Eat Conscious and Local

>> Sunday, November 9, 2008

This post is my submission for this month's APLS Blog Carnival. The subject is buying local. Check out all of the APLS bloggers on November 15 at the Green Phone Booth.

At the DC Green Festival this weekend, I attended a presentation by Co-op America's executive director, Alisa Gravitz, about the 12-step program to reversing climate change. The 12th step she outlined was to eat locally grown food, which she said uses less energy because it cuts down on “food miles,” the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is consumed.

I've read several reputable sources disproving the “fewer food miles equals less carbon” assertion because of the current infrastructure of our food transportation system. Lots of farmers driving long distances to farmers markets and lots of individual cars making individual trips to farmers markets have a bigger impact on the environment, local-eating opponents say, than big trucks delivering tons of food to the grocery store.

I'm sure local-eating enthusiasts have their own argument against these findings, much like my own insistence that cloth diapers are better than disposables (despite the evidence that they are equal) because I've committed to using cloth. Frankly, I don't really care which argument is right. I think there are many, many more reasons beyond the environment to jump on the local-eating bandwagon. And I also think there are many reasons to think beyond local when choosing foods to eat. That is why I've developed my own philosophy regarding food. For lack of a better term, I'm calling it Conscious Eating, and it basically goes like this:

Eat food that is grown sustainably on a small-scale farm by a local farmer who pays his workers a fair wage and whom I know personally. When all of these qualifications cannot be met, try to meet as many qualifications as possible. But even one is better than nothing because all of these qualities are good.

1. Grown Sustainably

I read in a New York Times article by Michael Pollan recently (please please read this article) that “[In Argentina], in a geography roughly comparable to that of the American farm belt, farmers have traditionally employed an ingenious eight-year rotation of perennial pasture and annual crops: after five years grazing cattle on pasture (and producing the world’s best beef), farmers can then grow three years of grain without applying any fossil-fuel fertilizer. Or, for that matter, many pesticides: the weeds that afflict pasture can’t survive the years of tillage, and the weeds of row crops don’t survive the years of grazing, making herbicides all but unnecessary.”.

That system sounds so perfect, so naturally designed, that you've got to wonder why we ever moved away from it. The answer is that people got greedy, people got lazy, and the farther we've gotten away from the old ways, the harder it is to go back.

2. A Small-Scale Farm

It seems to me that most of the problems with our current agricultural system stem from the fact that we've let the farms get too big. Farms are not farms anymore. They are agricultural factories. Because of subsidies and various other legalities, it has become much more cost-effective to grow all of our food on a ridiculously large scale by drenching them in pesticides and chemical fertilizer and to raise all of our livestock in inhumane conditions. The little man only has a chance of survival if we give him our support.

3. By a Local Farmer

You want to know how to ensure that there will be jobs in your area? Support the economy where you live by buying local. And I'm not just talking local farmers. Support your local food co-op, your local restaurants, your local artisans, your local musicians, your local clothing makers, your local furniture makers. You might be surprised what you find. As I have tried to buy more locally in my area, I have discovered an unexpected outcome: I am loving where I live. In keeping with the gratitude challenge this month, this is my thought about gratitude for the day: I am so grateful that we had the opportunity to move to Raleigh.

4. Pays His Workers a Fair Wage

I read an article a few months ago about a farmer in Florida who was practicing slavery. He had hired some migrant workers, but he soon stopped paying them and instead started beating them and locking them in boxes at night. If there's any reason why I think it's more important to eat consciously than to eat locally, it is this.

If my main qualification for food was that it came from within a 100-mile radius from my house, it might never cross my mind that the workers on the farm where I'm getting my local oranges might not be treated fairly. Slavery is an extreme example, but farm and factory farm workers are regularly paid poor wages and forced to work under poor conditions.

Also, even as I become more and more committed to eating locally, I'm not about to give up tropical fruits. Bananas are one of the few fruits that everyone in my house will eat. And mango pancakes? Oh, my, divine....So what I am going to be concerned about is that the banana farmers and the pineapple farmers and all those other wonderful fruit farmers way down south are being paid a fair wage.

5. And Whom I Know Personally

Last year, my family joined a CSA, and for me, the best thing about it was that we knew the farmer and we regularly visited the farm. I knew how dedicated our farmer was to organic farming, I got to see first hand that her chickens were indeed “free range,” and I knew how much she was struggling to fulfill the CSA quotas because of the drought. It is amazing to have a close connection to the source of your food.

