Buying Local Not Always Environmentally Friendly
The Weekly Standard published an article this past week about the realities of buying “local,” written by a Missouri farmer. The farmer’s piece responds to the new $65 million USDA program “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” which states its program mission on its website:
It is also the start of a national conversation about the importance of understanding where your food comes from and how it gets to your plate. Today, there is too much distance between the average American and their farmer and we are marshalling resources from across USDA to help create the link between local production and local consumption.
The USDA’s program relies on the premise that local production is a social and environmental good that should be encouraged by the government. Blake Hurst, the author of the Weekly Standard article, debunks the idea that local is necessarily more “carbon neutral.” He cites a study by Hiroko Shimizu and Pierre Desrochers for the Property and Environment Research Center about “food miles.” The study’s abstract includes this conclusion (emphasis added):
The evidence presented suggests that food miles are, at best, a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production. At worst, food miles constitute a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption and the environmental impact of modern food production and the affordability of food.
Certain climates and types of land are better suited for particular agricultural purposes. The local-food movement trumpets locality and proximity above all else, though, ignoring the enormous energy inputs required to grow food on land that is not well-suited for that purpose. An assessment of the environmental impact of food growing needs to take into account all of the inputs — not just the distance traveled from the farm to the store.
The USDA has created its own matrix for evaluating the most important environmental factor for farms — proximity — without taking into account other criteria that could also have significant environmental impact. If an individual thinks it is important to buy locally, that is fine. But that decision should be made by the individual, without the help of a massive advertising campaign by a governmental agency that expends large sums of taxpayer dollars in order to promote their particular environmental model.
(This discussion is related to my recent post about farmers’ markets, and to Sarah Brodsky’s blog posts about local food.)
Another problem, in addition to USDA program’s misguided focus on buying local, are the implications that local food is somehow healthier. Fruit grown in Missouri is not any more nutritious than fruit grown in California or Florida, yet the USDA program seems to conflate the idea with statements like, “USDA wants to expand access to local, nutritious foods,” implying that proximity could contribute to nutritional value. Local food may not even be as fresh as food transported from other locales; in fact, the PERC study found that because larger farms ship much more frequently than small farms, their food is often more likely to be fresh when it reaches market. The USDA’s misleading claims about the purported environmental and health benefits of local food makes its program even more questionable, beyond the way in which it exerts influence on consumer choices.
Buying local food is not always the best way to be environmentally or health-conscious. At any rate, it is not the government’s job to influence consumer behavior, and the $65 million used by the USDA in its program to promote local food surely has a better use.