Is Local Better When It Comes To Our Food? (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Is Local Better When It Comes To Our Food?

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We turn now from art to food, specifically food that comes from our region. Now, it's no secret the whole locavore movement is taking off here and around the country, but here's a tricky question. Are those veggies and fruits grown 50 miles away actually better for the environment than their counterparts grown 1,000 miles away? Sabri Ben-Achour did some digging to try to find out.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:26
At the Bloomingdale Farmer's Market near 1st and R in Northwest D.C., there are a lot of goodies this time of year.

MR. SCOTT ROBERTS

00:00:32
Let's see, I got kohlrabi, celeriac, radishes, what else did I get?

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:37
Scott Roberts lives around the corner. He stocked up for the week. Carrie Shepard manages this market and she says everything is local.

MS. CARRIE SHEPARD

00:00:43
Yes, we source from the Chesapeake Watershed. That's sort of the rule.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:46
One of the reasons Roberts and many people here shop for local food is environmental.

ROBERTS

00:00:51
Because I read all the stories about how the cost of MG to transport food from elsewhere and if you can produce the food locally it's better for the environment.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:59
By some estimates our food travels 1,250 miles on average before ever getting to us. So why do we fly in food from half a world away and use up all that fuel when we can sometimes get that lettuce or goat cheese from the next county over?

MR. RICHARD PIROG

00:01:14
It is more complicated than that.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:16
Richard Pirog is senior associate director of the CS Mott group for sustainable food systems at Michigan State University and he says local doesn't necessarily mean environmentally better.

PIROG

00:01:25
The thing is, like, mode of transport for the food enter into the equation as well as the overall environmental impact of that food from seed that was planted into the ground until you buy the item in the grocery store. So, as an example, you could have fruits and vegetables that are trucked in from only 100 miles away and the same items could come by train from 500 miles and train is so much more of an efficient mode of transport that the items delivered by rail may actually take less energy and less fuel.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:57
In one study researchers compared apples shipped to the UK by sea with apples grown in the UK and stored. The sea shipping was so much more efficient than storing UK apples in a refrigerator for half the year that it was better from a greenhouse gas perspective for Brits to get their apples from New Zealand than their own background when not in season. But transport is only part of the picture says Pirog. On average delivery from farmed market is about four percent of all the emissions it takes to produce food in the U.S.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:25
So that means how a piece of food is produced is often more important than how it was moved. Peter Tyedmers an associate professor at Dalhousie University in Canada.

MR. PETER TYEDMERS

00:02:34
We've done some work in the past looking at salmon farming systems in different parts of the world.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:40
Scotland, Chile, Norway.

TYEDMERS

00:02:42
You could be sitting Edinburgh as a consumer and interested in eating a low environmental impact salmon and think that, well, I'm going to eat Scottish because it's local. But that choice would've resulted in markedly higher greenhouse gas emissions and, you know, energy inputs and acidifying emissions and other things than if you'd picked the Norwegian salmon fillet that had been frozen at source and trucked down to you 1,000 miles.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:10
That's because in some regions the salmon farmers had to use more feed and some feed is a lot more environmentally costly to produce than other feeds. Other researchers point that not all food is equal. It takes a lot more pollution to produce a steak than it does a bowl of rice or even a chicken breast. One study out of Carnegie Melon University by Christopher Weber and Scott Mathews calculates that if everybody in the U.S. ate around 20 percent less red meat they'd save as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the food delivery related emissions in the country.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:39
So what does this mean for shoppers who are just trying to do the right thing? As Tyedmers points out, it's not that local food is any worse or better, but that it really depends on what you're values are.

TYEDMERS

00:03:50
You know, we encounter this all time. People, you know, throw up their hands and say, but I thought, you know, local is good. You know, I really believe in local and now you're telling me that local may not be great. And it's my message isn't that local is inherently inferior, it's just -- we just need to live with decisions that aren't always perfect. That we are always making tradeoffs in our lives.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:12
So for example, the tradeoff for a fuzzy carbon footprint might be that you know you're getting your food from an organic farmer or that you're promoting biodiversity. And then there are other factors. Back at farmer's market, it's a no-brainer for Lindsey Darra (sp?) .

MS. LINDSEY DARRA

00:04:24
The food here tastes better.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:25
And buying local can mean it's easier to do your research. Just ask shopper, Scott Roberts.

ROBERTS

00:04:30
I made friends with all the farmers now.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:31
As market manager, Carrie Shepard, puts it...

SHEPARD

00:04:33
The more you can know, the more empowered you are about the choices you're about what you put in your body.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:37
I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

00:04:44
Do you make a point of buying local produce? We want to hear your thoughts on how environmental concerns shape your food choices. Just send a note to metro@wamu.org.
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