The importance of food miles has come under fire lately. While it seems logical that food produced locally would have a smaller carbon footprint than food produced and transported cross the country or even across the globe, sometimes it’s just not the case. Mass production of food can be more efficient simply because of the sheer quantity of production. But is it the healthier choice?
Production of certain types of food or livestock can be more efficient due to environmental conditions, soil conditions, and a variety of other factors in a specific region. For example, shipping lamb and apples from New Zealand to the United Kingdom initially seems counterintuitive since Britain raises its own sheep and grows its own apple orchards. But, according to a life cycle analysis presented in “Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry” by Caroline Saunders, Andrew Barber and Greg Taylor, producing apples in New Zealand yields 50 tons of apples per hectare of land. In the United Kingdom, that same amount of fertilizer yields just 14 tons of apples per hectare. For lamb, the production amounts per hectare are similar for New Zealand and Britain, yet Britain needs to use 13 times more fertilizer to produce that amount of lamb. New Zealand has a better climate and landscape for raising apples and lamb, meaning even with the shipping miles factored in, New Zealand’s lamb and apples are more efficient for Britain than buying locally.
But while all that efficiency may make the importance of food miles a moot point in some cases, it does not supplant the importance of local food. Here are four reasons why local food is still important even if food miles aren’t a factor:
1. Direct relationships mean you know what you get. Forming direct relationships with food producers means you know what you’re getting. Buying locally bolsters the local agricultural economy and allows that community to continue producing quality produce or livestock products. Supporting local growers with your wallet makes it possible for them to operate in spite of being financially outmatched by larger growers and distributors.
2. Quality of production is more important than quantity of food miles. One of the benefits to buying your food locally is that it’s easy to find out how the food is produced. And often times, small growers are using more sustainable methods. You’re able to visit farms or ranches to verify quality (and pick your own!). Likewise, if you’re not satisfied with local growing methods, you can take measures to find healthier alternatives for you and your family.
3. Community-driven economies can survive downturns. Circulating money through your local economy means it can continue to support your community. The economic theory is referred to as plentitude economics. The term, espoused by economist Juliet Schor, refers to a reorganization of the economy to revolve around slow business, do-it-yourself culture, simple low-impact living and slow money investments.
Supporters of plentitude economics and the slow money movement believe buying local produce, meats and dairy can build relationships and communities. Slow money supporters adhere to localized food investment “in order to enhance food security, food safety and food access; improve nutrition and health; promote cultural, ecological and economic diversity; and accelerate the transition from an economy based on extraction and consumption to an economy based on preservation and restoration.” One of the key slow money principles states, “we must learn to invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered. We must connect investors to the places where they live, creating vital relationships and new sources of capital for small food enterprises.” Keeping money in local hands means more local benefits. It also keeps money out of the control of big corporations for which we can have little say in the daily operation. That means, in times of economic crisis, that the community can support itself more effectively since the local economic infrastructure is already in place.
4. Local seasonal produce means fewer pathogens, even on nonorganic foods. Not only do freshly picked fruits and vegetables pack maximum nutrition, but out-of-season fruits and vegetables also are often imported from countries with less-stringent regulations for pesticide use and food handling. Imported foods are three times more likely to be contaminated with pathogens than domestic produce. And the FDA only inspects a small portion of produce.
If you’re having trouble finding local food producers in your area, check out these resources: