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How Easy is it, Really, To Only Eat Local Foods?

Posted on April 27 2021

How Easy is it, Really, To Only Eat Local Foods?


Photo by Dan Myers via Unsplash 

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?


Where I sourced a day of local eating in Boulder, Colorado


“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.

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  • (Ali): May 10, 2021

    Hey Stephanie, this is a super good point! For this article, I wanted to explore if it was at all possible to eat only local foods in my area, and I didn’t eat meat just because it wasn’t available at my local farmer’s market. However, as you point out, there are definitely sustainable alternatives to eating meat. The basic fact is that not eating meat is better for the environment, but you’re right that this is a very privileged and difficult diet to maintain. Thank you for your comment!

  • Stephanie Denise Colgan: May 10, 2021

    As I read your article I was rather disappointed in your limited point of view. This was obviously written by a vegetarian or vegan or a veg wannabe. What you don’t explain in the article is that the amount of nutrition in 1-oz. of peas doesn’t even come close to the nutritive needs that are met by eating 1 ounce of meat. Also, those lands used for raising large animals such as beef are also havens for the natural flora and fauna of the area. A percentage of the lands used for raising beef are also conservation areas which cannot be developed or farmed. In fact, many of those lands are not at all arable farming lands without the excessive use of fertilizers and other soil enhancement additions. So, by blatantly giving those large numbers such as 70% of all agricultural land use and 30% of the planet is extremely misleading. Many cattle are raised on land that cannot be farmed, and the ones that are usually share their habitat with the wild animals native to the area. We must eat, but we also have to be respectful of the land. Ranchers are some of the most educated landowners and they are great protectors of the environment. Not everyone should be forced to be a vegetarian, vegan, or other meatless consumer. I would rather eat 3-4 oz. of beef than the 20+ lbs. of vegetables equivalent (at each meal) to meet the same nutritive requirement benefits!
    This is a very obvious liberal article and I hope that in the future you will counter this type of article with the opposing view. As a teacher I always try to tell both sides of the story, not only the one I agree with personally. You should be doing the same if you a responsible and ethical publication.

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