I am a big fan of Freakonomics, and have always found their conclusions to be sound. When I found this podcast essentially debunking the myth that eating local food can save the planet I was both intrigued and skeptical. The boys at Freakonomics did not disappoint, and this podcast gave me plenty to think about. I had always assumed that shipping food constitutes the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions related to the food I eat, not taking into account all of the other massive requirements for food production, especially in geographic areas not blessed with a mild growing climate (i.e. the Front Range). Farm machines in the field, climate controlling, manufacturing, and packaging account for the lions share of carbon emissions related to the food we eat, and those variables are the same or even worse if you are eating food locally.
Take tomatoes as an example. Let’s assume that we intend to continue to eat tomatoes along the Front Range, and that everyone will be eating locally. Have you ever calculated the CO2 footprint of a climate controlled greenhouse on the Front Range? Consider the CO2 emissions of a greenhouse – the manufacturing, shipping, and eventual running of the greenhouse. The energy required to extend seasons in commercial growing operations along the Front Range is enormous, and would actually increase our overall carbon footprint if we were to pursue this endeavor with any real fervor.
The analysis that is represented in this podcast focuses on agribusiness agriculture – food that is grown using conventional growing techniques. These techniques rely heavily on energy from all sources, even if the food is grown organically. These conventional food production methods also rely on huge energy inputs to process the food – think stewed tomatoes, a loaf of bread, or pasteurized milk. It turns out that shipping food is less than 1% of the total energy required in the foods production, a number that is easily overrun if food is grown in regions with less than ideal growing climates. This analysis does not take into account micro growing operations in urban environments that use human labor, or low energy systems like permaculture.
The idea that eating locally is not good for the planet is contrary to what many of us believe intuitively. Before you outright dismiss this idea take a few minutes and listen to the podcast and draw your own conclusions – I know I had to.
So why even bother eating local food? The bottom line is that there are many reasons to eat locally, reasons that include such things as community resiliency, combating the urban heat island phenomenon, having greater control over what is in your food, supporting local economy, and regional identity to name a few. That being said, unless we convert entirely over to carbon zero growing methods, saving the planet is not a reason to eat locally.
What do you think? Leave a comment and tell us why or why not you think eating local food is the way to go.