Commentary

Eating Locally Not Necessarily Better

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared in Marketplace on August 27, 2008.

The food co-op in my new hometown offers buttons, bags, and newsletters coaxing customers to “eat local.” The deli counter helpfully enumerates the “food miles” of the various goods on offer. That’s the distance traveled from farm to market — The New Oxford American Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” for 2007 was, yes, “locavore.”

Local food is often better-tasting and more nutritious. That’s a pretty good reason to pay more for it. Maybe you want to support small local farms. Go ahead, if that’s your bag. But don’t think going local does much to reduce your carbon footprint. And it shouldn’t do much to ease your conscience.

How far your food travels matters a lot less than what kind of food it is, or how it was produced. According to a recent study out of Carnegie Mellon University, the distance traveled by the average American’s dinner rose about 25 percent from 1997 to 2004, due to increasing global trade. But carbon emissions from food transport only saw a 5 percent bump, thanks to the efficiencies of vast cargo container ships.

A tomato raised in a heated greenhouse next door can be more carbon-intensive than one shipped halfway across the globe. And cows spew a lot more greenhouse gas than hens, or kumquats, so eating just a bit less beef can do more carbon-wise than going completely local. It’s complicated.

But one thing is clear enough: the farmers in Mexico, China, and Brazil, who produce a lot of the imported food Americans eat, are poorer than the farmers here in Iowa. A lot poorer. The corollary of “eat local” is “don’t eat Mexican,” so to speak. But the way poor people get less poor is to do business with people who have a lot of money, like us. If the local stuff is mouthwatering, you might as well pony up. But if your salad is made with Mexican lettuce, savor your righteousness.

Media Appearance Will Wilkinson discusses the “eat local” movement on Marketplace Radio (August 27, 2008) [MP3]

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.