Late spring in New Hampshire. The tables at the farmers markets are a bit sparse and the attendance is limited to only the most stalwart supporters of local food. There will be a few booths of handmade items, such as leather or jewelry, and a couple of booths selling meat, cheese or milk (the taste of raw milk is so amazing – TRY IT!) And the rest of the vendors are displaying their early season crops. At this time of year, you can tell who has greenhouses and who doesn’t! You can also tell which farmers market has stricter regulations. Some farmers markets allow each vendor to sell a small percentage of products that they did not grow themselves. In those farmers markets, some vendors do take advantage of this small loophole and buy produce wholesale and resell it for a generous markup at the market. But that’s the exception to the rule. By and large, the vendors are the farmers themselves who have toiled over the soil, the seedlings, and nurtured the growing plants until harvest time. And there’s no arguing – the vegetables and fruits from farmers markets tastes much better than produce shipped from across the country, or halfway around the world. Apart from taste, what are the other benefits of buying local food? Is it healthier, better for the environment, for the economy, for our society as a whole?
In general, of course, fewer miles traveled is better. But it’s never that simple. First, the vehicle of travel must be taken into consideration; train transport is more efficient (it emits less greenhouse gas emissions) than truck or plane travel. Furthermore, we need to consider that transportation is only a small part of all the activities undertaken to get the food from a seed to your dinner plate. So production method and processing are very important. Approximations vary depending on location, but it’s generally estimated that transportation (shipping the food from the processing facilities to the retail stores) accounts for only 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions of the food throughout the entire food system. Another huge factor is the kind of food. Red meat and dairy products emit far more greenhouse gases than chicken and fish, and vastly more than fruits and vegetables. Cows consume a lot of food, and they are being fed grains – this production of grains adds to the emissions totals. But cows also produce methane (yes, we all know from what!) and nitrous oxide from the decomposition of manure. Methane and nitrous oxide are 23 and 296 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, respectively. Emit less, do more damage.
The problem is, all things are not equal. Each food would need to be analyzed individually and by location. Tomatoes from in Sweden are grown in heated greenhouses, while tomatoes from Spain are not (in some cases). But is the greenhouse heated with renewable energy? Are they organic? Does the Spanish farmer use efficient irrigation? What happens with the tomatoes afterwards? Are they eaten fresh? Processed? All of these things change how environmentally friendly (or not) a product is. In general, however, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint for your food, eat less meat. Replacing meat and dairy just one day a week would save the equivalent CO2 emissions as driving 1,160 miles less per year! Not to mention other environmental & health benefits. Despite this, you can find food that is both local and low in greenhouse gas emissions. Many local farmers are responding to consumer demands for organic and sustainably produced food. Many CSA’s and other small farms employ human labor over machines. Most products from your local farmers market are minimally processed. So while it’s not a given, local food can be the most sustainable option, as well as the most delicious!