Room for exotic flavors

The recent New York Times op-ed suggesting that local food isn’t the be-all and end-all of sustainability generated quite a bit of discussion around the Worldwatch office. Many of us who are committed to eating local food agreed with the author, James McWilliams—himself an admitted locavore—on many points. McWilliams cited a New Zealand study that has gotten lots of attention (particularly in New Zealand) because it showed that, despite the long-distance haul, New Zealand lamb requires just a quarter of the energy to produce and ship as British lamb because of New Zealand’s balmy climate and extensive pastures.

Before completely writing off the energy savings of local food, I’d like to see similar studies for the tomatoes I bought recently from a farm two miles down the road. The farm uses no chemical fertilizers (which are very energy intensive), depends largely on hand labor rather than big tractors, and starts its tomato seedlings in a passive-solar greenhouse rather than a fossil-fuel heated structure.

“It’s entirely possible that under certain systems or certain constraints the local is going to be less efficient than the national or even global food system in terms of energy and greenhouse gas use,” said Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, with whom I spoke for our July 23 blog, "No More Anonymous Food." Pirog pioneered much of the thinking on food miles a few years ago, showing that the mode of conveyance makes a huge difference-—that is, potatoes shipped by rail from Idaho to New York might be less polluting than Maine potatoes delivered via 18-wheeler truck. “Food miles are a great indicator of localness, but they aren’t necessarily the best indicator of energy use,” Pirog argues.

Echoing these points. McWilliams concludes by calling for life-cycle analyses of food products that take into account the energy and other resources that go into all stages of production—the metal used for the tractor, the fuel for the fertilizer and pesticides, the disposal of the packaging. “Life cycle assessments offer far more valuable measurements to gauge the environmental impact of eating,” he writes. “While there will always be good reasons to encourage the growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop in tandem with what could be their equally sustainable global counterparts.”

Yes, there will always be room for exotic flavors at the local table. And not all long-distance food is created equal. Shipping dried spices, teas, and coffee beans in unrefrigerated cargo containers is considerably less resource-intensive than shipping frozen shrimp raised on polluting and mangrove-eliminating farms in Thailand.

For those concerned primarily with reducing energy use, eating local is generally a great start. So are the following additional steps:

· Shop nearby if you can. Driving long-distance to a farmers market isn’t doing anyone any favors. Even better, try to get your local supermarket to host a farmers market in its parking lot.

· Eat whole, unprocessed foods. The energy use and greenhouse gas emissions skyrocket for canning, freezing, and other processing, and processed foods require more energy to ship.

· Buy organic. Organic farmers use one-third to one-half the energy of a conventional farm, largely because they aren’t using energy-intensive fertilizers and pesticides. They also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by locking up more carbon in their rich soils.

· Eat meat raised on pasture, rather than reared in grain- and energy-intensive feedlots. Whether it’s coming from New Zealand or New Mexico, grass-fed meat will often win out in the energy calculus.

· Eat seasonally. Your local tomato grower might have to drive love apples to market in August, but at least you won’t be getting them flown in from Holland in December.