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Is Buying Local Always Best?

Is Buying Local Always Best?

“Maybe you can buy organic within a certain geographic range, and outside of that the trade-offs won’t work anymore.”
-Gail Feenstra, food system analyst at UC Davis

December 12, 2007 —

Buying local isn't just for the ethical shopper — foodies have also embraced "local, fresh, seasonal" as their mantra in recent years. But what if you can't always find locally grown food that's also organic? Do you scrub off pesticides from the squash you got at the farmers market, or just skip the market in favor of Whole Foods?

Local versus organic has been a hot button issue as of late, with most people coming down on the side of local. But anytime you deal in ethical calculus, things are bound to be more complicated than they seem, and a recent article in the New York Times, serves to complicate things a bit. Tom Tomich, director of the University of California Davis Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, says that from an environmental standpoint, local isn't always better:

Consider strawberries. If mass producers of strawberries ship their product to Chicago by truck, the fuel cost of transporting each carton of strawberries is relatively small, since it is tucked into the back along with thousands of others.

But if a farmer sells his strawberries at local farmers’ markets in California, he ferries a much smaller amount by pickup truck to each individual market. Which one is better for the environment?

Mr. Tomich said a strawberry distributor did the math on the back of an envelope and concluded that the Chicago-bound berries used less energy for transport.

But that's not the only conclusion Tomich's research seems to be headed for:

  • Eating meat — especially beef — comes with the biggest carbon price tag.
  • Buying fresh imported vegetables may be better than canned or frozen equivalents because of the environmental cost associated with the packaging process.
  • How you shop is just as important as what you buy. If you drive, taking frequent trips to the grocery store instead of stocking up once a week contributes greatly to your dietary carbon footprint.

So things may be a little more complicated than they once appeared, but researchers like Tomich aren't out to make life harder for shoppers. When all is said and done, the picture should be a lot clearer for shoppers, farmers and distributors alike.

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