As an analyst and communicator at UCS, I know how difficult it can be to tell a complicated, nuanced story in our sound-bite-oriented media culture. So even though it was not totally surprising, it was still frustrating to find UCS’s position on the benefits of local foods mischaracterized last week in a USA Today article that called local food “trendy,” but asked whether it is “really more eco-friendly.”
Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as the article made it out to be. Because while UCS has found that the much-discussed notion of “food miles” is only a small contributor to the global warming impact of food, there are broader environmental, health, and economic benefits to be gained from locally, sustainably grown foods.
Cutting Climate Emissions on Your Plate
USA Today cited our book, Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living (published this spring by Island Press), as evidence that local foods don’t have much environmental impact. As its title suggests, the book takes a narrow look at the global warming impact of various consumer choices, from the car you drive to how you manage energy use in your home.
When it comes to the food choices we make—three or more times every day—Cooler Smarter also offers science-based advice. First and foremost, the book concludes that the best way for food consumers to lower their climate impact is to eat less meat, especially beef.
My colleague Mardi Mellon has detailed the science behind that recommendation, but the short story is that producing a pound of beef generates much more global warming emissions than many other foods—18 times the emissions from producing a pound of pasta, for example.
Of course, even that isn’t cut and dried. According to our 2011 report, Raising the Steaks, pasture-raised animals spread their own manure and so avoid much of the methane emission produced by stored manure. And well-managed pastures can sequester substantial amounts of carbon in soil, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So pasture-raised beef can be a cooler choice than most supermarket beef.
Still, there’s no escaping that Americans who want to shrink their climate impacts should reduce the amount of meat in their diet.
So What About “Food Miles”?
We’ve heard a lot about food miles—the distance food travels from field to fork. But it turns out that miles traveled may be only a small piece of your diet’s global warming impact, about 4 percent on average according to Cooler Smarter. Foods that travel by air have a bigger climate footprint, but other foods can be transported long distances efficiently, as by ship. So the book advises consumers not to stress too much about choosing foods from here or from there in the supermarket.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t really good reasons, eco- and otherwise, to seek out locally produced foods. In fact, shifting to more of a “farmers market diet”—one that is light on processed foods (which require a lot of energy to manufacture) and heavy on fresh produce grown sustainably by farmers in your region—can be great for your health, your local economy, and the planet.
And that brings us back to the nation’s nearly 8,000 farmers markets, ground zero for the “eat local” movement. UCS detailed the many benefits of farmers markets and other local and regional food distribution channels in our report last summer, Market Forces. It found that locally grown food not only delivers fresh taste—it creates jobs, keeps money in local economies, and promotes community development. In fact, modest public support for up to 500 farmers markets each year could create as many as 13,500 jobs over a five-year period. And it can reduce the environmental and public health costs of the food we eat, because small farmers who sell to consumers in local markets are likely to practice organic and other eco-friendly methods.
So while buying food from farmers markets may not be the #1 way to specifically reduce your climate footprint, the other environmental, health, and economic benefits of local foods can’t be ignored.