Food Politics: Against 'Eating Local'

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Eastern Market, Capitol Hill

Flickr user laura padgett. Some rights reserved.

Food Politics: Against 'Eating Local'

These days, 'Eat Local' signs seem to be everywhere and you rarely hear any criticism of it. But that's not stopping some from pointing out negative impacts and hidden costs ...

Millions of Americans are embracing the mantra "Think Global, Eat Local": buying from local farmers, eating organic meats and dairy and using more seasonal ingredients. The so-called "locavore" movement grew out of a critique of globalized, industrial agriculture. But Charles Kenny says our "First-World food fetishes" are actually hurting the world's poorest people, by suppressing scientific innovation and threatening agricultural jobs in developing countries. We examine what it means to be a globally conscious grocery buyer.


Charles Kenny

Senior fellow, Center for Global Development; Author, "Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding--And How We Can Improve the World Even More" (Basic)

Have the benefits of Locavore Eating Been Oversold?

Over the last decade, food lovers and public health advocates have placed a new premium on eating fresh, seasonal produce and meat from nearby farms. Today, Restaurants tout their relationships with local farmers. Farmers markets are expanding across the Washington region. City governments are experimenting with new ways to bring fresh, local produce into urban "food deserts".

Can You Change the World By Changing What You Eat?
Many see this renewed focus on local food as an antidote to the excesses of American industrial agriculture. But is it really possible - or advisable - to rewire our global food economy by changin what we buy?

Charles Kenny says "no." In a recent essay in Foreign Policy Magazine, he says our "First-World food fetishes" are actually leading to bad public policy that may end up hurting the environment and poor people in the developing world. Specifically, he argues that:

  • Fears about genetic modification (GM) can lead to bad public policy:
    Particularly in Europe, widespread skepticism about GM crops leads to policies that prevent innovative science that could help increase agricultural yields in the developed and developing worlds.
  • Globally-sourcing creates opportunities for developing economies:
    Over the last decade, the West African country of the Gambia has increased its exports of fruit and vegetables to the European Union by 25%. That food has a bigger carbon footprint than crops sourced closer to Europe, but has created economic opportunities for a poor country.
  • Green is in the eye of the beholder:
    Focusing on a product's carbon footprint can be misleading. A piece of lamb raised in New Zealand travels thousands of miles to end up in your grocery store. But locally-raised sheep may have hidden carbon footprints and other environmental costs (for example, the feed for livestock might be imported).

Is Local Better?
WAMU 88.5 Reporter Sabri Ben-Achour recently explored the complex math of determining food's environmental impact (Via Metro Connection). He found that "delivery from farm to market is about 4 percent of all the emissions it takes to produce food in the U.S. By one estimate, 83 percent of our carbon footprint for food happens before that food ever leaves the farm."

Kenny cites a controversial academic study, which found that it was four times more energy efficient for British consumers to buy lamb from New Zealand than from domestic producers. Many food advocates have disputed that report from Lincoln University in New Zealand, questioning its methodology and noting links between the researchers and the country's export industry.

What Do You Think?

  • Do you place a premium on buying local?
  • Can you have a positive impact on the world by changing what you eat?
  • What does it mean to be a globally conscious grocery buyer?

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