What Is the True Cost of Eating Local?
You’ve tried it, right? Eating foods exclusively grown within a hundred or so miles of your home? Well, as romantic as a ‘locavore’ diet may sound, is eating local viably sustainable or healthy? Let’s consider the matter from both sides as it may help us decide if the eat local movement is suitable for our current eating habits and lifestyles.
According to ‘locavore-ist’ philosophy, the collectivization of the food supply and unregulated growth of multinational agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Cargill have created an unbridgeable gap between farm and fork. Food produced within the breadbasket of America must be shipped to distribution centers across the nation, only to be shipped back to the supermarkets mere miles from the foods source. This food journey, which some say averages around 1,500 miles, has many environmental costs like increases in air pollution and global warming, in addition to the ecological costs of large scale monoculture. Further, beyond the ‘tangible’ consequences just mentioned, the political and nutritional implications of our modern food system and consuming industrialized foods perpetuates opacity and inequality.
The potential solution: eating local and regional foods!
By supporting local farms and sustainable agriculture, it is believed that ‘locavores’ can have a direct impact upon the preservation of local farmland and farmers that produce ‘eco-healthy’ foods. Also, eating within a small radius of one’s home can confer a sense of connection and responsibility with the community, while grounding our lives in the, “biological and social realities of living on the land and from the land in a place that we can call home.”
The idea of eating locally grown foods is ripe with idealism. Though in theory locavorism would accomplish a great deal in fighting the industrialization of our food supply, some detractors ask whether or not the collectivization and inherent improvements in agricultural efficiency is really such a bad thing. According to Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, authors of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet, the widespread adoption of locavorism would only result in, “higher costs and increased poverty, greater food insecurity, less food safety and much more significant environmental damage.” This argument seems fairly reasonable when we consider economies of scale, which suggests that there is a cost and production advantage to increases in size and reach that can be directly passed on to the consumer.
In theory, economies of scale would also apply to distribution and waste as the movement of large quantities of food from centralized locations have the ability to reach a greater number of markets more efficiently while reducing the amount of packaging and fuel while reducing the number of man hours required to get the goods to market. Further, those who eat locally may also erroneously believe that eating locally corresponds with eating fresher, more nutrient dense foods and is therefore more healthful. But a recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that, “diets of the highest nutritional quality are currently not those with the lowest diet-related green house gas emission,” a.k.a. diets that consist of locally sourced foods.
In light of the growing locavore movement and the controversy surrounding its benefit, I decided it would be a fun little experiment to adopt such a diet for a few days to see what, if any, physical or psychological benefit may be gained. And, although my meals became a little redundant (as one might expect when eating foods grown exclusively within a hundred miles of ones home), I am happy to report that the nutrient analysis done on my locavore diet was highly encouraging and reinforced the beauty in living and eating simply. I was well able to meet my established macro- and micronutrient needs based upon the USDA’s recommended intakes without having to spend too much time managing my meals or food pairings or consuming an obnoxious amount of vitamin supplements.
Additionally, the experience motivated me to locate and connect with local producers through our neighborhood CSA, which was also beneficial in that it saved me a considerable amount of time and money that is associated with going to my local health foods store. And, the connection I felt with the community and the conversations I was able to have with like-minded locals while participating in our CSA was enriching and added another, previously unknown, dimension to my ‘locavore’ experience. I look forward to fostering this connection with the food and community when I am able to start volunteering my time and giving back to the community farms that provides such a valuable service.
Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible for me to measure the environmental impact of my temporary locavore-ism, but I would like to believe that contributing to small community programs, improving my nutritional awareness and the time, money and gas saved in one trip to my CSA far outweigh any negative impact, however marginal, eating locally may have.
One more thing I noticed that may be of particular importance, eating locally pretty much forced me to adopt a plant-based diet because of the limited availability of locally produced, high quality animal foods and its no secret that such a diet would dramatically improve the health of devoted carnivores and ‘mindless’ eaters the world over. Not to mention the fact that it would reduce demand for foods produced by companies that force inhumane conditions upon our four-legged and winged friends.
So, all things considered, I believe there is a tremendous amount of benefit to be gained from experimenting with a locavore diet as long as it encourages us to become more mindful of our eating habits and how they impact our community and the local economy. If nothing else, it opens up a world of opportunities to get more involved in the community and to meet a number of like-minded individuals.
Eat that, haters!
Image courtesy of Matthew Lovitt