Why Eating Locally Really IS a Silver Bullet. - Eat Drink Better

Why Eating Locally Really IS a Silver Bullet.

farmers-market.jpgI admit that I am not the most rational person in the world. When faced with big choices, weighing the pros and cons is not how I behave.

My decisions – whether to have a baby, where to live, who to marry – are not based solely on logic. They are also based on my heart, or some intuitive notion. Perhaps because I’m a scientist, I sometimes feel this is a weakness. But every now and then, logic and emotion converge. The heart and the head agree, and this is a blessed thing.

That’s how it is, for me, with joining the local foods movement. I have read books, attended meetings, visited farms, and analyzed endless facts about the astounding benefits of re-building vibrant local and regional food systems. I have discovered many reasons to buy food grown nearby, and to support the local food economy however I can.

These reasons include protecting farms, promoting sustainable agriculture, getting in touch with the seasons, reducing carbon emissions, supporting your local economy, knowing where your food comes from, eating food that tastes better and is more nutritious, and improving the safety and security of your food.

But if I’m honest, our family’s shift toward local foods is happening mostly for emotional reasons.I want our food to come from nearby because it makes me feel safe, well-fed, and happy.I’ve learned about beekeeping, blueberry picking, wheat varieties, and raising lambs.

I’ve become a huge fan of our farmer’s markets, and I’ve learned that nearby farms still produce over 170 different crops. I am grateful for the winter steelhead my husband catches on occasion, and I know that the giant yellow plums in our back yard make fabulous jam. I’ve met wonderful people who grow apples, own restaurants, brew beer, and fight hunger.

It may sound sappy, but shopping and eating locally has helped me to love my community and appreciate my home. It makes me feel hopeful.I am not talking about restricting my family’s diet to 100% local food. I salute those that do this, and I enjoy the books (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Plenty) and web sites (Eat Local Challenge, Local Harvest, Locavores) that point the way.

My approach has been incremental. I shop for local and organic first. I pick and freeze fruit in summer, buy lamb and beef from farmers I know, and prowl the farmer’s markets. We have a small garden. But I don’t think I’ll ever voluntarily give up either coffee or avocados. My daughter still eats cheerios and Annie’s pasta.

It’s remarkable, though, how many excellent foods are available from nearby. Eggs, milk, lettuce, broccoli, apples, carrots, and potatoes are for sale much of the year. The growing season brings a succession of wonders, my favorites being strawberries, blueberries, peaches, plums, and corn. Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where we live, is certainly a rich land, but everywhere, it seems, has something special to offer.

Discovering the food of your home landscape can be great fun. And its amazing how many problems – environmental, economic, and social – can be addressed through revitalizing local food systems.When the facts and the heart agree, the power of an idea can be truly astonishing. I hope my posts will encourage you to discover your region’s local foods, to start a garden or to meet a nearby farmer. I’m betting that eating locally will make you happy, too!

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About the Author

Carla writes about food, agriculture, climate change, and other environmental topics from her home in Corvallis, Oregon. She lives with her husband, 8-year-old daughter, and 2-year-old Lab, Daisy. She is a biologist with a Ph.D. in plant conservation genetics from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her work experience includes: organic farming, environmental education, high school and college science teaching, natural resource policy analysis, environmental consulting, and rare plant scientific research. In 2004, after weathering the deaths of three loved-ones and being bitterly disappointed by the election results, Carla resolved to work more directly for the change she wants to see in the world. Currently she writes about the environment, and works on local food issues and climate change. She is especially interested in integrating good scientific information into her writing because she believes in the power of knowledge to save the world. When she isn't working, she is busy being a mom, keeping the house together, discovering local foods, and getting outside.
  • Great post, Carla… eating locally promotes so many different kinds of sustainability.

    In a post I wrote on Monday, I took note of some claims about carbon emissions and local food… in short, that there’s not necessarily a straight-line equation between lowering emissions and eating locally (essentially, the debate over the reliability of “food miles” as a metric for determining the carbon footprint of food). I think there are many, many good reasons to promote a local diet, but is this argument one we should back away from? I’m just interested in your thoughts… I don’t claim to know the answer…;-)

  • Carla Wise

    I have seen some of the claims and counter-claims about food-miles and carbon emissions. Basically, I think it is like so many things…there is a relationship, but its not 100%, because there are other factors besides distance food travels that affect carbon emissions. The Leopold Center apparently did a study that suggests that often the most efficient foods, in terms of carbon, are regional foods, grown or processed on a mid-scale. I hope to do a future post on this, as its very interesting to me. But I think it is still fair to say that favoring nearby foods over foods grown and processed very far away reduces carbon emissions in general.
    P.S. thanks for fixing the paragraph problem!

