5 Ridiculous Myths People Use to Trash Local Food -- And Why They're Wrong
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It's become predictable. At nearly regular intervals, someone, somewhere, will decide it's time to write another article "debunking" the local food movement. The latest installment is by Steve Sexton, posted on the Freakonomics blog (which also treated us to a previous post called " Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?") And we must not forget the leading anti-locavore, James McWilliams, who gave us " The Locavore Myth" and many other, similar articles.
The arguments are stale, shallow and often incorrect. But if you enjoy the flavor of organic heirloom tomatoes, fresh picked from the farm, here's how to read these articles without filling with guilt that your love of local food is doing the planet in and starving people in the Global South.
Myth #1: People who eat local eat the same diet as those who don't.
A favorite anti-locavore argument is that eating local does not reduce oil usage or carbon emissions. Now, if locavores were munching on locally produced Big Macs and other highly processed foods as the rest of the mainstream food system does, this argument might be correct. But that's not the case.
James McWilliams likes to use the example of a study on lamb which shows that eating New Zealand lamb in London actually has a smaller carbon footprint than lamb from the U.K. The New Zealand lamb is raised on pasture, and even when you factor in the carbon emissions from shipping, it is still friendlier to the environment than grain-fed factory farmed U.K. lamb. Well, sure. Only no self-respecting London locavore would dream of eating grain-fed, factory farmed lamb. He or she would find a local farmer raising lamb on pasture instead. Now compare the carbon footprint of that to the New Zealand lamb. With similar production methods and a correspondingly similar carbon footprint, the major difference between the two would be the oil required to ship the New Zealand lamb halfway across the world.
Myth #2: The only reason for eating local is reducing 'food miles.'
Often anti-locavore arguments, such as the one above from McWilliams, are predicated on the notion that locavores only eat local to reduce food miles -- the number of miles the food traveled from farm to fork -- and the reason they do that is to reduce carbon emissions. Since modern shipping methods are relatively efficient, it is then easy to prove that it's very efficient to transport a truckload or train car full of fresh peaches from California around the rest of the U.S., compared to the efficiency of driving a relatively small quantity of peaches to and from a farmers' market. No doubt one can come up with numbers showing that, per pound of peach, transporting large quantities of peaches across the country uses less oil than transporting smaller quantities shorter distances.
But that assumes this is the only benefit to eating local, and it isn't. For one thing, who picked the California peaches? Probably migrant labor. How were they treated? How were they paid? Probably poorly. What was sprayed on those peaches? In 2004, more than 100 different pesticides were used in California peaches, including highly toxic ones like methyl bromide, paraquat,chlorpyrifos, and carbaryl. This amounted to a total of 468,804 pounds of pesticides used on peaches in California alone that year. And how about water usage? What is the rationale of growing the majority of the nation's fruit in a state that does not have enough water without heavy irrigation (and also lacks the necessary abundance of water to accomplish all that irrigation)?