In my perfect scenario, I would be the local farmer with that sustainable, small-scale farm. In my other perfect scenario, all of my neighbors would have gardens and everyone would stop wasting precious land on lawns that are never used and we would all swap vegetables and farming techniques. But right now, I have to be content with CSAs and farmers markets and doing my best to get to know the farmers I buy from every week. It's not a perfect situation, but at least I'm doing it consciously.

Update: If you've never read anything discrediting the "fewer food miles equals less carbon" statement, you can see some examples on my post "Eat Conscious and Local, Part 2," which I posted in response to one commenter's request.


Dan,  November 10, 2008 at 10:20 AM  

I don't understand why you have your second paragraph here, citing unnamed but supposedly "reputable" sources who think buying local is not a climate solution.

The entire rest of your post suggests that you yourself think local foods are the answer, and the reasons you cite from your "reputable" sources are transparently false.

"Lots of people driving to farmers' markets" What?

I walk to my farmers' market, as does everyone I know.

And even if that weren't true, don't people who use cars (boo hiss) drive everywhere? So isn't that just a choice between some car-driver using gas to get to the supermarket vs. a car-driver using gas to get to the farmers' market ... which is just a wash.

Bottom line: Local food does save carbon. How could it not? A tomato grown on a farm just outside of town rides 30 miles on a truck. A tomato grown in California rides thousands of miles. The emissions are easily calculated.

I'd be interested to see the actual sources you're citing.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper November 10, 2008 at 3:11 PM  


Regarding your question about driving to the farmers market, I drive to mine as does everyone I know. There are not very many farmers markets here in Raleigh, and for most people, it would mean a distance of 10 to 20 miles or more, and there is not good public transportation. On the other hand, there is a supermarket on every corner, so even if they're driving to the supermarket, it's a shorter distance.

I do not think local foods are the answer. I think they are a good part of the answer, but more importantly, people need to be more conscious about where their food comes from, be that from a local farmer or from a fair trade farmer in Costa Rica.

When I was writing this post, I couldn't find those articles again (I may have heard the studies described on NPR) and figured it didn't really matter since my point was not to convince people that those sources were correct. Also, this is not a magazine/newspaper article or an encyclopedia article but my own blog and my own opinions, so I didn't see the point in searching for those articles when there are many other things I could be doing with my time. I'll keep an eye out for them and update this post if I see them.

Mon :Global Homestead November 17, 2008 at 9:11 AM  

Hey there,

I'm not comvinced about the difference in transportation miles between driving to farmer's markets and large trucks delivering to supermarkets, etc.

Having said that, I understand where you're coming from - that 'eat local' isn't the only way to think (my own pov too). I like the points you've outlined as your conscious eating principles.

I think we can get caught up in an ideology at the expense of the rest of reality, or at the expense of consciousness - we become complacent and don't bother taking other aspects into consideration, such as fair pay.

Great stuff, I enjoyed reading this.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper November 17, 2008 at 7:46 PM  

Mon, Thanks for the encouraging comments. I enjoyed reading your APLS post also.

Regarding the transportation miles, I can give you the example of my own farmers market, though it may be different from your own situation...Tomatoes in the supermarket are generally from California, so a truck bringing them to my local supermarket would travel about 2500 miles. So then say 200 people drive 5 miles to the supermarket to buy a tomato and 5 miles home, so that's 2000 miles traveled. Total 4500 miles.

Farmers in my area travel about 50 miles to the farmers market that's closest to my house. So then say 200 people travel 10 miles to the farmers market (some people are traveling farther than that, but just on average), and 10 miles back, so that's 4000 miles. So total that's 4050 miles traveled. Not including that most people are still going to make a trip to the supermarket.

The tomato itself doesn't travel as far, but the number of miles traveled by cars is not much different.

If supermarkets carried local produce, that would make a difference. If there were enough farmers markets that everyone could walk to one, that would make a huge difference. But that's not how it is, at least in my situation, right now.

Of course, just like with plastic/paper bags, cloth/disposable diapers, styrofoam/paper cups, the ultimate answer in this debate depends on a variety of factors and there's not an easy answer. It all depends on where you live, what you're eating, what studies you read, who funded the studies, and ultimately what you choose to believe. As you pointed out in your post, environmentalism rarely has easy answers.

Green Bean November 17, 2008 at 11:01 PM  

All true, true, true. Thank you for illumintating reasons beyond carbon emissions to eat local.

Oh, and I heard Michael Pollan talking about the Argentina system on NPR. Brilliant. We really need to move the country's agricultural system in that direction.

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