The Locavore’s Dilemma

Perhaps you’ve heard of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Although this book is still on my to-read list, from what I’ve garnered over the years of friends raving about this book, Pollan follows four meals and details the intimate lengths taken for them to arrive at our dinner plates. So, okay. This post’s name comes from a well-known book title that sparked people’s way of thinking about food. I introduce to you the Locavore’s Dilemma, a point brought up by one of my co-workers earlier this week. Before we begin, let me define what it is to be a “locavore.”

Image from wikipedia.

As defined by Merriam-Webster, a locavore is one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible. Sounds great, right? Local food = smaller carbon footprint. For example, an apple from a local orchard traveled a shorter distance, and thus expended less carbon, than an apple grown from Washington state. However, my co-worker brought up a great point about the locavore movement. Incidentally, his point coincides with one of the messages of Pollan’s book: Our food systems have essentially negated the problem of eating solely seasonal fruit. Want avocados out of season? No worries, they’re grown and imported from somewhere that has the climate to support avocados! What about the locavore movement? Thanks to the engineering of greenhouses, we can have “local” out-of-season fruits and veggies right on our plates at any time we want. The problem? This local out-of-season produce has a larger carbon footprint than imported produce.

Image from farmingfortcollins.com

 

Yup. That’s right. The greenified “locavore” movement isn’t that green. Sure, it has good intentions. Not all local foods have a larger carbon footprint than their imported counterparts. But for us humans of the modern day, we like having bananas for smoothies. We like fresh food. But the energy that goes into providing the crops with enough water and fertilizer, or growing them in a greenhouse that mimics the climate the crops came from adds up and thus the carbon footpring of some local food is bigger than you’d think.  However, after googling the words “locavore carbon footprint,” the top articles cover the inefficiency and myths the locavore movement projects. It turns out, this news isn’t new (i.e. emerged within the past 5 years). People have been documenting, measuring, and reporting the numbers against the movement to have local food.

(Want to read more and get into number crunching that I have not? Try these articles:

http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2009/0803/opinions-energy-locavores-on-my-mind.html

The Local Food Myth: Why Locavores May Be Getting It Wrong

http://freakonomics.com/2011/11/14/the-inefficiency-of-local-food/

Enjoy!)

So with this news in mind, what can you do to still eat local but keep a small carbon footprint? One of the biggest things I would say is to not simply measure the miles it took for your food to end up at your plate. Going back to my apple example, one could easily guess it took more carbon to get an apple from Washington state than a local Virginia orchard. While this mileage counter is a good way of measuring “greenness,” use it only as a baseline. Another suggestion is to do more research about your food: How much carbon and/or water does it take to produce x amount of ___? Under what climatic conditions is ____ grown? If you’re able to go to a farmer’s market to purchase your food, ask around as to the practices used to grow your food. The more transparency we have in our food system, the better, smarter, healthier, and greener choices we can make.

farmers_market_1
Charlottesville’s City Market. Image from ahomeincharlotteville.com

 

While this article is not meant to demonize the locavore movement, I strongly urge you to refine your way of thinking what it means to eat locally. One of the big messages of the locavore movement is that it’s a greener, more sustainable way of eating but in the process of meeting people’s demands for delicious food, the locavore movement has gone out of its way to give us foods that are not historically local. Our food expectations and palates have changed, as I’ve said, to expect a plethora (or at least plentiful amount) of foods that may not be available in the climate we live in, which increases your carbon footprint when you buy “local” historically non-local foods (try saying that ten times fast). Try experimenting with foods that are suited to your climate and buy those locally. It may be difficult to eat every meal with a tiny carbon footprint that incorporates seasonal and indigenous to the climate you live in, but, hey, the internet is a vast place with hundreds upon thousands of recipes!

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