Eat Global, Not Local


It is fashionable these days to decry "food miles." The longer food has spent traveling to your plate, the more oil has been burnt and the more peace has been shattered along the way. But why single out food? Should we not protest against T-shirt miles, too, and laptop miles? After all, fruits and vegetables account for more than 20 percent of all exports from poor countries, whereas most laptops come from rich countries, so singling out food imports for special discrimination means singling out poor countries for sanctions. Two economists recently concluded, after studying the issue, that the entire concept of food miles is a "profoundly flawed sustainability indicator." Getting food from the farmer to the shop causes just 4% of all its lifetime emissions…A New Zealand lamb, shipped to England, requires one-quarter as much carbon to get on to a London plate as a Welsh lamb; a Dutch rose, grown in a heated greenhouse and sold in London, has six times the carbon footprint of a Kenyan rose grown under the sun using water recycled through a fish farm, using geothermal electricity and providing employment to Kenyan women.

That's from page 41 of The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. I'll post a full review tomorrow.

Caitlin Flanagan, last year in the Atlantic, wrote about Alice Waters "hijacking school curricula" in California to teach a bizarre set of local food ideas to students.

Here's a long Foreign Policy article on why the Whole Foods mantra of "organic, local, slow" is one that may interest rich Americans and Europeans yet profoundly disadvantages the world's hungry millions.

Here's a piece on why organic food is neither healthier to eat nor better for the environment.

9 comments on “Eat Global, Not Local
  • I know some people who don’t want to buy textiles made in the third world made by children. Somehow unemploying these children who’s family depend on the incomes leads them to sex work.

    Another unintended consequence that some are not intellectually facile enough to figure out.

  • Part of the problem is industrialized agriculture has convinced the majority of Americans thinking this is the way of the future.

    Pioneers like farmer Joel Salatin, as featured in Food Inc among other prominent sustainable food movies, has dispelled many of the claims set forth by organic food naysayers–from claims that beef is bad for the environment, or that we NEED big farming or the world can’t be fed when in fact he shows localized farming actually can produce greater yields than factory farming.

    Is produce grown in California, grown organically, with the use or “organic” pesticides and preservatives trucked over to say New York still organic? For example, truly organic lettuce has a shelf life of less than 3 days, however it takes nearly a week to get from California to New York. In his regard, I would agree with the last link of your article you have that organic is not much better.

    The other component is most of these trucked over food is genetically modified food. Sites like natural news among others on a daily basis shows the drastic health defects.

    Michael Pollan has shown that since the fifties of 10 percent or more in levels of iron, zinc, calcium, and selenium across a range of food crops. or as he says “To put this in more concrete terms, you now have to eat three apples to get the same amount of iron as you would have gotten from a single 1940 apple, and you’d have to eat several more slices of bread to get your recommended daily allowance of zinc than you would have a century ago.”

    Because the food system is a complex animal these days, there is a lot of misinformation out there.

  • Ben,

    Not sure if you’ve read the Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley lately. He devoted half a chapter in the middle of the book talking about how organic food isn’t really as healthy or environmentally friendly/sustainable as conventional media portrays it to be.

    Just some food for thought,


  • Yes. By refusing to buy clothes that were made by exploiting children, we are putting people out of jobs. Because of course the corollary of this decision is that we must just walk around naked all the time, never, say, buying clothes from companies which create employment without exploitation.

    “Another unintended consequence that some are not intellectually facile enough to figure out.”


  • Well, food miles is all people have got, until there is a carbon price. Without it, there is no effective way to price in the environmental degradation (global warming) caused by fossil fuels in all its guises.

    So can we as a species, be smart than yeast?

  • This is an interesting post Ben, however to me, you are speaking about our responsibility to support humanity rather than supporting our local community economically by buying local produce.

    I purchase my meat from an organically certified local farmer, 5 Km’s from my home. The meat is hormone free, pasture grazed black angus, and I know this because I know the farmer, Gord and what he stands for. His meat is more expensive but my $$ goes to support his family and that of his son who just had a new baby.

    I will not use the excuse of cheaper meat in both price and quality, even under the premise of supporting a poorer nation as an excuse to ignore what my heart tells me is right for both my family and Gords. The same goes for all local produce, products and dare I say, even manufacturing.

    I am not an economist but I would suggest that we are just seeing the initial toll of outsourcing to ‘poorer nations’ whose human rights abuse allow a greater profit for corporations and governments.  Giving less than ethical corporations and governments more cash to keep workers out of the sex trade at the same time starving Gord doesn’t make sense to me…..I’d rather donate directly to charities than can help and educate.

  • 1000 people driving an extra 2 miles to go to a “locally-grown” farmer’s market instead of the supermarket down the street causes more pollution, etc., than the 1,000-mile trip by truck that took food for 1,000 people to the supermarket.

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