Monday, August 6, 2007

News: Eating locally and saving the environment: Not such great bedfellows after all?

Recently I wrote about one of the economic arguments against buying locally (and therefore, eating locally). There is also an environmental argument which is expertly discussed by James McWilliams, an eat local faithful himself, in an article titled Moveable Feast in the Texas Observer.

One of the trumping reasons for buying local is that it allows the consumer to cut back on the negative environmental impact of fossil fuel usage (I use this one myself), but McWilliams writes that while some of the other reasons we use to justify eating local such as taste, connecting with the community, and purity are fairly irrefutable, the fossil fuel argument may not be so solid. And further, the new idea of tracing “food miles” may not be the best way to judge environmental impact (see A new kind of labeling).

McWilliam’s conclusion: If your ultimate motivation for eating locally, and the reason you can sleep well at night, is to minimize your personal environmental footprint, you would be better off supporting sustainable production (another catch word in the movement) regardless of where it is in the world than choosing to eat locally.

If you’re short on time, a briefer version of McWilliam’s article showed up in the New York Times today titled Food That Travels Well.


cathal woods said...

hi melanie -

the example of the NZ meat is a striking and persuasive example of 'ecology of scale' and i think many localvores will find it agreeable, if only because it serves their self-interest - now they can buy the "exceptions" that they allow themselves with a lighter conscience.

but it's important not to jump too hastily to the conclusion that local food is not important and all of our efforts should go into reforming MSA (main-stream agriculture). for as mcwilliams points out, "food miles" is only one factor in the debate - there are other reasons for supporting local sustainable agriculture, such as
1. it tastes better (and is perhaps more nutritious, though the evidence is unsettled) because it hasn't travelled so far or been bred to do so. this is especially true of veg like tomatoes;
2. community - both knowing the folks who produce the food and keeping farms in one's immediate area

other reasons might be revealed by trying to thoroughly imagine the limits on turning MSA organic. for example, ecology of scale would seem to demand that we concentrate production of goods in one/few places, at which point there might be some diversity/monoculture worries - when new zealand falls into the ocean, meat-eaters will have no lamb; if there's a potato blight in idaho, there'll be a run on spuds.

thanks for the post and links!
cathal over at the New Earth Farm blog

Diane said...

MacWilliams' article was very informative, but how would the average person know when a non-local item was actually the "bad" choice? The formula for "ecology of scale" sounds too complex, even for labelling purposes, since the final consumer destinations would be all over the country. Am I missing something?