Eating ethically -- it's complicated

The Wednesday farmers market in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles features local fruits and vegetables from surrounding areas.

Tess Vigeland: Buying local is trendy these days. Really trendy. And it's not just hipsters looking to score locally grown lemon oregano. People have all sorts of reasons for spending their food budget close to home Support the local economy. Help out the environment -- fewer miles traveled means less pollution, right? It turns out, like so many things, it's complicated.

From the Marketplace Sustainability desk, Adriene Hill reports.


Adriene Hill: Pity the potato. It's a long haul from the soiled hands of the farm worker to the shiny, misty shelves at the grocery store.

Food, like our potato, travels an average of 1,500 miles before it realizes its life purpose on the end of a fork. That's about the distance from Omaha to Los Angeles. And it's enough of a trek -- involving enough gas and pollution -- to get some people all worked up about "food miles."

Want to reduce that number? Try your local farmer's market.

Farmer shouting

Hill: I wanted to know how far these potatoes have traveled.

Alex Weiser: They have traveled around 110 miles, 115 miles.

Hill: And are they good travelers?

Weiser: Yeah, they travel well.

Apparently, they don't fuss in the back seat. Alex Weiser runs Weiser Family Farms. He's got a table of beautiful heirloom potatoes.

Weiser: I think people want food that is grown locally, and is grown for flavor, and has great nutritional value and is not wasting resources.

Kathleen Merrigan is the U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture. She says there are all sorts of reasons farmers are good neighbors. Local farms help people eat better by making fresh, healthy foods more available. And buying local can help support local economies.

Kathleen Merrigan: All wonderful stuff.

Today, when it's so hard to figure out how to spend our food budget responsibly, and ethically and sustainably, food miles can seem like an easy indicator. But it's not quite that simple.

For one, food miles are not the best way to judge how much pollution food is responsible for.

Merrigan: We know from our studies that the fuel use per unit of product delivered to consumers may be higher or lower.

Transportation only accounts for about 10 percent of the pollution created by the food we eat. And "local" doesn't say anything about how the food was grown; just imagine the energy it takes to grow a tomato in the winter in a heated greenhouse.

Chris Nicholson: If they are trying to minimize energy usage, there have been a number of studies that have shown it's probably better changing your diet than it is to think about buying local.

Chuck Nicholson is a professor at Cornell and Cal Poly.

According to one study, cutting red meat and dairy out of your diet one day a week has the same environmental impact as eating local. Nicholson has studied the impact of reducing food miles in the dairy industry -- research he says that points to a broader issue with the local food movement.

Nicholson: Your local decisions can have effects on people farther away.

If you and I and our neighbors start buying local, whole systems of food production will be affected. Which isn't always a good thing, especially if you're the farmer far away.

Gawain Kripke: There are other issues to be concerned about in the sourcing of our food, including social justice.

Gawain Kripke is policy director at OxFam in Washington, D.C. His colleagues worked on an analysis of the global food market to show how dependant farmers in poorer countries are on the food dollars of developed countries.

One tidbit from the study: UK food-supply chains support one to one and a half million farm workers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Kripke: We don't want to exclude small food producers in poor countries just because they are distant from us, because we're using this distance measure.

The basic idea is that if you buy your broccoli from your local farmer, you're not buying it at the grocery store. Which means that the broccoli farmer in another part of the world that sells to your grocery store, won't have a market for it and won't make a living.

It's a bit of a conundrum. How do you feed yourself and your family in a way that's good for them and everybody else and the planet?

According to the experts, it boils down to something like this: Buy fruits and veggies in season. Look for fair-trade labels on international foods. Buy local, when it makes sense. Waste less. And, eat less meat.

I feel like I always wind up saying that.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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