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Locavore: The new organic

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"Locavore: The new organic"

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Four women in San Francisco coined the term “locavore” in 2005, and since then many similar groups have popped up all around the country. Each has the same idea: eating locally helps the environment, improves health, stimulates the local economy, and simply tastes better. For these reasons locally grown and produced food has been called “the new organic.” The New Oxford American Dictionary even named locavore their word of the year in 2007.

Today, the average conventionally grown vegetable travels more than 1,500 miles to your neighborhood grocery store. Brook Levan, from the documentary film, “Locavore,” comments on the journey of food in the film, saying, “We’re eating oil, right now, and we’re eating out of trucks, and that’s not going to last for much longer.”

He’s right. Every trip to the grocery store adds to our carbon footprint. In fact a 2005 study in the journal Food Policy found that eating local foods is greener than eating organic foods because the miles traveled by organic food create environmental damage that outweighs the benefit of buying organic in the first place. Additionally, a study in Iowa found that by eating locally, one consumes 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet with food shipped across the nation.

These kinds of facts show how important it is to make more of an effort to eat locally, and there are plenty of resources to help you get started.

Jennifer Maiser, editor of the blog Eat Local Challenge, says that the first step to becoming a locavore is determining what local means to you, be it creating a radius of 10 miles or 100 miles. There are even online tools to help you do this. Additional steps include shopping at your local farmers’ market, lobbying your grocery store to invest in more local foods, signing up for a local community supported agriculture program, starting your own garden (like Michelle Obama’s White House garden), or even hosting a locavore Thanksgiving.

Eating locally doesn’t restrict you to your own kitchen, either. Many restaurants are making an effort to use more local ingredients””some exclusively so. And if you’re looking for a low-key way to start joining the locavore movement, try to pick a few foods that you can commit to buying locally each week, such as those currently in season. Lucky for you, there’s an iPhone app for that.

Besides environmental benefits, eating locally tends to put more fruits and vegetables on families’ plates, which is essential to any healthy diet. It’s not yet clear whether local or organic foods have more nutrients than conventionally grown produce, but several locavores claim that eating less processed foods leads to a noticeable increase in general well-being. There are economical benefits as well. Every dollar spent locally can generate up to six times as much income for the local economy. Plus, most local produce at farmers’ markets has been picked within 24 hours and tastes fresher and better than food shipped from thousands of miles away.

Locavores have their critics, like Stephen Budiansky, who claims that locavores promote “arbitrary rules” and misunderstand concepts such as “food-miles,” leading them to misrepresent reality. Budiansky claims locavores incorrectly see local eating not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. But the important thing to remember is that your efforts really do make a difference. Eating locally is the number one thing consumers can do to cut carbon emissions and energy use. If everyone ate one meal a week from a local source, over 50 million barrels of oil per year could be saved.

A locavore in the documentary by the same name said, “If more people had gardens “¦ yeah, I think it’d be a better world.” She’s right. More gardens, more farms, and more locavores will help make the world a greener place. So what are you waiting for?

(If you’re curious about what it’s like to be a locavore, check out these testimonials from LocavoreNation, a group of 15 individuals who throughout all of 2008 tried to get 80 percent of their food from local, organic, and seasonal sources.)

This is a repost from CAP’s Easy Being Green series.

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11 Responses to Locavore: The new organic

  1. Chad says:

    The “localvore” movement needs to be fact-based. Transportation is actually only a small component of the cost and environmental impact of the foods we consume. Buying “local” from a small but inefficient farmer (or an efficient farmer who uses his huge pick-up truck to haul 100 kg of food to a “local” farmer’s market 40 miles away) may well be worse than buying from a farmer half-way across the country, who is growing the crops in a climate allowing for much higher yields, and who has the equipment to plant, grow, pick, wash, and package the crops efficiently.

