Which is better for the environment and the economy — a tomato grown nearby or one from the supermarket?
Local food, hip among urbanites and touted at the White House, is stirring more debate as new research suggests its benefits have been oversold.
"I like the food," says Joseph Conklin, a customer at the Local Market, a store in Falls Church, Va., that sells products made within 100 miles. He says he wants to support local businesses: "You get a better feeling shopping here" than at a national chain.
Such stores are popping up nationwide, and more farmers markets are open year-round. First lady Michelle Obama has added to momentum with her well-publicized backyard garden.
Two new books, however, say local food isn't necessarily more eco-friendly, even though it travels fewer miles. They cite research showing long-distance transportation accounts for only about 4% of the greenhouse gas emissions in food production; most occur at the farm itself through the use of tractors and other equipment and materials.
So if you want to buy local food for its freshness or to support area farmers, fine, but don't do it to save the planet, conclude researchers from the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group. Their two-year study, "Cooler Smarter," was published this spring.
Another book goes even further in debunking local-food "myths." Its title, The Locavore's Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, plays off Michael Pollan's best seller, The Omnivore's Dilemma.
Co-author Pierre Desrochers, a geography professor at the University of Toronto-Mississuga, says large farms growing crops suited to their region are better for the environment because they use less energy per item and grow more food on less land. He says they offer economic benefits, too: lower prices.
Desrochers, who says he has received no funding from agri-business, has no problem with hobby farmers but doesn't want government supporting local food (or, for that matter, ethanol and sugar). Though kids may learn from community gardens, he says, they're better off learning computer and job skills.
"He's advocating a contrarian stance to sell books," says Chris Hunt of Sustainable Table, a non-profit advocate for healthy, eco-friendly food. Hunt says local food may not have a smaller carbon footprint but argues small local farms are more likely to avoid synthetic hormones, fertilizers or other chemicals that can damage the environment and harm human health.
He agrees it's not feasible to rely entirely on local food but adds, "no one's proposing that."
Erin Barnett, director of Local Harvest, a directory of farms and farmers markets, says local food encourages people to eat fresher, seasonal food and offers an easier way to track safety problems.
As part of its "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers grants to boost local food systems.
"Some of this is schmaltzy," says David Swenson, a regional economics researcher at Iowa State University. "How about your mechanic?" He agrees there's more economic benefit in growing large quantities of food where the climate is best: "That's why Iowa is so good at growing corn and Montana (stinks) at it."
Yet local food is about more than numbers, says Sarah Rich in Urban Farms, out in June. She toured 16 nationwide, including a one-acre rooftop garden in Queens, N.Y., and found that they anchor communities, beautify blighted areas and create havens for children. "Urban farming … can simultaneously reshape places we live and the way we eat."
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