It is arguable that the trendiest word in food marketing is “local.” It is idyllic, prideful, and comforting. Consumers seem to categorize both locally produced foods and organic foods as healthful and environmentally conscious. For locally produced foods, this is not necessarily true.
The organic label is regulated by the USDA and verified by third parties, but the term “local” or “locally grown” is not regulated. Nor is there a generally accepted definition of the term “local.” Nor is it universally agreed that locally produced foods have a smaller carbon-footprint than well-traveled foods.
Understandably, grocery store marketers have taken advantage of the popularity of locally grown produce, the lack of labeling regulation or guidance for the term local, and the confusion of its significance on greenhouse gas emissions.
Local foods tend to be in season where you live, meaning that they can be fresher and tastier. However, buyers beware. It is likely that a tomato grown in a local heated greenhouse may have a much larger carbon footprint than one trucked in from a region in which tomatoes are in season. Therefore, when buying local keep in mind what is in season in your region.
In the case of farmers’ markets, purchasing locally grown often means your dollars stay within your community, and a much higher percentage of those dollars go directly to the farmer. If your local farmer is supplying organic produce, your dollar is encouraging his responsible stewardship of the land. I think this is a good thing.
Interestingly, a study by Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg found that although many foods are transported over long distances, the biggest impact to greenhouse gas emissions comes from the production of the food, not the transportation. Their study concluded that only 11 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from food production came from transportation; the transportation from farmer to retailer accounted for 4 percent.
Production of red meat and dairy are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in food production. According to Weber and Matthews, if an American family replaced just 25 percent of their red meat consumption with chicken, that would reduce their carbon footprint as much as buying entirely locally produced food.
My advice is to be wary of foods labeled as local. When it comes to grocery shopping, I firmly believe organic is a lot more important than local. Just because food is produced locally, does not mean it is produced in an ecologically responsible manner. In the summer months, when the farmers’ markets are open and the garden is growing, it can be easy and fun to find organic and local foods. However, for the rest of the year, I will always choose organic over conventionally grown local produce.