  • Nice photo, Carla! There’s still sleet on the ground outside my window.

    For more info on the food mile issue, there was an op-ed in the New York Times on the food mile question. As well as response to it over at Eat Local Challenge. Interestingly, the example of the local sheep in the NYT article, pointed out that the benefit of food miles was lost because the sheep’s food had miles and production costs (in other words, not a sustainable farming approach).

    Of all the Eat Local reasons, and there are many as Carla lists, food miles is the hardest to prove and may not be the best indicator for the impact of eating local. It’s still a good idea, this reduction of food miles where it is beneficial — and that is often. Other key issues like support of sustainable agriculture and the growth of regional food systems have weight. Supporting sustainable agriculture is likely the most critical goal as it produces food that is healthier for us and for our environment — a real win-win situation.

    Eat Local Challenge is not as restrictive as 100-mile diet, by the way. Each person who undertakes the challenge self-defines how local eating can fit into their lives. It could be one product or as many products as can be sourced. The goal is to challenge yourself to go local in whatever way you can. I encourage everyone to take on this challenge and define how local can fit into your life, even if it’s just one item. The challenge is starting again this spring.

    Finally, one of the rewards for eating local is that the food tastes SO GOOD. It’s almost selfishly easy that such gratification is actually a “green” thing to do!

  • JUDITH TAYLOR

    Well done Carla.

  • local food is THE best !!
    not sure if you have heard about the two angry moms?
    they are trying to get fresh and local food into our school lunch program.
    they need help to make it happen…
    former texas agricultural secretary susan combs said that it will take 2 million angry moms to change the school lunch program.

    get more information @ http://www.angrymoms.org

  • Thanks for the responses, Carla and Beth. I think the benefits of a local diet far outweigh the costs… the food miles debate is really interesting, though, as it had kind of taken over at one point… you’ve both done a very nice job of presenting these arguments in “lay language” without glossing over complexities…

  • Mark Van Steeter

    Carla is right on! Eating locally is the key to a sustainable future and the re-weaving of our frayed social fabric. Well done!

  • Seth White

    Hi Carla,

    Nice post! It’s great to see recognition that food is one of the most important areas we can make (or not make) an impact. It will be fun to follow your ideas.

    One big question that my family and I have is, what is the current thinking on the relative impact of eating meat vs. going vegetarian? It seems that going veggy has slipped out of fashion. You hear a lot of people talking about eating local, organic beef for example, and citing enivonment as a reason. I admit that local, organic beef will have much less of an impact than beef from a feedlot or open range on the other side of the Rockies. And it makes sense to wean ourselves from dependence on far-away foods. In her book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (which you mention in your post), Kingslover says something to the effect that many people give up hamburgers to save the environment, but she gave up bananas.

    Kingsolver has a good point. But what about the simple fact that pound for pound, much more energy, water, and other resources are required to produce beef than are required for grains and vegetables? Beef, whether local or travel-worn, is still subject to the old Eltonian pyramid! Of course not everyone wants to become a vegetarian, nor should they be bullied into it. But it seems like the environmental advantages of reducing our meat intake have gone by the wayside in the shadow of debates over the relative carbon savings of local food, and deserve to be brought back into the discussion.

  • Carla Wise

    Whew, meat is a difficult topic for me. I am not a vegetarian, but I am aware of the simple energy equations that argue for becoming one. There was an excellent article in the New York Times a few Sundays ago by Mark Bittman about the environmental and carbon costs of cattle operations which you should look at if you are interested in this issue. Grass fed beef and lamb are not at all equivalent to the CAFOs that he discusses, however. He does bring up the advantages of Americans eating less meat, and I take that very much to heart.

  • Lisa Nicholas

    Thanks for sharing your fresh take on soul and science, Carla!

  • Tom

    So why is meat a difficult topic? I extol the virtues of a vegetarian diet all the time (health and enviro) and people listen. Even reducing you intake of animal protien is a great first start. I don’t understand why people get so stuck on eating meat. Half of what you taste is the marinade and seasoning. A plain hamburger is not very tasty, you have to put on cheese, ketchup, mustard, relish, onions, lettuce and tomatoes to have a tasty burger. Ever tried it with out the meat? Still tastes pretty good!

    So what is stopping you? It took me about 3 months before I stopped having meat cravings and I was able to retrain my body to crave other protein sources. I lost 15lbs and didn’t even half to increase my activity level. Its the easiest thing anyone can do to reduce their carbon foot print.

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