "locavorism" is virtuous or misguided are important. Many social "ism" trends tend to be overly simplistic. The book you mention, "Just Food" is, in my opinion, NOT a good source of answers to the important questions. It's really just a self-promotional rant to assist the author in getting booked on media appearances as the "anti-locavore" balance to Michael Pollan and others. Not worth wasting time or money reading.

Jessica Hrgetic said...

Hey Sybil,
I really enjoyed reading your piece on "Do Locavores Have it Wrong?". I have heard a lot about eating locally and find the different view points on it interesting. I understand the importance of what is represents- an environmentally friendly way of life, but at the same time I can also see it being a somewhat unrealistic lifestyle. I was wondering how do you think we could incorporate elements of this lifestyle into our current one? How can we help the environment and remain aware of where our food comes from without turning our lives upside down to do it?

Sybil Hebert, RD said...

Thanks so much Tangled Noodle! :)

Racheal- Thanks for stopping by! That's great that you try to live as sustainably as possible... do you try to 'eat local'? I think, individually, buying more of our food from farmer's markets, choosing local, organic foods when possible, eating less meat, choosing grass-fed meat (if/when you eat meat)... are great and important steps. Not only do these actions reduce our carbon footprint, but supports our local farmers and economy. What I'm learning is that focusing on food miles itself is not the answer to fixing our food system...
I do think that becoming more aware of how food is produced/processed will change our eating habits- it worked for me (after reading Howard Lyman's Mad Cowboy and Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, and watching Food, Inc)... what do you think?

John- I agree completely. I wouldn't recommend Just Food either... while he did bring up points I was not aware of (LCAs)- the way he presents his arguments is not convincing and he often contradicts himself... Thanks for your comments. BTW- would love to know if you recommend any books (apart from Pollans'!) on the subject of sustainable eating/solutions to our current food system, etc.

Jessica- Thanks for your comment and great question...
From what I've read, I think aiming to eat local foods- shopping more frequently at farmer's markets, for example, is still a great step in helping the environment and allows us to know where our food has come for. It's also do-able. We just have to be aware that eating 100% local may not be the answer to fixing our food system and may not even be the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions....
The majority of 'experts' agree that meat, especially factory-farmed meat- contributes most to the deterioration of our environment. According to them, we need to start eating less meat... and, if we eat meat, choose grass-fed meat... (Michael Pollan is a big proponent of this).
Choosing local and/or organic and/or fair trade foods in the grocery store, when possible, are other important little steps. I think that if everyone took these little steps, we'd see some change... I think we need to understand that we really vote, and have a say, every time we buy something- and we need to use this power... The dialogue people are starting to have- asking where their food comes from- is also very important, I think. :)

john said...

Hi Sybil, thanks for responding to my comment. In response to your question " BTW- would love to know if you recommend any books (apart from Pollans'!) on the subject of sustainable eating/solutions to our current food system, etc."... I just finished "Righteous Porkchop" by Nicholette Hahn Niman. I highly recommend it. As the name implies, it is focused on meat/eggs/dairy. Quick read, part memoir, part expose, part prescription. She is vegetarian (not vegan), married to a rancher, with very important, well-developed views on sustainable livestock farming. Back on "Just Food", I reviewed it on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Another benefit of eating locally is that it is often less expensive and better quality than food that is shipped across the country.

Jme said...

Great post! I think you are right Sybil, there are many layers to the onion that is our far from perfect food system, and the environmental impact to transportation is one of them.

Nicole, RD said...

Great information. I love buying gives me warm fuzzies like volunteer work. I dunno, I just feel so GOOD about local shopping and supporting my community. I cannot believe, however, that I've NEVER heard the term "Locavore"! I MUST be living under a rock if it was #1 in 2007!!

Gina said...

This is a very interesting post (as always). I had heard a lot of information about how buying local is good for the environment, but I had not ever before heard the opposite argument. I'll admit I'm not into buying local all the time, it's just not feasible for me to go to Farmer's Markets all the time (we don't have many this time of year) or shop at the expensive Whole Foods!! I prefer to save the world by using less electricity, easting less meat, and not accumulating a lot of trash/recycle!!