Which is better for the environment and the economy — a tomato grown nearby or one from the supermarket?
Local food, hip among urbanites and touted at the White House, is stirring more debate as new research suggests its benefits have been oversold.
“I like the food,” says Joseph Conklin, a customer at the Local Market, a store in Falls Church, Va., that sells products made within 100 miles. He says he wants to support local businesses: “You get a better feeling shopping here” than at a national chain.
Such stores are popping up nationwide, and more farmers markets are open year-round. First lady Michelle Obama has added to momentum with her well-publicized backyard garden.
Two new books, however, say local food isn’t necessarily more eco-friendly, even though it travels fewer miles. They cite research showing long-distance transportation accounts for only about 4% of the greenhouse gas emissions in food production; most occur at the farm itself through the use of tractors and other equipment and materials.
So if you want to buy local food for its freshness or to support area farmers, fine, but don’t do it to save the planet, conclude researchers from the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group. Their two-year study, “Cooler Smarter,” was published this spring.
Another book goes even further in debunking local-food “myths.” Its title, The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, plays off Michael Pollan’s best seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Co-author Pierre Desrochers, a geography professor at the University of Toronto-Mississauga, says large farms growing crops suited to their region are better for the environment because they use less energy per item and grow more food on less land. He says they offer economic benefits, too: lower prices.
Desrochers, who says he has received no funding from agri-business, has no problem with hobby farmers but doesn’t want government supporting local food (or, for that matter, ethanol and sugar). Though kids may learn from community gardens, he says, they’re better off learning computer and job skills.