Locavore: Can Eating Local Positively Impact the Environment?

The locavore movement is about eating foods grown locally and sustainably, instead of pre-packaged and/or shipped foods. Locavores are passionate about lowering their carbon footprint, supporting their local farmers, and improving their overall health.

Key takeaways:
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    “Locavores” eat foods grown locally and sustainably. Depending on who you ask, eating locally can be defined as eating within a 100 mile radius (per the advocates who began the movement) or a 400 mile radius (per the USDA).
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    Being a locavore has mixed reviews. Advocates say it lowers carbon footprint and supports local farmers, which it can. Critics of the movement say there is more to the problem than transportation alone.
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    Variables such as climate, water usage, and cost of land and labor need to be considered when deciding when to eat locally.
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    Some studies show that shipped food can actually be better for the environment and your pocketbook than eating locally, depending on your location, climate, and foods indigenous to your area.
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    CSAs, farmers markets, growing your own foods, and considering going vegetarian are all great resources available to support locavore efforts.

Some experts debate that eating locally may not always be best for the environment, especially when foods are not indigenous to certain areas. Keep reading to explore all sides to the locavore movement.

Eating local is getting more attention in both health and environmental advocate communities. Proponents of locavorism do it to support their local farmers and the environment. Critics of locavorism say there is much more to consider before making a lifestyle change to eating strictly local.

Locavore movement – what is it?

“Locavore” was the Word of the Year in 2007 according to Oxford University Press. It was coined by Jessica Prentice and other locavore movement founders Jen Maiser, Sage Van Wing, and Dede Sampson. Their goal was to eat foods primarily grown or harvested within a 100-mile (160-kilometer) radius of their homes in San Francisco, California.

In the United States, the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act defined local food as being “grown within 400 miles (ca. 644 km) from a product’s origin or within the state in which it was produced.” It is safe to say that most would agree eating local means eating food produced within a 100–400-mile radius from your home or city.

"In many areas, food travels thousands of miles before ending up on our plates. This globalization of the food supply has serious consequences for the environment, our health, our communities…and our taste buds. Much of the food grown in areas surrounding us must be shipped across the country to distribution centers before it makes its way back to our supermarket shelves. Additionally, many people do not think about the environmental effects or the loss of local community dollars and family farms."

Brenda Dickerson of Outlook Magazine

Main goals of eating local

Some main goals of adopting locavorism include:

  • Lowering your carbon footprint. Eating locally grown foods can lower your carbon footprint by cutting down on packaged foods shipped very long distances, often internationally. This lowers dependency and use of fossil fuels, single use plastics, and non-biodegradable packaging.
  • Preventing food waste. You can limit damage associated with long transit of unripened foods and lower your dependency on chemicals utilized to extend travel and shelf life.
  • Eating foods grown in their natural habitats. Locavorism supports local indigenous foods and ecosystems.
  • Improving natural habitats. The soil quality, food security, and genetic diversity of plants in local communities can benefit from locavorism.
  • Limiting the steps in food production. There are often many processing steps involved with large-scale food processors which can result in damaged, spoiled, non-shelf stable, and nutritionally deficient foods.
  • Improving your health. Eating foods within their natural seasonality supports your health and overall wellness. Local foods harvested and eaten during peak ripeness (and without the use of chemicals) increases nutritional values and can improve health.
  • Supporting local farmers. Buying local helps small farmers in their businesses and supports local community economics.
  • Limiting dependency on large corporations. Oftentimes, large agriculture relies on monoculture crops, which can damage the environment and soil quality for years and render land useless for future food growth.

Discussing the local food controversy

One of the biggest questions critics of locavores have is whether we can be satisfied with the kinds of produce that grow naturally in our own region without dependency on large agribusiness. What are people who live in arid deserts and icy winter climates supposed to do when options are severely limited?

"Local farmers growing local food can create a much more sustainable life for themselves and those around them than Western agribusinesses can. At the very least, locavores should be an important part of the mix."

Writer Felix Salmon of Foreign Policy

A study published in Canada's National Post found that only 4–11% of emissions result from the final transit to your local grocery store, while up to 83% are due to food production.

For example, let’s say you buy tomatoes from a country producing them with heated greenhouses (like England). You are actually contributing to 4 times the amount of CO2 production than if you bought them from a country where heated greenhouses were unnecessary (like Spain). It may not always pay to eat local, and this is a perfect example of the exception to the rule.

More can be grown, per acre, if the land and ecosystem provide ideal growing conditions. What does this mean? It means it is best to buy foods that grow in their natural habitat. If that is local to you, stick to local farms, but if that means you are eating shipped foods, that is okay.

Where to find locally sourced foods:

If you are interested in eating more locally sourced foods, there are many options you can try.

Community-supported agriculture (CSA)

One of the most powerful, convenient, and beneficial ways to eat locally is to join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.

CSAs are networks that bring fresh produce from local farms to consumers. You choose a local farm to join and pay a fee to be in their network. In exchange, they harvest their fresh fruits and vegetables (and sometimes eggs, herbs, honey, fish, and/or meats), box them up, and drop them off at a central pickup location each week. Each delivery contains 10–12 items your local farm has produced for you and your family. Average costs are between $25–$40 per week of fresh, locally grown, seasonal, and, oftentimes, organic produce.

A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that those who participated in a CSA ate more fruits and vegetables, improving their overall health status and lowering their food insecurity status (or lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in the household to live an active, healthy, lifestyle). The study specifically points out that health improvements “were favorable with regard to lowered weight, blood pressure, and HbA1c” which is a marker of diabetes.

Farmers markets

Farmers markets play a major role in eating locally. These are markets held every week or so where local farmers and merchants gather to sell their crop yield and homemade recipes. Most produce has been picked within 24–48 hours of the market, making it ripe, fresh, more nutrient dense, and tastier. Visiting your local farmer’s market supports your community and ensures you eat locally.

Preserve your food

Another approach locavores often use is food preservation, especially those living in harsh climates where access to fresh food can be limited year round. Freezing, canning, and dehydrating are all popular methods used to make sure you eat local food all year.

Build your own home or community garden

Seeds, soil, and other supplies needed to grow your own herbs and tomato plants, for example, cost a fraction of the price as they do at your local grocery store. The National Agriculture Library has a plethora of free resources to get you started gardening.

"No matter how much space you have, you still have enough room to grow some food. Gardening at home is a more affordable option for those who wish to eat locally grown foods."

Kirk Wilbur, former product developer at Urban Sustainable

Should you consider going vegetarian?

If eating local isn’t an option for you, and you are passionate about wanting to lower your carbon footprint and support the environment, or if you want to do even more than just eat locally, many researchers suggest going vegetarian.

The author of Just Food and associate professor of history at Texas State University, James E. McWilliams, says, “There is one thing you can do to shrink the carbon footprint of your dinner: Take the meat off your plate. No matter how you slice it, it takes more energy to bring meat, as opposed to plants, to the table. It requires 2,400 liters of water to make a burger and only 13 liters to grow tomatoes.” Simply adopting a vegetarian diet can cut food-related emissions of greenhouse gasses by over 60%.

Eating locally has many benefits. If you’re curious about becoming a locavore, try some resources in this article. Who knows, you may experience positive changes in both your community and in your health.


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