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Myth: Eating locally is always better for the environment.

TRUTH: Gasp! Is this really a myth?!  ‘But Kate,’ you might say, ‘you help run a farmers’ market program!  You’re rendering your job useless!’  Not true, I say!

It’s been cited (particularly in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma) that the average American meal travels 1500 miles to get to your table.  Local food travels only a few hundred miles so mustn’t it be better?!  It’s not only about the miles that the food travels but the energy intensity of those miles.

Let’s consider two scenarios:

  1. An apple grown in upstate New York travels on a truck with several hundred others from the Finger Lakes region to a farmers market in Westchester, NY.  That’s about 275 miles on a truck.  Then, the apples are sold at a farmers market, to which a family has to drive 15 miles and only brings home 10 apples.  The fuel cost and emissions per apple are relatively high.
  2. An apple grown in Washington state travels by freight train with tens of thousands of other apples to New York, where they are then driven 20 miles to a farmers market in Westchester (plus 15 miles in the family vehicle).  In general, trains and shipping are generally much more efficient than trucking; air transport is much less efficient.  Plus, there are thousands of apples traveling, so cost per apple is SIGNIFICANTLY less than the one grown upstate.

Basically, just because it’s local, doesn’t mean that it’s not energy intense.  Food miles aren’t the only factor in a carbon footprint (there’s also the cost of production, packaging, and distribution). 

BOTTOM LINE: There’s a lot of debate around this issue.  What happens to food en route can be just as impactful as what happens at the farm and at the table.  The jury is still out on what’s best but I’m still going to purchase produce at farmers’ markets because the food is fresher and less expensive.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

  1. The Economist, Food Politics Article: http://www.economist.com/node/8380592?story_id=8380592
  2. The Boston Globe ‘Locavore’s Dilemma’ http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/07/22/the_localvores_dilemma/

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