It’s hard to be on the streets of Asheville for more than a few minutes without seeing a “local food” bumper sticker. But how, exactly, does one define “local food”?
A recent Xpress article noted that the Asheville Tourists now sell hot dogs made from animals raised in Buncombe County and sent to Pennsylvania for butchering. But do foods that travel 1,350 miles round trip for processing still qualify as local? And how do we account for the food brought in from afar and fed to animals raised here? It takes about 6 pounds of crops to produce a pound of pork, and not much feed is grown in the mountains. Does a barbecue sandwich count as local if six times its weight in food was shipped to Western North Carolina from Iowa?
Specifics aside, however, is all the attention focused on how far food travels to reach our plates (“food miles”) even warranted? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University don’t think so, at least in terms of carbon footprint. Their study “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” found that “greenhouse gas emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase.” Surprisingly, they noted, “Final delivery from producer to retailer contributes only 4 percent” of the life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions.
Accordingly, they suggest that consumers modify their diets by eating foods that require less energy to produce in the first place. Eating an all-local diet, they found, saves the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving 1,000 fewer miles each year, while eating a vegetarian diet one day per week is equivalent to driving 1,160 fewer miles per year. Quite simply, this is because feeding food to animals and then eating the animals is an extremely inefficient use of resources. More than half the grain grown in America is fed to animals who, like humans, expend most of the calories consumed living their lives.
The above-cited study may be the first to quantitatively compare the environmental implications of “food miles” vs. food choices. But it’s only the latest in a long series of articles in prestigious scientific journals and studies from top universities concluding that eating animal products contributes greatly to climate change.
According to the United Nations’ 390-page report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars, trucks, trains, buses, ships and airplanes in the world combined. Scientists at the University of Chicago calculated that switching from the standard American diet to a plant-based diet does more to combat global warming than switching from a gas-guzzler to a Toyota Prius. And the official companion handbook for Live Earth, the global-warming concerts co-organized by Al Gore, calls “refusing meat” the “single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.” Even the most conservative environmental organizations are now discussing the need to consume less meat or none at all (see “The Low-Carbon Diet,” January 2009 Audubon magazine).
But let’s get back to local farms, specifically those that raise animals. Compared with factory farms, family farms do employ some environmentally beneficial practices. Yet in some ways they’re actually less eco-friendly.
Animals allowed to move around expend more calories and thus consume more resources than those crammed into tiny crates and cages. Chickens not pumped full of antibiotics and genetically manipulated to reach optimal slaughter weight at 6-1/2 weeks take longer to raise — and consume more food in the process. Cows raised on pasture produce more methane (a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide) than those crammed into feedlots.
Supporting a meat-based diet requires five times as much land as a plant-based diet, and smaller farms use even more land per animal. Additional demand for these products means deforestation, which leads to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The amount of land needed to produce all the meat Americans now consume by so-called “sustainable” methods would be astronomical — and it simply isn’t available. So if the answer lies in a shift from factory to family farms, much less meat will be produced.
But what about those who can’t afford or don’t have access to “elite meat”? Must they become vegetarians so that those better-off can continue their habits guilt-free? And how can something that uses so much land and other resources ever really merit the “sustainable” label?
There are definitely good reasons to support local farms. It’s great to do business with our neighbors, keep more money and jobs in our community, minimize “food miles,” eat fresher and tastier food, preserve local farmland and avoid supporting corporate agribusiness. And local farms are generally far less cruel than their industrial counterparts when it comes to raising animals.
But let’s not serve up their products with a side of greenwash. Plant-based agriculture is clearly much healthier for the earth, and thinking locally is only part of the equation: We also need to act globally. Nostalgic calls for a return to the perceived quaintness of days gone by are unrealistic, given the population explosion we’ve experienced.
Twenty-first century solutions require that we look forward, not backward. It’s time for well-intentioned environmentalists to stop looking for loopholes and embrace the necessity of a paradigm shift toward a plant-based diet.
Asheville resident Stewart David, a retired CPA, spent most of his life eating animal products at every meal. In the late ’80s, concerns about animal protection, the environment, hunger and social justice led him to adopt a vegan diet.
How can something that uses so much land and other resources ever really merit the “sustainable” label?