Doing the Math on Local Food

Apr 22, 2012

This weekend, people all over the country celebrated Earth Day by participating in The Nature Conservancy’s Picnic for the Planet, an effort to raise awareness about the sources of our food and water.

These days there is nothing cutting edge about eating local.  It’s been embraced by the first lady, almost every celebrity chef out there…even Walmart is getting in on the game.

Still, in 2007 less than one percent of food grown in the US was sold directly from farm to consumer.  Hence the continued need for raising awareness, says the Nature Conservancy’s Jackie Hall.

"From our perspective it's all about lowering your carbon footprint," she says.

That’s been the classic mantra of this movement: buy local, lower the mileage on your salad.  But over the last few years there’s been a steady trickle of studies and op-eds suggesting it might not be that simple. 

For instance, one report out of Carnegie Mellon found that 83 percent of a food’s carbon footprint occurs in the production phase.  So, a tomato grown in a heated green house next door might actually have a bigger carbon footprint than one grown outside thousands of miles away

Several economists have chimed in, variously referring to the local food movement as self-indulgent, inefficient and even something that hurts the world’s poor.

Those critiques don't bother Bob Ross, who heads the Santa Fe Farmer's Market Institute.  In fact, he says, it's key in keeping everyone searching for the best solutions.  The Institute works to that end by providing workshops for local farmers on energy and water efficiency techniques.  After all, if the tomato in that aforementioned scenario is grown in a solar-energy heated greenhouse...well then there you go.

Still, the carbon equations that pepper discussions on this subject are enough to make any eco-minded head spin.  What about the energy consumed in freezing a local peach…or the question of how the numbers change when you talk about shipping food by rail instead of truck? 

The truth is that most shoppers at a farmers market aren't working through complicated math problems while bagging their arugula.  People like Tammy Diaz come because, she says, it just tastes better.  "I've bought arugula at grocery stores and it just does not have the same flavor as home grown arugula."

Other shoppers, like Margo Covington, cite the social high that comes with a trip to the farmer's market...and the benefits of being able to look your farmer in the eye.  All factors that make eating local difficult to quantify by any measure.