The Potential Pitfalls of Eating Local

On Monday, New York Times op-ed contributor and eat-local advocate James E. McWilliams tackled the subject of food miles (the distance that food has traveled before it’s consumed), and came to the conclusion that buying local isn’t always better for the environment. He pointed to the findings of researchers in New Zealand:

Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard.

But Bart Anderson, coeditor of the Energy Bulletin website, questions the validity of the New Zealand lamb theory in his comment on environmental blog Grist. After all, lamb is just one example, and it might be an exception to the general rule that eating local is better for the environment. Anderson also has a beef with McWilliams’ suggestion that we should “stop obsessing over food miles.” As far as Anderson is concerned, only a small percentage of the population is showing any concern about our carbon footprint, and “ignorance and unconcern about food miles” is a much bigger problem.

I understand McWilliams’ point that the advantages of eating locally vary from product to product, but not everyone has the time or resources to research the carbon footprint of each product he or she hopes to purchase. It’s an extremely complex issue, but personally, until I become enough of an expert to decipher which chicken or eggplant or oyster wreaked the least havoc on the environment, I’m going to cross my fingers, choose the local option, and hope for the best.