Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Environmental Impact of Local Eating

Happy Earth Day!

We spent the afternoon with an amazing group of people, the Board and members of the Welty Environmental Center. We were invited to speak at their annual meeting about our 100 mile diet experience. We were blown away by all this group does. This is only their 8th year of existence and the slate of programs they offer is outstanding and the commitment and vigor of the group is a wonder to behold. Their stated mission is:
"To provide leadership in environmental and ecological education to students, teachers and individuals of all ages so that the residents of this region can make informed decisions leading to the respect for and the enjoyment, preservation and sustainable use of our natural resources."
If it wasn't so far away I think we would be there all the time!

Our presentation was billed as "Local Eating as an Environmentally Friendly Choice." We got to tell our usual story, we also got to add in a bit of new research regrading the usefulness of the concept of "food miles." Food miles have become a short-hand way of discussing and categorizing food, in some ways fewer food miles have come to equal "better food." That labeling is not entirely accurate now does it take into consideration all aspects of food production.

A new study, Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States published last week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology states that it is actually the production of food that is the most environmentally damaging. The study systematically compares the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with food production against long-distance distribution, aka “food-miles.” The conclusion is that of GHG emissions associated with food, 83% of emissions come from production as opposed to only 4% from transportation from production to retailer. The study suggests that changing what we eat (moving to a diet less reliant on red meat and dairy and concentrating on vegetables, and poultry) would lower a household's food-related climate footprint more than buying local.

In our opinion, individual farming practices complicate matters even further. Locally-raised, pastured beef has a different environmental impact that factory-raised beef from far away. Asking questions and deciding what is most important to you is what matters. Buying local food is not just about GHG emissions. Issues of land use, soil sustainability, local economics, community, taste etc. all play a role. The more information we have about what impact our food choices have, the better choices we can make.