In the midst of a climate crisis, does local food matter?

In terms of direct greenhouse gas emissions, no, “food miles” are not that meaningful. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

In May, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel took to Twitter to bust what she called a myth. “LOCAL FOODS ARE NOT BETTER FOR THE CLIMATE!” she shouted at her followers, many of whom chimed in to support the argument. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The idea was nothing new. Just over a year earlier, Vice took a similar tone with the headline, “Turns Out ‘Eating Local’ Doesn’t Do Much for the Planet.” And debates over the real environmental benefits of “eating local” have been happening for at least as long as people have been rolling their eyes at Michael Pollan. But as the climate crisis intensifies and the biggest global companies increasingly sell foods labeled as “climate-friendly,” the question of whether or not local food qualifies is an increasingly important one.

People who conclude that it doesn’t base their arguments on one simple, true fact: When it comes to measuring greenhouse gas emissions associated with food, what that food is and how it was produced matters much more than how far it was transported. In other words: Are you eating beef or beans? Not: Were those beans shipped 10 miles or 1,000?

Anna Lappé, the author of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, told me she gets asked about the relationship between local food and climate change often, and her take on the issue hasn’t changed much since she wrote her book a decade ago. “It varies, but for most food items, the data is really clear that the lion's share of emissions are not related to the vehicle that transported that food to the grocery store. The greenhouse gas emissions impact really comes down to production choices,” she said. Still, beyond that, “We need to look at the whole system. If you look holistically at a policy framework for supporting local foods, there are all kinds of climate benefits that don't get baked into that narrow metric.” 

Unwrapped

First, the aforementioned data: Researchers have found most greenhouse gas emissions associated with food come from production. A 2008 study estimated that transportation only accounts for 11 percent of the total emissions associated with foods consumed in US households. The Vice article reported on an analysis done using the most comprehensive study of greenhouse gas emissions from food done to date, and it came to similar conclusions. Transportation typically accounted for about 10 percent of a food’s emissions.

So in general, the number of miles farmers ship your tomatoes isn’t particularly significant, but that’s the easiest thing we can measure. What about metrics that are much harder to quantify?

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The same data, for example, points to the importance of land use. When land is cleared for agriculture, carbon-holding forests are lost. Land use, for example, contributes a huge proportion of emissions related to beef (for grazing and growing feed) and chicken (for growing feed). But farms can hold a lot more carbon than, say, apartment buildings and parking lots. American Farmland Trust estimates that between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of farmland was developed for urban or suburban use. “One of the other arguments for local food is the importance of protecting land and especially working lands in places all around the country,” Lappé said. “Farming, when it's done regeneratively, is a way to promote biodiversity, healthy soil, and prevent suburban sprawl, and we know sprawl has a climate impact.”

A strong local food culture is a powerful force for land protection. In spaces in and around cities like New York and Baltimore, where development pressure is high, there is little space for industrial-scale farming, but land and soil are preserved because residents value access to healthy, fresh food. Investment in local farms often spurs communities to push for easements that keep land permanently in farming. And while it’s certainly not true that all farms that sell into local markets use more sustainable, carbon-sequestering practices than farms that sell into globalized markets — yes, there are tiny market farms with terrible practices and large operations selling nationally that do incredible work! — there is compelling evidence that overall, small farms, which are more likely to sell locally, implement these kinds of practices more often.

A recent research review that included 118 studies internationally found small farms had higher crop yields than larger farms (which would reduce their land-use emissions) and had more biodiversity, in terms of growing a variety of crops, rotating crops (which builds healthy soil), and maintaining non-crop biodiversity on the farm (AKA trees and bushes and other plants that hold carbon and support ecosystems and pollinators).

Recently, researchers on two leading international scientific panels concluded that climate change and declining biodiversity need to be treated as two parts of the same problem or neither will be addressed effectively.

Those who point out production matters more than transportation are right, but they fail to address the fact that there are often measurable differences (again, that don’t apply to every farm, but in general) between production practices within local food systems and the production practices of global food systems.

In the face of dire climate predictions, it can be tempting to rank straight emissions above all other concerns, but saying that local food is “not better for the climate” solely on the basis that there’s no definitive proof that miles matter much, without considering any other factors, is jumping to a conclusion.

Unfortunately, it’s not actually possible to disentangle the varied impacts—on health, soil, water, or ecosystems—a given food has. They have to be considered together, because they’re all baked into the same apple, an apple which has complicated climate impacts. And farms that sell into local markets often tick a lot of the boxes that minimize negative environmental and human impacts on various fronts. “I think if we prioritize efficiency, we're going to miss out personally on healthy, delicious food,” said Anna Mulé, the executive director of Slow Food USA. “But also I think ecosystems are going to suffer because I don't think the earth and the soil do well with efficiency.” Efficiency measured only by the metric of greenhouse gas emissions produced, for example, ignores factors like soil depletion, which could lead to land that holds less carbon in the future. 

Plus, healthy soil and biodiversity happen to also be critical for farms to survive climate events like droughts and floods. And when extreme weather does wipe out crops or livestock in one area, having a system in which production is spread out across regions all over the country is probably not the worst strategy. “In order to have a resilient food system, particularly when confronted by climate shocks, making sure that we're not growing all of our broccoli in one place is a good idea,” Lappé said. Tom Philpott’s recent book outlines the real climate risks associated with centralized food production in the US well.

