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Buying Local: If It's Local and Out of Season, There May be Better Options

AT VARIOUS POINTS in the coming months, a few hundred of Vermont's most ethical eaters will take the "Localvore Challenge." The actual dates of the challenge vary from town to town, but the idea is that, for a single meal, or a day, or an entire week, participants will eat only food that was grown or raised within 100 miles of where they live.

Vermont's localvores (also known as "locavores" or "locatarians") and their counterparts around the country are part of a burgeoning movement. In recent years, as large companies with globe-straddling supply networks have come to dominate organic agriculture, "local" has emerged as the new watchword of conscientious consumption. Over the past year and a half, the interest in local food has been fueled by best-selling memoirs and manifestos about local eating and dietary self-sufficiency, such as Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," Bill McKibben's "Deep Economy," and Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

The case for local food is several-fold: It tastes better, its proponents argue, and preserves species biodiversity. It shores up small-scale economies and communities in the face of globalization and cultural homogenization. It even, some of its advocates claim, protects against terrorism: a decentralized food system could limit the impact of a virus or other bio-agent introduced into the food supply.

One of the arguments most often heard, however, is about energy. And at a time of rising concern about climate change, the great distances that most of our food travels are a potent symbol of the system's profligacy and cost in greenhouse gases. For local-food activists, "food miles" have become a favored measure of environmental impact. Food activists in the US and especially in Western Europe have pushed to put the term on menus and grocery-store labels.

"[T]he typical item of food on an American's plate travels some fifteen hundred miles to get there," Michael Pollan writes in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," "and is frequently better traveled and more worldly than its eater."

But a gathering body of evidence suggests that local food can sometimes consume more energy -- and produce more greenhouse gases -- than food imported from great distances. Moving food by train or ship is quite efficient, pound for pound, and transportation can often be a relatively small part of the total energy "footprint" of food compared with growing, packaging, or, for that matter, cooking it. A head of lettuce grown in Vermont may have less of an energy impact than one shipped up from Chile. But grow that Vermont lettuce late in the season in a heated greenhouse and its energy impact leapfrogs the imported option. So while local food may have its benefits, helping with climate change is not always one of them.

"All things being equal, it's better if food only travels 10 miles," says Peter Tyedmers, an ecological economist at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University. "Sometimes all things are equal; many times they aren't."
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The new research is part of an ambitious attempt to understand how food -- and the massive, almost impossibly complex system that produces and moves it across the globe -- affects the environment. For several years in Europe, and increasingly here in the US as well, food analysts have started to adopt a methodology called Life Cycle Assessment -- a comprehensive accounting of all of the resources that go into the food network, from fertilizer and fuel to the concrete and steel used to build a packing plant and the electricity used to keep it cool.

These researchers laud the public interest in food and its environmental impact, but their work, they say, shows that "local" is not the best way to think about food and energy, or the best basis for food-buying decisions. Some of these researchers are trying to devise more accurate ways of telling consumers the climate impact of their food choices. But they are discovering that the task can be tricky. The key, they argue, is to find a way to label foods that is both accurate and simple enough for consumers to accept.

Their work also highlights a more fundamental challenge for local-food enthusiasts. Michael Pollan states this challenge starkly: "Local means local in season," he says. In places like Boston, it means not only summers of fresh berries and arugula but January diets heavy on root vegetables and canned tomatoes. Can such a movement ever find mainstream acceptance?

The American food-supply network can do certain tasks very well, and one of them is to efficiently ship things over very large distances. The costs in energy can be high: air shipping is by far the most fuel-intensive, and is the fastest growing sector of food transport. However, it still only accounts for a small minority of the food shipments into and throughout the country.

Judged by unit of weight, ship and rail transport in particular are highly energy efficient. Financial considerations force shippers to pack as much as they can into their cargo containers, whether they're being carried by ship, rail, or truck, and to ensure that they rarely make a return trip empty. And because of their size, container ships and trains enjoy impressive economies of scale. The marginal extra energy it takes to transport a single bunch of bananas packed in with 60,000 tons of other cargo on a container ship is more than an order of magnitude less than that required to move them with a couple hundred pounds of cargo in a car or small truck.

How food travels, in other words, matters as much as how far it travels, and what happens on the farm or in the kitchen can leave a much bigger energy footprint than what happens between them...

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