Note: This is a column I wrote for the Pioneer last fall while I was on Whitman’s Semester in the West program. The column can also be found on the Pioneer website. I’m planning to post in the next few days about some common reasons people argue against local food and why they’re missing the point, but I thought it would be relevant to post my own critique of the local idea, as well some thoughts on the shortcomings of food package labels.
The importance of eating local foods has been a prominent theme in the environmental movement for the past few years. Eating local makes sense for many reasons—buying close to home is a way to connect people to the farmers who grow their food, and a shorter transportation distance generally means fewer carbon emissions. As we develop local food systems, however, it is critical to remember that not all crops are created equal.
Consider California. About half of our nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown here, mostly in irrigated valleys which rely on the importation of water. In Southern California, much of this water comes from the Colorado River, which has been dammed dozens of times to provide cheap water for the desert farms and metropolises of the American West. California has the largest share of the Colorado’s water, and it uses about 80% of what it takes to irrigate crops. Unfortunately, the Colorado is overallocated—shared between seven states and Mexico, depended on to feed the growth of Las Vegas and Phoenix and subject to increased water loss as climate change warms the West. With water shortages looming on the horizon, California’s farmers may move to mining groundwater, pumping it from underground aquifers at rates that will take centuries to replenish.
A concerned environmentalist living in Los Angeles could easily find local produce to eat. Go to the supermarket, and you’ll find California-grown avocadoes, tomatoes, oranges, carrots and artichokes. But how sustainable is it to eat vegetables grown in a semi-desert with water pumped to them from hundreds of miles away? If local eating requires taking so much water from the Colorado that its waters have failed to reach the ocean for the last three decades, what are we accomplishing?
This is not to say that local foods aren’t a worthwhile goal. On the contrary, some degree of local food production is essential for solving climate change. But locovores need to do more than look at the distance their food has traveled to get to their plate. The same food produced in two different climates can have dramatically different environmental effects. Cattle grazed on Virginia pastures, where it rains, are good for the land and can easily be rotated between pastures to allow grasses to regrow. Cattle grazed in the desert canyonlands of Utah trample biotic soil crusts, increase soil erosion and allow non-native plants to take over the ecosystem. If you live in Utah and want to eat beef, getting it from Virginia might be the more sustainable choice.
Environmentalists are used to screening food by labels. If something is organic, local, grass-fed or all-natural, it’s automatically assumed to be better for our health and the Earth. If we want to succeed in building a more sustainable food system, we need to move beyond these labels and look at the actual impacts our food has on the land it’s grown on. If a crop can be grown in the area where you live without pumping a river dry, building a dam to divert subsidized irrigation water or permanently depleting the soil of its nutrients, it’s a good candidate for sustainability. If not, get it from somewhere that can grow it sustainably or go without it.
Obviously, this approach is not universally applicable—many crops are unsustainable no matter where they are grown, and there isn’t enough choice or transparency in our food system to answer all of these questions. Being in a place to consider your food choices this carefully is a function of education, environmental awareness and affluence, all of which are privileges many people don’t share. But to the extent it’s possible, everyone who cares about the health of the planet needs to ask difficult questions when they to go the store or sit down for dinner. Looking at the package will never tell you everything you need to know about your food. Talk to the farmer, learn what grows well where you live and pay attention to what you’re supporting when you buy food. Our existence on this planet depends on its ability to produce food for us. We need to start taking better care of it.