Is Eating Local a “Green” Thing to Do?

'Farmers' Market' photo (c) 2008, NatalieMaynor - license:’ve started listening to podcasts, especially when I’m cooking. One of my favorites is Freakonomics, where economists and others debunk common assumptions that affect the way we make decisions. This intriguing episode, You Are What You Eat 2, asked whether eating food grown locally will help the environment.

Santa Barbara is in the top one percent of agriculture producing counties in the United States. So you would think that it could survive quite well on local produce alone.

However, when a mudslide blocked the roads and railroads, the grocery stores shelves emptied out. Farmers who couldn’t ship out their produce tried to make a bargain with the groceries. The groceries refused to buy the food, saying it would be breaking their contract with suppliers.

Freakonomics interviewed David Cleveland, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and an expert on the environment. He had heard about the popular trend to eat local. As a scientist, he wanted to know more.

If localization could work anywhere, it would work in Santa Barbara. Despite all of the farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture, 95% of Santa Barbara’s produce is imported while 99% is exported. So Cleveland decided to predict what would happen if Santa Barbara went “locavore” and residents ate only produce grown on local farms.

He found that nutrition-wise, they would come out even. But surprisingly, the potential savings in greenhouse gas emissions per household, as a portion of food production costs in a household, came out to less than 1%. Food transport accounts for only 0.1% of the EPA’s estimated greenhouse emissions rate per person.

Transportation accounts for 7% of the overall energy used in food production. It’s more efficient to grow a single type of food on a large farm, then ship it throughout the world.

So while intuitively it makes sense to grow food near where it is eaten, it’s not as effective as we might think.

An article by Weber and Matthews found that only 5% of carbon dioxide emissions from food production is related to transportation.  Most emissions come from the production itself, depending on the product. For example, animal products require more energy resources than grains.

It requires five times more greenhouse emissions to grow tomatoes in a greenhouse in England than in Spain, which already has a suitable climate. If you give up global food system, you require more artificial conditions that use energy.

So while eating locally has some impact, the podcast concluded with two much more effective ways of reducing greenhouse emissions.

  1. Encourage public policy that supports the development of urban areas. Urban living gets short shrift among environmentalists, but when people live closer together they require much less energy. Especially when they live in high-rises.
  2. Reduce the production of greenhouse-gas intensive foods, especially red meat and dairy products. By cutting out red meat and dairy for one day a week, the average consumer is that you could cut greenhouse gases more than by buying everything locally. Cows emit methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent  than carbon dioxide. They suggested eating kangaroos instead.

Do you find this surprising? I did.

You may also enjoy:

Extreme Frugality: Memories of My Mother

Coupon Coup or Frugal Folly?

Ten Quick Tips for Cutting Your Produce Bill


  1. But what about the food itself? Transporting to areas further away means more time sitting on a truck, which is emitting its own greenhouses gases all over our food! The food also risks growing mold while in transport for extended periods of time. Also, doesn’t transporting to other places require picking fruits and vegetables before they are ripe? Which I am not sure exactly how effects our health, but certainly effects the taste. So while maybe it doesn’t save out so much on the global environmental effect, does eating local not make for healthier eating?

    • Rachel, good question. The podcast mentioned that as far as nutrition there was no benefit to eating locally. It didn’t go into detail. Of course, everyone used to eat locally and get what they needed. The question is how much that system can work for our much larger populations.
      As for freshness, yes, it’s preferable. The question is how much do we pay for the privilege?

  2. Doesn’t the “efficient” growing of a “single type of food on a large farm” tend to produce industrial-type vegetables that are low on flavor?

    There seems to be a consensus these days that residing in compact, walkable urban neighborhoods is greener. However, there is no such consensus specifically regarding highrises. Many urbanists re arguing that you can get equal or better density (as well as better aesthetics) with low and mid-rise dwellings of timeless, traditional design. Here is one article among many on the topic: Density without highrises? .

    • Hi Julie. I don’t think there’s a simple answer to these questions, although I suspect hothouse tomatoes grown nearby aren’t as good as Spanish ones. Thanks for the link about the urban planning–interesting.

  3. I listened to the podcast and also found it very interesting. Their point about how it is much more economical and ecologically efficient to grow tomatoes in Spain rather than England made a lot of sense. However, I think that they missed or glossed over some of the reasons people eat locally. Below are a few reasons I can think of the top of my head, whether or not they have a scientific foundation.

    – The sooner you eat produce after it is picked, the more nutrients it retains.
    – Produce that is meant for transport is often picked before it is ripe and is cultivated to be sturdy, not tasty or healthy.
    – Eating food that is in season and naturally grows where you live is healthier for your body and a more natural way to live.
    – Farmers who are selling directly to consumers at farmers markets have more incentive to sell high quality flavorful produce, rather that just have a high output of quantity.
    – People like meeting the people who grow their food, and they feel the food is grown under safer, more sanitary conditions.

    • Yosefa, you make some good points. If you live in a climate where there is a variety of produce available year round, you are in good shape, but that isn’t true for most.

  4. The locavorism versus economic efficiency conflict (if it really exists) reminds me of another perceived conflict — that between shopping locally and living frugally.

    For instance, Pa’amonim — an organization that helps families learn how to balance their budgets and get/stay out of debt (obviously a worthy initiative) — recommends, among its many useful savings tips, shopping for food at “big box”-type stores (generally located on the outskirts of localities, meaning that you have to drive to them in your private car), rather than at smaller, presumably more expensive, nearby supermarkets.

    Is this a real conflict, or an illusory one? To the smart-growth, anti-urban-sprawl crowd, big box shopping centers are the ultimate in unsustainability. Yet one could probably argue that they offer major savings to families, even after one takes fuel costs into account.

    I suspect that in both the locavore and local-shopping instances, the solution lies somewhere in the middle.

    Regarding locavorism, one can buy locally-grown food when that food is obviously best grown in the local climate or offers quality/social benefits that one is willing to pay more for, while happily consuming non-local food items whose quality is not affected by the distance factor.

    In the case of big box centers, perhaps the best solution is to bring them closer to town, as described in the following Atlantic Cities article.

  5. I have heard these arguments before in support of not eating locally. One thing I question is whether the human cost is calculated. As in the price that workers are paid to pick produce on industrial farms. If we look at the issue from a pure economics perspective, which has a tendency to be reductionist (ie. define green using carbon emissions) then maybe local eating isn’t better. I prefer to define green broadly and include community impact, worker salary not to mention the joy of eating beautiful produce with character.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Hi Shonagh,
      I have not thought about that aspect of it. You can argue that employing farm workers in Chile is a better investment.