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The Problem with Overemphasizing Local Foods

Last week, I wrote a lot about the local food movement, and about different companies' attempts to present their products as local, whether justified or not.

In Britain, an organic food group called the Soil Association takes food miles into account when deciding which products to give its seal of approval. Some UK supermarket chains label food that has been flown in, in order to warn eco-conscious consumers. And the European Commission has looked at charging hauling companies for the environmental damage they do.

But the entire concept is flawed. Transportation is only one aspect of a product's total environmental impact. In fact, according to a recent study, "Final delivery from producer and processor to the point of retail sale accounts for only 4 percent of the U.S. food system's greenhouse gas emissions."

So, a company could be shipping in fertilizers, pesticides and animal feed from halfway across the world to grow food it then markets as "local." Other companies could be making major progress in issues like packaging and water use without gaining a trace of local cred.

And then there's the issue of how food is produced. Kenyan farmers last year fought the Soil Association over its standards, arguing that imported Kenyan produce was grown more sustainably than the local equivalents grown in UK greenhouses.

And though the meat industry disputes it, studies have repeatedly shown that meat production is responsible for a disproportionate amount of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, there are other reasons to eat local besides the environment. As nutrition expert Marion Nestle wrote, "I've always thought that the real benefits of local food production were in building and preserving communities." Which is pretty the same angle Frito-Lay was taking when it emphasized the farmers in its latest campaign.

The point is that local isn't everything. It's a piece of the puzzle, and it's worth it for companies to keep their food miles in mind, but not so much that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

UPDATE: I got this email from the Soil Association:

Following a lengthy two stage consultation on air freighted organic goods, the Soil Association Standards Board have decided to monitor the amount of air freighted organic goods and work with partners in Africa to promote the positive contribution organic farming makes to food security and people's livelihoods.
Soil Association Certification does not take airfreight into consideration when certifying produce. You can find out more about our consultation online at:
http://www.soilassociation.org/airfreight
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