More than Meets the Table: The Pros and Cons of Local Produce

The truth is the phrase ‘local produce’ is tossed around with more abandon than ‘superfood’ and ‘organic,’ we’re not exactly sure what it means but it looks good on a label. So what does local really mean? How local is local produce?

In many areas, especially in big cities with little agricultural surface area, the climate is such that eating local, seasonal, field-grown produce would be almost impossible for much of the year. Most of the land within 100 miles of large cities is very built up and we are left wondering where the farmland to feed us all locally will come from.

A 2008 Leopold Institute survey in the United States found that two-thirds of those surveyed considered local food to mean food grown within 100 miles. But can all food from farm to table really be grown, stored, shipped and delivered to your corner market all within a 100-mile radius? Maybe, but there is more than meets the eye.

Sarah DeWeerdt said in the May/June issue of World Watch Magazine, “Large concentrations of people live in areas not suited to growing certain staple crops; it’s one thing to forego bananas, but quite another to give up wheat.”

Food miles are the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is ultimately purchased or consumed. Rich Pirog, the associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, said, “Food miles are a good measure of how far food has traveled. But they’re not a very good measure of the food’s environmental impact.”

CO2 emissions climb with every crate of cherries shipped from Chile, with every box of bell peppers shipped from the Netherlands.

We are paying for this exotic produce not only with our wallets but also with our health. In the state of California alone Approximately 950 cases of asthma, 16,870 missed schools days, 43 hospital admissions, and 37 premature deaths could be attributed to the worsened air quality from food imports, according to freight transport–related projections by the California Air Resources Board.

It is a double-edged sword of course. The epic struggle between the environment and human consumption is at an apex.

For example, as soon as quinoa became a health food phenomenon, farmers growing this gluten free ancient grain changed their way of life that had been around for hundreds of years. The Andean population stopped eating quinoa and started upselling it instead of selling it to support them.

It is now more profitable for quinoa farmers to sell and export their produce and import cheaper staples like white rice and pasta than it is to eat the nutritious grains grown in their own backyard.

According to Tom Philpott in a Mother Jones article from January last year, “Escalating prices, while boosting farmers’ incomes, are also helping drive down quinoa consumption in the Andes—including among the very farmers who grow it.”

But quinoa isn’t the only product changing the way we look at global trade. Plenty of fruits and vegetables are also shipped to and from countries every day causing more problems than we ever expected like worsening air quality, pollution and loss of global economic fairness.

But pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are about so much more than just delivery of food. A life-cycle analysis (LCA) is a research method reveals that food miles represent a relatively small slice of the greenhouse-gas pie.

In a 2009 study Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University, comprised a comprehensive life-cycle analysis of the average American diet. The study found that final delivery from producer or processor to the point of retail sale accounts for only 4 percent of the U.S. food system’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Transport accounts for about 11 percent of the food system’s emissions. While at a global level livestock account for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. That is more than all forms of fossil fuel-based transport combined.

We not only need to become more knowledgeable of where our food is coming from and how it gets to us, but we also need to think about what we are eating. By consumers working with farmers and bigger grocery businesses, we can work together to impact the present and grow a better future.

Ashley Colpaart, coordinator of the Northern Colorado Food Cluster, an entity dedicated to spreading the local produce word, says one of the biggest challenges in growing a food system is lack of communication.

According to Luke Runyon for Community Radio for Northern Colorado, “Farmers who run small operations rarely have the time to network, and bigger companies don’t see the benefit in working with smaller entities.” This has lead to a system of food trade that leaves smaller growing operations and farmers out of the loop.

Communication, involvement and knowledge of where our food comes from, how it gets to us and what we are eating is crucial in making a difference in the way we not only receive our food but what we eat as well.

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