Does Eating Local Really Make an Environmental Difference?

by David Rengifo, Advance Humanity Partner


Disclaimer: this post is based on a two part series of Freakonomics radio, “You Eat What You Are”. You can listen to Part 1  and Part 2 here.

We have all heard the calls from environmentalists and activists for food conservation: eat locally! it will save the planet! you owe it to the future generations! support farmers markets and businesses selling local produce!

But does eating locally really make a significant, discernable dent in the conservation of our planet? When looking at the grand scheme of the global economy, should we be concerned about the overall gas emissions as a result of transportation caused by exporting food outside of where it is harvested? Is transporting food from the west to the east coast really that detrimental to our planet?

If you are a conservationist by nature, you will have very definite answers to these questions. It seems like a no brainer. If you eat locally, then you will have less of a carbon footprint in the environment because you are not supporting food that is transported over thousands of miles to get to you, right?

Think again. Take Santa Barbara County in California for example. This county is in the top 1% of agriculture-producing counties in the U.S., producing about $1.2 billion worth a year.

What if I told you that 95% of the produce consumed by residents of Santa Barbara county (as of 2012 data) is imported? And what’s more, what if I told you that 99% of those 1.2 billion dollars worth of produce are exported by Santa Barbara County? Is this an environmental travesty? How could this happen?

Thankfully, David Cleveland, an environmental studies professor at U.C.-Santa Barbara, is on the case. He devised a way to measure if the environmental impact by greenhouse gas emissions would significantly change if all the local produce of Santa Barbara county were to be consumed locally. The his reported findings may shock you:

“...we found that it wouldn’t make a lot of difference. Our savings in greenhouse gas emissions, per household, as a proportion of the total food system greenhouse gas emissions, was less than one percent.” - David Cleveland

What??!! Wouldn’t it make sense and be more efficient to transport food shorter distances thereby reducing our greenhouse emissions? Well, yes. However, if you take the impact of food transportation in the US in perspective, it only amounts to a tiny fraction of energy consumption overall. That means that eating 100% locally hardly makes an impact on the environment, hardly enough for it to be the sole focal point for environmentalists and locavore activists.

So where should we shift our focus, based on hard data? Can we actually make a difference in our carbon footprint by making smart choices about what to eat? The answer is YES!

According to a 2008 study by Weber and Matthews where they studied in detail the food network in the US: “the vast majority of the energy associated with food production is in the production phase rather than the transportation phase.”

It takes way more energy for example, to raise cattle or sheep than it takes to cultivate grain. It also takes more energy to cultivate produce in places where the weather and soil do not make it easy to do so. For example, if you want to cultivate a produce that grows well only in tropical climates where you live, you will need to have greenhouses with temperature regulation, and this consumes energy.

So, two arguments to this. First, that it is more efficient to have large farms that produce more produce or cattle, since the energy required to raise or cultivate one unit of the product will be much less than having many little farms in local towns doing the same. The impact of transportation is, as we’ve discovered, little to null.

The second: it is more efficient to transport food from where it readily grows than it is to cultivate it locally because it takes much more energy to do so, and this creates more of an environmental impact.

What is more, the further away people are from each other, the more energy inefficient we become. It is far easier to transport food than to transport people, as economist Ed Glaeser points out. He argues that it would be of much more positive impact to the environment to live in high density urban areas than to eat locally. If we are able to limit the amount of greenhouse emissions produced when thousands upon thousands of people move around rural communities using cars as the only means of transport, we would be making a much more significant difference in our environment.

Still, people only see what is in front of them. It seems on the surface that buying locally just makes sense. It is much easier to rely on your sensibilities and your sense of morality when choosing what to buy or where to buy than to actually get informed and understand the tiny intricacies of our modern society.

So I’ll leave you with the words of Christopher Weber:

“There are a few types of food that are very greenhouse-gas-intensive, per calorie, per kilogram, per however you want to measure them, and red meat and dairy are the especially bad players here. And if you are the average consumer, and again we were always looking at the average consumer, one of the big, you know, take home messages that we tried to get out to people is that you can do more for your carbon footprint by just cutting those two things out of your diet for one day a week than you can by buying every single thing locally all the time.”

Interesting. Making good choices for our environment means actually being informed about how our world works. And if you are an average consumer like me, maybe relying a little less heavily one of our favorite sources of food: the cow.