And why can’t all of the different factors matter, with varying and overlapping importance? “I don't think there's one clear, simple, singular solution to climate change [when it comes to food]. It has to be all of these things put together,” Mulé said. “It has to be a ‘yes, and.’ Yes, local...and less meat and better meat.”  Along those lines, one recent study found that if Americans ate less meat (not none), local food systems could play a more significant role in feeding big cities in their regions.

The arguments I mentioned at the top of the story are based primarily on a real, science-based data point. But I can’t help but think that part of the reason that point became a tool for railing against local food’s overall climate value is a sort of “gotcha, do-gooders!” glee that is popular in various circles. (Just check out the comments on Haspel’s tweet or see this strongly worded op-ed: “Beware the High Priests of Locavorism.”)

Despite the fact that the global industrialized food system is almost exclusively designed to take advantage of taxpayer-funded subsidies while exploiting low-wage workers, polluting waterways and ecosystems, and sending hefty profits to billionaires at the top, local food — presented as an alternative — is seen as “elitist.” 

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Part of that is the fault of the movement itself (that’s a whole other story), but I do think it’s still within the context of the climate question to say that the people doing the most impressive work to develop local food systems that do align with climate action are not working on trying to expand the number of rich white people casually browsing farmers’ markets for pricey pastries and cut flowers. Farmers and workers are building cooperatives that prioritize the most climate-friendly practices and foods. Tribes are bringing back native Hawaiian food forests and other indigenous growing practices on reservations. Advocates are helping Black farmers purchase land so that they can feed people and maintain green spaces in low-income communities.

In Philadelphia, Haile Johnston and his wife Tatiana Garcia-Granados started a food hub, The Common Market, in 2008. “My wife and I were lucky enough to grow up eating good food and and to understand how locally-sourced, seasonal food tastes, and we just happen to live in a place where that hasn't been readily accessible for a long time, and it's had a profound impact on the life outcomes and the health and wellbeing of our neighbors,” he said. “And so our primary motivation was and continues to be to create access to the good food that we know and enjoy.” In the years since, they’ve built the operation into a local food distributor delivering healthy, local food to hospitals, schools, and other institutions where the majority of meals are eaten by lower-income populations. There are now three hubs in the Mid-Atlantic, Georgia, and Texas aggregating from hundreds of farms. 

There are no life-cycle analyses that have been done to date on foods that are produced and distributed through the The Common Market or similar systems in other regions around the country. But they are a far cry from the characterization often used to demonstrate how a farmer with an old, gas-guzzling truck bringing a small amount of produce to a farmers’ market might produce higher emissions in transport than efficient global shippers. (This is another argument that is often cited, which is slightly different from “transportation doesn’t matter much.”)

“I think the scale of production, the practices of our growers, and the logistical efficiencies that we're managing make our food a real part of climate solutions,” he said. “We're sending full box trucks out and returning to our warehouse with box trucks full of product that we picked up from our grower partners around the region...and then I think when you couple that with the fact that many of the growers are more regenerative in their practices, and they're intentional about...not having bare soil and diversification and reducing chemical inputs. And I think we’re building demand for that kind of product.”

Johnston also pointed to how much land in the regions they work in is being converted into housing developments and malls when farmers that are operating at a small scale that doesn’t allow them to plug into global systems decide to sell that land. “Once that agriculture is gone and the land is converted...it almost never comes back,” he said. “We also believe that by connecting people through good food and through transparency and building positive relationships across urban and rural divides, that we can build trust and heal communities.”

That aspect of local food systems enabled by short supply chains — the building of relationships between producers and eaters and the sustaining of rural and urban communities — is often presented as an important concern that is separate from and unrelated to climate impact. “Here's the thing. I love having local farms. I love the farmer's market. I love that kids can see where carrots come from. I love the sense of community. I think local ag is great. It just won't save the planet,” Haspel commented in her Twitter thread.

But what, exactly, is this “planet” that we’re trying to save? What would be best for the planet is for humankind to vanish, eliminating excess greenhouse gas emissions and allowing it to heal itself. The climate crisis is not an earth crisis, it’s a crisis for human life on earth.

Recently, I discovered a podcast that presented an old interview the journalist Dan Imhoff did with the inimitable poet-farmer Wendell Berry. (It’s an incredible interview I highly recommend listening to. Thanks, Dan!)

“What industrial agriculture has been is a kind of sequence of simple solutions. If you want to pull a big load, get a tractor. If you want to kill a bug, get a poison. And so on,” Berry said. “But a part of the intricacy of the discussion of agriculture...is that you’re not talking just about agriculture, you’re talking about human culture. You’re talking about the human community in which people live, and you’re talking about the ecosystem in which they do their work. And so any innovation has to come in — if it’s not going to do great harm — with due respect and forbearance to these contexts of nature, culture, and the larger human economy.”

That applies to innovations that address the climate crisis, too. Shifting our systems to produce more beans and grains and fewer steaks matters. So does making sure that farmers who are stewarding land and conserving biodiversity and producing healthy food in regions all over the country are able to continue doing so. The relationships, spaces, and foods that make up “local food” systems are the very things that are worth saving. And they will sustain and nourish us through the climate crisis — as we tackle bigger shifts like reducing reliance on fossil fuels in every sector — if we protect them.

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