Is Eating Local the Best Choice?

Those who say eating local is not always the best choice for the planet are forgetting one very important part of the equation: community.
Some 30 years ago NASA came up with another BIG idea. Assemble vast solar electric arrays in space and beam the energy to earth. The environmental community did not dismiss NASA's vision out of hand. After all, the sun shines 24 hours a day in space. A solar cell on earth harnesses only about four hours equivalent of full sunshine a day. If renewable electricity could be generated more cheaply in space than on earth, what's the problem?

A number of us argued that the problem was inherent in the scale of the power plant. Whereas rooftop solar turns us into producers, builds our self-confidence and strengthens our sense of community as we trade electricity back and forth with our neighbors, space-based solar arrays aggravate our dependence. By dramatically increasing the distance between us and a product essential to our survival, we become more insecure. The scale of the technology demands a global corporation, increasing the distance between those who make the decisions and those who feel the impact of those decisions. Which, in turn, demands a global oversight body, itself remote and nontransparent to electric consumers.

NASA and most of the environmental community were impervious to arguments about scale and community. But environmentalists soon turned against the orbiting solar satellites when they concluded the microwave beams used to transmit the solar electricity to earth would wreak havoc on birds flying through its path. Ronald Reagan cut NASA's budget. The prospect of solar arrays dimmed.

My experience with distant solar came to mind when I read James F. McWilliams' recent column in the New York Times about food miles. McWilliams, a "passionate" advocate of "eat local," discussed new studies that conclude local is not always environmentally superior. One study he cites found the life cycle impact of a lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped to the United Kingdom was lower than a lamb raised and consumed in the U.K. Another more comprehensive study by University of Wales professors Ruth Fairchild and Andrea Collins found that transporting food from farm to store accounts for only 2 percent of the overall environmental impact of food systems. Food grown locally could have a considerably bigger footprint than food flown halfway around the world.

"I'm a bit worried about the food miles [debate], because it is educating the consumer in the wrong way. It is such an insignificant point," says Fairchild.

McWilliams' column comes as the U.K. Soil Association (the certification agency for U.K. organics) proposes stripping the organic label from foreign-produced certified organic goods that are flown in. Some food stores in Europe have announced they will label products that have been transported by air.

McWilliams thinks the new studies are beneficial even for localvores because they force us to adopt a more sophisticated and nuanced approach. He begins with the proposition, "[I]t is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production -- food will always have to travel."... And ends with the conclusion, "...[W]ouldn't it make more sense to stop obsessing over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation services according to fuel-efficient standards?"

For McWilliams, globally efficient food systems trump local food systems. "We must accept the fact, in short, that distance is not the enemy of awareness."

A few days later the Times published six letters to the editor in response to McWilliams' article. All disagreed with him, on environmental grounds. But none mentioned the word "community," which, to me, is the most important reason to prefer local food. Distance kills community.

Buying and using local creates a tight-knit interconnection between producers and consumers. It makes us more intimately aware of the impact of our buying and producing decisions on our neighbors. I live in Minneapolis, a few blocks away from a shallow lake. My neighborhood has learned that what we put on our lawns ends up in the lake. We see the impact in increased algae blooms and reduced fish that results from our own individual obsession with perfect lawns. Which has led more and more people to grow nonpolluting gardens rather than manicured lawns. That same awareness leads us to frown upon local farmers who use pesticides and fertilizers that run off into our water table and support those who don't.

Buying locally grown food, as Maiser observes, "is fodder for a wonderful story. Whether it's the farmer who brings local apples to market or the baker who makes local bread, knowing part of the story about your food is such a powerful part of enjoying a meal." Buying local builds relationships, almost organically forcing the consumer to become aware of the plight of the producer and the producer to become familiar with the needs of the consumer.

Buying and producing locally enables accountability. Distance disables accountability. As we have recently discovered, food shipped across the planet, from jurisdictions and by corporations that do not view safety as their highest priority, is virtually untraceable. Or it requires global inspection agencies that themselves become unaccountable.

Still, a growing number of voices, especially from southern countries, criticize advocates of local food on equity grounds. Many developing countries rely on agricultural exports to generate foreign currency to buy products and services essential to their survival and growth, they argue. If the developed world suddenly stopped importing its food, southern farmers would be further impoverished. This could have profound environmental consequences. Poverty is the single biggest factor driving problems like deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and the endangerment of wildlife. Export earnings -- from food flown to Europe and the United States -- allow southern farmers to invest in more environmentally friendly agriculture.

I find the equity argument more compelling than the environmental argument against local foods. Yet the equity argument also ignores the dynamics of dependence. The globalization of food has rarely enriched small farmers in the south. For 200 years, the food crops of the New World were cultivated by slaves. When the Spaniards brought bananas to the Caribbean, they needed to get the natives to do the backbreaking work of harvesting them in large plantations. But the natives were food self-sufficient and had little or no need for money. Thus the Spanish outlawed personal gardens. By destroying food self-sufficiency, they created a work force for growing exported food.

Today the dynamic of globalization and dependence is more nuanced but no less important. Countries are shifting land use and growing crops for export instead of local consumption. This may enrich some farmers but forces many others into poverty and increases hunger. The developing countries subsidize commodity exports, such as dumping grains on poorer countries, that impoverish small farmers. Indeed, just a few days ago CARE, a nonprofit that works to fight global poverty, refused tens of millions of dollars in federal money for food aid to Africa. CARE argued that the program was counterproductive. By supplying free food, the United States was undercutting domestic farmers, and poverty and hunger was increasing, not decreasing.

Local resources processed by local businesses for local consumption is the ideal. We will never live up to the ideal. But we can always be guided by the need to foster community here and abroad. We will never be completely food self-sufficient on the local or even regional level. Much of our food will come from elsewhere. And when it does, we should use the principles of fair trade. We should, whenever possible, contract directly with cooperative producer organizations. In return for paying a slightly higher price, we can require them to raise their crops in the most environmentally benign way as possible. But the environmental benefits of fair trade agreements are far less important than the benefits that come from strengthening communities in rural areas of the world: new educational and health networks, local innovation and invention, the preservation of extended families, and the continuation of cultures hundreds and thousands of years old.

Which leads to an odd but comforting conclusion. Just as strengthening community is the most important benefit of buying locally, it is also the most important benefit from buying distant. Public policies should be designed to maximize the use of local resources for local consumption here and abroad while trade rules should be designed to make trade less destructive to, and more supportive of, strong communities here and across the globe.
David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.