Local isn’t about the carbon footprint

I just posted my problems with the local movement, namely that a focus on choosing local foods can ignore the fact that the same crops have very different environmental impacts when grown in different places. That said, I’m a huge believer in eating locally. I’ve heard some criticisms of the local food movement recently that have bugged me because they seem incomplete, so I want to address them.
The most common criticism of local eating that pops up on various blogs has to do with carbon emissions. Some people claim, as the Freakonomics blog crew did a while ago, that the efficiencies of large-scale agriculture can mean that stuff shipped in from really far away actually has a smaller carbon footprint than local food. They tell you to picture one large steamship or cargo plane compared with dozens of inefficient diesel pickups driven by individual farmers.
The other carbon footprint argument is made by people comparing the transportation footprint of food to the production footprint of meat. Because of the huge amount of greenhouse gases released by animals, particularly cattle, eating meat and dairy gives you a much bigger carbon footprint than eating food shipped halfway across the world to your plate. Sometimes, this argument ends with the claim that if we really care about saving the world and reducing our impact, we should go vegetarian or vegan instead of worrying about local food.
I have two big problems with the carbon footprint argument. One: it’s not uniformly accurate. The generalizations that are relied on to make claims like, “x produces more carbon emissions than y” mean that those statements have to be taken with a grain of salt. The carbon footprint of a piece of food depends on literally thousands of factors—what it is, where it was grown or raised, where the water to irrigate it came from, how power is generated in the area it’s grown, how it was shipped and how it was packaged, just to name a few. Cows can be managed in such a way that they increase the organic content of soil, meaning the soil sequesters carbon and the beef being produced has a greatly reduced or negative footprint. I’m willing to concede that most of the time this isn’t the case, but to generalize about “the carbon footprint of beef” ignores the reality of farmers who are working hard to do it right. There’s simply no accurate way to know the exact footprint of anything, especially if you don’t know the person who produced it.
Secondly, these arguments are assuming that the only point of eating local is reducing your carbon footprint. A lot of foodies care about that, but most of us have other reasons we want to eat locally too. I personally don’t care much about my individual carbon footprint—I’m much more worried about the Keystone XL pipeline and stopping coal plants from being built than agonizing over how many cow farts it takes to destroy the planet. For me, local foods are about community. Buying directly from farmers keeps money in my area, where it has a greater multiplier effect. It supports hardworking average people, rather than shareholders and executives at big supermarkets. It allows me to have the awesome experience of strolling through the farmers’ market with no shopping list and buying weird-looking vegetables on impulse because the farmer who grew it was right there and told me how she cooks it at home.
Local foods are a function of privilege and wealth, and they’re yet another indicator of the sad fact that low-income people are much less likely to have access (geographically and financially) to healthy, fresh food, much less the time and knowledge required to cook it. As far as I’m concerned, this is the biggest problem with the local food movement. Choosing local can’t be called a choice if most people aren’t in a position to make it.
Ultimately, though, we need local. If we’re going to live on this planet well into the future, we’re going to have to do a better job of building resilient communities where members support each other. We’re going to have to grow more food closer to where we eat it and pay better attention to taking care of our soil and water. Local isn’t about carbon footprints. It’s much, much bigger than that. It’s about nothing less than reshaping our entire relationship to food.
Sometimes, this sounds like a daunting task to me. But then I remember that the current food infrastructure hasn’t been in place for very long. My great grandma knew how to can food. My grandma remembers what real tomatoes taste like and doesn’t want to buy the ones in the supermarket because she says they’re just not the same. Another world is possible, and its close relatives have existed in living memory. Industrial food on this scale is a post-World War II invention, and the seeds of resistance began sprouting a few decades ago, when organic food became a thing. I spent much of my time hopelessly depressed, lamenting the state of the world and politics and social injustice. But food is one thing that leaves me smiling. We’re up against the biggest, most entrenched special interests in the history of civilization. But time, dedication and ecology are on our side. It’s going to be hard, but we’ll get there. And when we do, there won’t be bloggers asking questions about whether local food makes sense, because local will be the new normal.

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