    Another problem is that if something is in season locally, your megamart is generally carrying local foods, too. Walmart doesn’t ship stuff long distances unless it needs too. And actually, from some blind taste-tests I have seen, Walmart produce held up pretty darned well vs the local high-end organic equivalents.

    There are certainly some advantages sometimes to buying local. But pick your battles based on fact, not assumptions.

  2. Anne says:

    Growing your own food is both easier and more difficult than one might think. And it’s a real commitment of time and energy. An entire “crop” can be wiped out by a fungus or other pest (I lost a ton of cantaloupes and squash this year), and gardens require constant attention — watering, weeding, etc. Yet, it’s highly rewarding and there’s nothing better than a sun-ripened tomato right off the vine, or an arugula salad from the garden. More and more, community gardens are sprouting up: people with “extra” land are inviting gardeners to come and “lease” space for gardens, it’s increasingly popular in the little DC suburb I live in. If we were smart, devoted, and a little creative, “urban farming” could begin to make a real difference.

  3. bkaellner says:

    @Chad

    I agree with you that the transportation of our food is not among the most significant problems, and the Union of Concerned Scientists is also in agreement according to “The Consumers Guide to Effective Environmental Choices.”

    I’m curious… which battles are you fighting to make our food system more sustainable?

  4. Eric says:

    I’d always wondered if reducing carbon truly was a benefit of “eating local.” I’d very much like to believe it’s so, but Steven Budiansky’s conclusions seem sound. I’d like to know more about this “study in Iowa” but the above link doesn’t actually provide any information about said study. Can anyone offer any more detail?

  5. fj2 says:

    The City that Ended Hunger

    A city in Brazil recruited local farmers to help do something U.S. cities have yet to do: end hunger.

    To search for solutions to hunger means to act within the principle that the staus of a citizen surpasses that of a mere consumer.

    City of Belo Horizonte, Brazil

    http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/food-for-everyone/the-city-that-ended-hunger

  6. fj2 says:

    Revkin WP’s Juan Forero explores evidence that Amazon of old was heavily populated, managed forest-scape: http://j.mp/CrowdedAmazon #green

    (A tweet from Revkin)

  7. Leif says:

    Great link fj2 @ 6: “The city that ended hunger.”

    I sent a note to my local city counsel.

    Hunger is on the rise here in the NW.

    Food is a right,
    Water is a right,
    Air is a right,
    Sustainability is a right…

    It can be done!

  8. OrganicTrade says:

    In terms of the larger debate at issue in this article- organic vs. local -what is emerging is the importance of buying organic products, whether produced locally or in another part of the world. This can be linked to two factors: that the organic label stands for verifiable environmentally friendly practices, and that these practices are beneficial for the local communities in which they are used, wherever that may be. In addition, it is more efficientand better for the planet overall to grow certain organic products in specific locales, which may not always be in one’s backyard.

    Because the term local is not regulated, it can mean different things depending on where you shop. When products are marketed as organic, it means they were produced using practices that comply with national organic standards, which prohibit the use of toxic and synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, synthetic growth hormones, artificial flavors and preservatives, sewage sludge, and genetic engineering.

    For these and many other reasons, Organic. It’s worth it.

  9. Joel says:

    Eric #5, re: “study in Iowa”

    I think this is a reference to a 2001 study by Rich Pirog, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University: “Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions” ( http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/pubs/staff/ppp/ )

    From the executive summary of that study:
    “The conventional system used 4 to 17 times more fuel than the Iowa-based regional and local systems, depending on the system and truck type. The same conventional system released from 5 to 17 times more CO2 from the burning of this fuel than the Iowa-based regional and local systems.”

    Study not being properly cited and only the worst case numbers reported = crappy reporting by CAP.

  10. S.W. Ela says:

    Joel: Thanks a bundle for digging out the 2001 IA State study. This looks to be the origin of the old saw that “food travels 1500 miles between the field and your plate.” There’s lots of other good stuff on food, energy, climate change, local vs. industrial agriculture, … at the Leopold Center’s web site, too.