From the January 2010 Idaho Observer:

Rethinking Green: Eat global, not local

by Kevin Libin

The following article is a sampling of the mixed messages the average consumer receives. As the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar shrinks, the logical response is to work toward self-sufficiency, being less dependent on imported products for our needs. With so many jobs shipped overseas, businesses closing and the resulting mass unemployment problem, people are turning to bartering for sheer survival. As this corporately-financed article so eloquently puts it, our survivalist choices are threatening the food production giants.

At the annual convention of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association in Calgary a couple of years ago, organizers offered a seminar entitled “The New Classic: Creating an upscale urban farmers’ market with down-home country Chutzpah.” For years, local farmers’ markets weren’t anything you’d hazard to call “upscale,” but the rise of the local food movement and the best selling environmental soul books, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The 100 Mile Diet, have made buying locally grown, rather than well traveled food, as trendy these days among the eco yuppie crowd as hybrid Lexuses and Baby Planet strollers. “Farmers have been involved with selling local product for decades. What’s happening now is that the consumer side is catching on,” says Charlie Touchette, executive director of the marketing association.

In Alberta, farmers’ market revenues next year are projected to be roughly twice 2004’s take; Vancouver’s markets have more than doubled their customers, and revenues, since 2005. Although that “down-home country” marketing is key to making shoppers feel the trendy, earthy vibe, with prices often dramatically higher than supermarkets, the big demographic draw comes from the well heeled.

A farmers’ market research report by the Cascade Harvest Coalition, a Seattle based group promoting local food, concluded that one of the big challenges to markets was reaching “mid-level or second-tier” consumers, who, studies showed, stayed away, in large part, because of affordability.

In part, farmer vendors charge more because they’ve been suddenly blessed with customers willing to pay more. But locally grown food, in many cases, is also more costly to produce, because Canadian labor and, often, land is worth more than in Brazil or China. Above all, though, local growing conditions for most foods are less productive than elsewhere. Every climate, obviously, has its strengths and weaknesses, and frequently, locally grown food is less efficiently produced than the imported stuff. Accounting for “food miles” -- the key measure used by locavores (local produce eaters) -- tells you how far food travels. It doesn’t tell you how much energy -- and greenhouse gas emissions -- went into growing it. When you add that in, and if your aim is to conserve fossil fuels and emissions, the best way is actually to skip the farmers’ market and eat global.

“If you are concerned about the carbon footprint of your diet, focusing on transportation is kind of like worrying about the air pressure in your tires of your car rather than whether you have a fuel efficient car or not,” says James McWilliams, an environmental and agricultural historian at Texas State University, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, and a former part-time locavore. “What matters so much more than how far it travels from farm to fork is what kind of methods were used to produce it.”

In fact, farming methods make up so much more of a particular food’s carbon footprint, it is remarkable that all those food mile counters missed it. A 2008 study published in the academic journal, Environmental Science and Technology by a pair of environmental engineers at Carnegie Mellon University found that just 11% of greenhouse gas emissions related to food come from transportation. Final delivery to the retailer accounted for just 4%. On the other hand, 83% of emissions involved in your lunch today are directly attributable to the food’s production.

What locavores forget, or don’t stop to consider, is that calculating the emissions over the entire lifecycle process is far more complex than counting transportation miles. Local producers, for example, often store their fruits and vegetables using refrigeration for several months to stretch into the off season. Certain climates also demand more CO2 heavy inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers. And suboptimal growing conditions often mean clearing and farming more land to gain yields. If you want to preserve wilderness areas, the way to go is modern, intensive farming and international trade.

McWilliams’ impression is that many locavores ignore the hard homework of actually calculating their food’s environmental impact because, at root, the buy local movement often has as much to do with making a statement as it does with environmentalism, or any other alleged benefits. “What I really do see ... is that buying local is a political act. It’s a gesture that, in essence, thumbs its nose at globalization,” he says. If left wing posturing and green posing is your priority, then stick with your 100 ©mile diet. Leave it to average consumers, buying the globally sourced groceries at their local, corporate, big-box retailer, to do genuine good for the planet.

Source: National Post – December 8, 2009

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