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Does Locally Grown Mean Less Green?

Does Locally Grown Mean Less Green?
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Allison Mooney
  • 10 june 2008

In the NYT Freakonomics blog, Stephen Dubner questions whether eating foods grown locally is really all that green. In fact, he maintains the reverse: that growing food yourself may create a larger carbon footprint than dialing up Fresh Direct.

Really? This seems contrary to common sense. The whole benefit of the Locavore “movement” (consuming local foods or even growing them yourself) is to cut down on the environmental cost of shipping a mango in December. It should also be tastier and better for you (no pesticides and preservatives!) as well as cheaper (no overhead or markups!) But Dubner systematically shoots down each one of those arguments:

1) While “deliciousness” is subjective, no one person can grow or produce all the things she would like to eat.

2) There’s a lot to be said for the nutritional value of home-grown food. But again, since one person can grow only so much variety, there are bound to be big nutritional gaps in her diet that will need to be filled in.

3) Is it cheaper to grow your own food?… Let’s say you decide to plant a big vegetable garden this year to save money. Now factor in everything you need to buy to make it happen — the seeds, fertilizer, sprout cups, twine, tools, etc. — along with the transportation costs and the opportunity cost. Are you sure you really saved money by growing your own zucchini and corn? And what if 1,000 of your neighbors did the same?

4) Keeping in mind the transportation inefficiencies mentioned above, consider the “food miles” argument: We find that although food is transported long distances in general…the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.”

In fact, the “specialization” method of food production and distribution is “ruthlessly efficient,” he says. It means less transportation, lower prices and more variety. If you want to save money on tasty food, wait for restaurant week.

[via Freakonomics]

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