Buy green, buy local… or not

It began in America, and is now spreading among the environmentally conscious,well-educated and generally well-off European consumers : “it” is the locavore trend. Locavore was the 2007 Oxford’s word of the year, but here is a quick definition in case you missed it :a locavore is someone who exclusively (or at least primarily) eats foods from their local or regional foodshed or a determined radius from their home (commonly either 100 or 250 miles, depending on location). By eating locally, most locavores hope to create a greater connection between themselves and their food sources, resist industrialized and processed foods, and support their local economy. Still, the key purpose of locavores is to achieve a reduction of global carbon emissions. At first, it seems to make perfect sense: global food trade, because it involves long-distance shipping,conditionning and other processes, is supposed to have a very heavy carbon output. By consuming locally grown food, the locavores reduce shipping distances and consequently, carbon emissions.

On a closer look though , things seem to be a bit more complicated: emissions per unit of  food actually depend heavily on how the food is shipped : if eating locally reduces how tightly packed shipping containers are, or if it changes shipping mode- say from rail to truck-then the local option may actually be more intensive in carbon.

It is simplistic to think that local food does not rely on the consumption of fossil fuels :Local tomatoes are grown in northern climes in gas-heated greenhouses. And local doesn’t necessarily mean “natural”: local apples can be stored for months-in storage sheds filled with nitrogen…

What locavores fail to take into account is that two-thirds of the social costs of the food distribution system have nothing directly to do with the environment at all: They are attributable to accidents and congestion. More than half of those costs are caused by driving to the shops. TIM HARFORD, Undercover Economist and author of a column about locavores in Forbes adds :”My socially responsible advice to you, then, is not to worry about from how far away your food came, but to walk-not drive-to the supermarket”

Caring about one’s carbon impact on the planet should not be reserved to a happy few, nor should it be a mere trendy “attitude” : it may be more glamorous to drive 50 miles to go pick strawberries in an organic farm, but much more costly -as far as carbon emissions are concerned- than to go to the local grocery store, even if those strawberries are grown in another continent. Hence the importance for food retailers and producers to calculate and display the carbon footprint of their products on their tags, as a duty towards their consumers . By doing so, they help people actually make an eco-responsible choice.