Posted on April 27 2021
Map and story by Ali Harford
How easy is it, really, to only eat local foods?
The short answer: difficult. It's possible only if you enjoy vegetables, have access to a great farmers market, and you’re good at meal planning. Also, it's possible only if you’re not addicted to food items that don’t grow in your area, like coffee and spices—eating locally in the U.S. most likely means no sugar, salt, paprika, or black pepper. Eating food with no spices gets boring, fast. Going through day with no coffee is pure misery.
For my eating local day, I figured my carbon footprint would be much lower than it normally is. I ate only foods that came from within a 100-mile radius of where I live in Boulder, Colorado, and didn’t eat any meat. But it was difficult and expensive, and I found myself yearning for butter and salt. So, I wondered—what is the actual benefit to eating only local food? Is it true that it could reduce my carbon footprint?
“Eating local” and “sustainable agriculture” have become buzz-terms in the climate change movement. They seem to go hand in hand, but really, they mean two very different things.
Eating locally typically means eating foods that come from within a 100-mile radius of where you live, which will reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with transportation. In the U.S., the average meal travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate.
But GHG emission from transportation “makes up a very small amount of the emissions from food,” according to a report by Our World In Data. The report found that eating locally isn’t nearly as impactful as is sustainable agriculture, or sustainable food production. Food production takes an incredible number of resources and creates a lot of pollutants. According to the report, food production is “responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” Livestock production is especially harmful—it accounts for 70% of all agricultural land use and occupies 30% of the planet’s land surface.
You’ve probably noticed the movement for “Meatless Monday,” a promotion to reduce the amount of meat people eat in a week. Our World in Data found that “producing a kilogram of beef emits 60 kilograms of GHGs, while peas emit just one per kilogram.” There’s a massive environmental benefit to cutting meat out of your diet, much more so than eating locally.
That’s not to say that eating locally won’t do anything—eating locally-sourced foods will reduce your annual carbon footprint by about 5%, and improve your local economy—but if you really want to change your diet for the environment, the best thing to do is go vegetarian. So if you’re feeling terrible about enjoying blueberries in April (sourced from thousands of miles away), don’t! Just skip eating meat tonight.