Dear EarthTalk: Why do environmentalists
advocate that people “eat locally?” I don’t
understand the connection between patronizing local food
producers and environmental quality.
— Timothy Douglas, Burling-ton,
In our modern age of food preservatives and additives,
genetically altered crops and E. coli outbreaks, as with the
recent spinach debacle, people are increasingly concerned about
the quality and cleanliness of the foods they eat. Given the
impossibility of identifying the pesticides used and the route
taken to grow and transport, say, a banana from Central America
to our local supermarket, foods grown locally make a lot of
sense for those who want more control over what they put into
John Ikerd, a retired agricultural economics professor who writes about the
growing “eat local” movement, says that farmers who sell direct
to local consumers need not give priority to packing, shipping, and shelf-life
issues and can instead “select, grow, and harvest crops to ensure peak
qualities of freshness, nutrition, and taste.” Eating local also means
eating seasonally, he adds, a practice much in tune with Mother Nature.
“ Local food is often safer, too,” says the Center for a New American
Dream (CNAD). “Even when it’s not organic, small farms tend to be
less aggressive than large factory farms about dousing their wares with chemicals.” Small
farms are also more likely to grow more variety, too, says CNAD, protecting biodiversity
and preserving a wider agricultural gene pool, an important factor in long-term
Eating locally grown food even helps in the fight against global warming. Rich
Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture reports that the average
fresh food item on our dinner table travels 1,500 miles to get there. Buying
locally produced food eliminates the need for all that fuel-guzzling transportation.
Another benefit of eating locally is helping the local economy. Farmers on
average receive only 20 cents of each food dollar spent, says Ikerd, the rest
going for transportation, processing, packaging, refrigeration, and marketing.
Farmers who sell food to local customers “receive the full retail value,
a dollar for each food dollar spent,” he says. Additionally, eating locally
encourages the use of local farmland for farming, thus keeping development
in check while preserving open space.
Portland, Oregon’s EcoTrust has launched a campaign, the Eat Local Challenge,
to encourage people to eat locally for a week so they can see—and taste—the
benefits. The organization provides an “Eat Local Scorecard” to
those willing to try. Participants must commit to spending 10 percent of their
grocery budget on foods grown within a 100-mile radius of home. In addition
they are asked to try one new fruit or vegetable each day, and to freeze or
otherwise preserve some food to enjoy later in the year.
EcoTrust also provides consumers with tips on how to eat locally more often.
Shopping regularly at local farmers’ markets or farmstands tops the list.
Also, locally owned grocery and natural foods stores and co-ops are much more
likely than supermarkets to stock local foods. The Local Harvest Web site provides
a comprehensive national directory of farmers’ markets, farm stands,
and other locally grown food sources.
CONTACTS: Center for a New American Dream, www.newdream.org; EcoTrust eatlocal.net;
Send environmental questions to: earthtalk @emagazine.com.