You’re food savvy. So a friend asks you the best way to shop green at the supermarket. How do you answer?
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is buying locally grown food.
“Local” is the war cry of many environmentally conscious shoppers, farmers, bloggers and retailers.
The trend reached mainstream status years ago. The 2007 Oxford American Dictionary word of the year was “locavore,” a term for people who eat locally grown food.
Late last year, even the world’s largest grocer got on board. Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart announced a plan to double its local produce in U.S. stores to 9% by 2016.
But the goals of eating local — improving the environment, community nutrition, and access to healthy food for the poor — can be masked or undermined by what researcher David Cleveland calls the “local trap.”
Cleveland, an environmental studies professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, studied this question in one of the most appropriate places on earth.
In terms of agricultural value, Santa Barbara County ranks in the top 1% of all U.S. counties.
In 2009, 82% of that agricultural value was from produce.
Yet 99.6% of the produce is exported out of the county. Nearly 97% of produce eaten there is imported.
The county’s produce was worth $900 million in 2008, including more than $300 million in strawberries, nearly $160 million of broccoli and $110 million of lettuce, according to the county’s agricultural commissioner’s office, which the study cited.
What better place to see how localization could affect a community and the environment?
Cleveland and six of his students did, with surprising results.
His study, published April in Environmental Science & Technology, found that if Santa Barbara County supplied all its own produce before exporting the then-remaining 89%, it wouldn’t significantly help the environment or the county’s nutrition — the two main goals of eating local.
It found that the agrifood system would shed less than 1% of its greenhouse gas emissions, and it wouldn’t necessarily affect the county’s nutrition.
From this study and others, there’s increasing evidence that local should not be a final goal. Instead, it should serve as one tool in a toolkit.
“Local may be necessary to reach some of the goals for improving our agrifood system, but by itself it is not sufficient,” Cleveland told The Packer, so we should be asking questions and doing research “to make sure that our localization efforts really accomplish what we expect them to.”
For example, the study says 100% localization could greatly improve the county’s nutrition — with nearly 40% of residents there classified as food-insecure, and with three times as many fast food and convenience joints than supermarkets and produce vendors — but won’t help yet because there are too many other economic, geographic or cultural obstacles in the way.
If those obstacles hurt a county in produce heaven, imagine the difficulty for counties in Utah or Kentucky.
Instead of chanting “local,” progressives should find a way to defeat those more pressing obstacles first.
But that’s not an easy sell.
A Huffington Post article on the study elicited 790 comments. Most were from green-minded people, and most were mad. They blasted a study that undermined the one-dimensional way they viewed big food companies.
Reading the comments there, you’d think Cleveland was a stooge for big ag.
It’s ironic because his research suggests producers and retailers too must go beyond local produce to seriously address the more fundamental goals of improving the food system.
In his own Huffington Post column later, and in comments to The Packer, Cleveland suggested major food system changes like the strengthening of local food distribution hubs.
He also thinks corporations should provide information to prove their local food claims.
Cleveland questions the “localness” of retailers that ship earnings back to headquarters instead of investing locally, or if the producers use non-locals to harvest. Eating local in America can hurt communities in Mexico. Both sides will find fault with Cleveland’s study.
But what about your green friend? What advice will you give?
To maximize the greenhouse gas emissions you cut, watch what you eat more than where it came from.
More than four-fifths of food-related greenhouse gas emissions come from producing the food, not transporting it, according to another study from Environmental Science & Technologypublished in 2008 by two researchers from Carnegie Mellon University.
The study found that the final delivery of food — the distance from producer to retailer, or how most people define “eating local” — is responsible for 4% of the system’s greenhouse emissions.
Eating chicken or produce instead of red meat or dairy for just one day a week, the study said, would reduce more greenhouse emissions than buying 100% local all week long.
Maybe your friend could use that advice.