Does eating local really help the environment? There are many environmental benefits of local food, though perhaps in different ways that you might think. Food miles are just one part of lowering your impact via food choice. Wasting less food, eating seasonally, choosing sustainable options, and avoiding packaging are all part of the process. For this post, I focus only on fresh produce and animal products, as those are the majority of foods you will find in the farmers markets and CSAs.
Some define 100 miles as local, others 400 miles. Here in Maryland, it’s only about 50 miles from Frederick to Baltimore, with a 35 mile radius around Baltimore covering a large portion of the state. Out towards Cumberland is 150 miles. For my initial launch, I created the Baltimore Foodshed map to include those farms and markets nearest to Baltimore. I began with a 50 mile radius, and plan to extend that over time. There are a lot of options within that 50 miles!
When buying locally, many assume that lowering their food miles will help the environment. Buying locally rather than farther away will certainly cut down on how many miles your food has to travel to get to you. This can lower emissions, due to shorter distances for transport. It also means less food is wasted, because the food gets to market faster. Likewise, you get fresher food that lasts longer, and less will be thrown out because it goes bad.
A few studies on emissions have been done to try to quantify the environmental benefits of local food miles. One in particular, Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States, shows that only 4% of greenhouse gas emissions from food comes from your food miles. However, that’s the average of all food purchases. Buying local fruits and vegetables actually shows 11% of greenhouse gases come from transport. Red meat had the lowest impact for local buying, at only 1% of emissions saved when avoiding food miles. This is due to the fact that red meat has a much larger impact while being produced.
So buying local produce can save 11% of emissions that come from those foods. That’s great, but since produce is also highly perishable, you’ll also be lowering food waste. An FAO report on food wastage from 2011 claimed that globally, a third of food was wasted each year. However, new, preliminary results are estimating that global figure to be closer to 14%. The US and Europe waste 15.7% of food. Of the average global loss, we are losing 21.6% of fruits and vegetables, and 11.9% of meat and animal products. However, the majority of global data points come from Asia and Africa, so we don’t really know how much is lost in the United States. And we definitely don’t know how much food is lost in storage or at the market versus in the field.
The USDA is also attempting to measure food loss for the United States. They are currently updating data for the waste from harvest to store, for retail losses, and for consumer food habits. Currently they show around 34% loss of fresh fruit, 37% loss of fresh vegetables, and 26% for meat. From their databases, I calculate an average of 7.8% of the weight of fresh vegetables lost in transport. For fresh fruit, 5% of weight is lost in transport to the store. The amounts of transport loss are estimated, using the same percentages from year to year.
I think it’s clear that accurate food waste data isn’t available, only estimates. Still, it’s also clear that less food will be wasted if it doesn’t have to be transported. The less food wasted means less impact on the environment. In addition, the USDA food databases show much more food is lost in processing. Both eating local and eating fresh can help lower your food’s environmental impact.
Eating seasonally, something that goes hand in hand with local food, is also a good choice for improving the environment. When you eat food that is not in season, it either required a lot more energy or inputs to grow in less ideal locations, or it was transported from much farther away. A tomato grown in a greenhouse in winter likely won’t taste as good, and more energy was needed to keep that greenhouse at the right temperature.
Another environmental benefit of local food you will find when eating locally is that you can avoid packaging. Its much easier to buy highly perishable produce in your own containers rather than ending up with a lot of non biodegradable packaging. You can pick exactly which foods you want, and bring it home safely. Your farmer may reuse containers if you return them as well.
In general, there is less carbon emitted in organic farming than in conventional. However, sustainable farming is much better for the environment. Sustainable is not an official label, rather a philosophy. A sustainable farmer is one that limits outside inputs, including those of pesticides. He or she may combine animals and vegetables for maximum benefit. They use water wisely. Small farms are more likely to provide sustainable options. In addition, buying locally means you get to talk with your farmer, and find which ones use sustainable practices. Rather than relying on labeling in the store, you can talk with your farmer, and may be able see the farm in person.
Many studies show that meat is an unsustainable choice. And with conventional meats, this is true. However, sustainable meat raising is a much better choice. This article from Forbes highlights studies done on emissions from more sustainably raised meat. Done properly, animals raised sustainably may reduce, or even negate, the environmental impact they create. You can find a farmer that grows sustainable meats and does it locally.
There’s been some good news recently about the state of agriculture around the Chesapeake Bay. The The Earth Observatory at NASA says “Though farmland only covers about 23 percent of the 64,000 square-mile Chesapeake watershed, it is the source of 58 percent of the sediment pollution that reaches the Bay, 58 percent of the phosphorous, and 42 percent of the nitrogen. Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus comes from the use of manure and chemical fertilizers; some is also due to how animal waste is stored and managed. Farms are a major source of sediment pollution, (loose particles of clay, silt, and sand) because any physical process that causes erosion—such as frequent and intensive tilling—increases loads of sediment in waterways during rains storms or when snow melts rapidly”. That doesn’t sound good, but in April 2016, the annual Chesapeake Bay report card stated that they “found clearer water, lower levels of algae, and a resurgence of sea grasses. In the same month, the Maryland Department of Environment announced that it had mapped 53,000 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation—a record amount and a clear sign of the ecosystem’s improving health. In July 2016, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reported that the size of the dead zone in the Bay in late June was the second smallest since 1985.” Much of this is due to better farming practices. By buying from your local farmer, you can ensure your money goes to the farms that have the best agricultural practices. Talk to them, let them know you are concerned about what affects the Bay. Support their efforts in improving their farming practices.
When you go to a farmers market, or join a CSA, you are helping the environment. Who you buy from affects your local environment as well. Buying sustainable foods, grown locally, can improve both global and local environments. You will improve your health, waste less packaging, and lower food waste. And your food will be delicious!