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?
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 choose 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 Assessment: Food's Carbon Footprint
McWilliams talks about the Life-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:
"...food 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".