May 26, 2009

“Locavores” shorten the gap between farmer and plate

Jim Harris
Magazine Article

By: Jordana Levine

In North America, food travels an average of 1,500 to 3,000 miles before it reaches your plate.[1]  This means high levels of greenhouse gases are emitted from the vehicles that get it there.

“Locavores” are some of the latest environmentalists, eating only foods that are produced within a 100-mile radius.  Although these people may feel that they are eating locally for the environment, the truth is that their best contribution is to their own communities.  Locally grown food is great for the local economy, providing distinction for small businesses and promoting unity within the community.

“On the other hand,” says Mike Schreiner, co-founder of Local Food Plus (LFP), a national organization in Canada that certifies farmers and food processors committed to sustainable food, and links them to local buyers, “There’s a whole host of other environmental ramifications from production.”

“One issue,” Schreiner says, “Is just the scale of production.”  He mentions that large-scale farms limit biodiversity and use more fertilizers, heavier equipment, and lead to more greenhouse gas emissions than on smaller farms.  He adds, “There are some studies out there suggesting that methane gas emissions from cattle [contribute] more to greenhouse gases than any other part of a food system.”

“Those are issues… that are of equal concern to the transporting of food and/or of greater concern,” says Schreiner.

Eating locally grown food will not be the ultimate solution for eating to support the environment.  Although “locavores” make choices that involve less transportation, and therefore less greenhouse gas emissions, in reality, delivering food to the consumer only contributes to 4 percent, on average, of emissions in a household’s food-related carbon footprint.  Actually, 83 percent of the footprint comes from the food’s origins, which include raising cows and manufacturing dairy products.[2]

Even if locally grown foods produce less greenhouse gases than those that have to be shipped, it may still create more emissions to grow plants in local heated greenhouses rather than to ship them from warmer climates.  A study by Lincoln University in New Zealand found that, if the use of fuel, electricity, pesticides, animal feed, transportation, storage, and others were factored in, a ton of New Zealand apples emitted the equivalent of 407lbs of carbon dioxide compared to nearly 600lbs in the U.K.; this means that it is still significantly less harmful for the U.K. to import the apples than grow them locally.[3]   More important than eating locally is to know what you’re eating and how the food has been grown and manufactured.

LFP’s goal is “to narrow the distance between farmer and shopper,” says Schreiner.  He says it provides people, especially those in developed countries who eat highly processed, unhealthy foods that lead to obesity, with healthier, fresher products.  Also, “Local foods help stabilize markets.”

The perks of eating local food are not to be ignored.  There is a lot to be said for knowing where your food comes from.  Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for people to buy local, seasonal food right from the farmer.  This enables the farmer to receive money before the crops are ready and lets consumers interact with the farmer, visit the farm, learn about how their food is being grown and find out exactly what’s in it.  Tens of thousands of Americans have joined CSAs and, although the government does not keep track of how many there are, approximately 2500 have signed up with LocalHarvest, which has the most extensive list of American CSAs.[4]

Ideally, foods would be grown locally, but also sustainably, to support the community and keep the environment healthy.  A good example of a farm that does both of these things is Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company, which is LFP-certified and recently won the Premier’s Award of $100,000 at the Premier’s Agri-Food Innovation Awards in Ontario.  It won the award for their use of solar, wind and geothermal energy, green cleaning agents, biodegradable packaging and environmentally friendly waste treatment.[5]

1  MacKinnon, J.B. and Aliza Smith.  The 100-Mile Diet.  Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007.
2  Liaw, Jane.  “Food miles are less important to environment than food choices, study concludes.”  2 Jun 2008.
3  Woods, Richard.  “Why long-haul foods may be greener than local food with low air-miles.”  3 Feb 2008.
4  LocalHarvest. “Community Supported Agriculture.”
5  Local Food Plus.  “LFP Certified Farmer Wins Premier’s Innovation Award.”

Jim Harris is an expert on disruptive innovation, who has appeared on Idea City, Canada’s version TED Talks on numerous occasions. Contact him today to book him for your next event.

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