An op-ed in today’s NYT by James E. McWilliams, “Food That Travels Well,” articulates some of the suspicions I’ve had about the whole “eat local” phenomenon.

It seems to me that duplicating the kind of infrastructure necessary to sustain a great variety of food production every hundred miles or so is grossly inefficient. Now some researchers in New Zealand have crunched some numbers that seem to support that analysis:

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. 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. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

McWilliams closes with some compelling questions about stewardship of the environment, food production, and trade:

Given these problems, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop obsessing over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn’t we create development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, with the hubs in a food system’s naturally fertile hot spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?

Read the whole thing, as they say.

  • Very interesting article – and one that leaves me with a lot of questions.

    The lamb example is a compelling one. I would love to know if there are compelling examples with produce as well, or if the reason meat can provide such a compelling example is that it is so resource intensive to create? It also begs the question for me of what the carbon costs are of various _types_ of food are (e.g. meat, fish, local v. imported produce, organic v. conventionally grown, processing & packaging.)

    All in all a very thought provoking article.

  • The original article is quite a bit more balanced than the headline on your post: “Debunking the ‘Eat Local’ Myth”. In fact, the NYTimes article is a wonderful example of a committed environmentalist accepting new information and in effect saying, ‘We don’t have the whole story yet – let’s listen to this new information and act accordingly’:

    >>“Eat local” advocates — a passionate cohort of which I am one — are bound to interpret these findings as a threat. We shouldn’t. Not only do life cycle analyses offer genuine opportunities for environmentally efficient food production, but they also address several problems inherent in the eat-local philosophy.<< If the 'debunkers' would take the same reasonable attitude Mr. McWilliams takes, we would all be much further along!