Via The Kitchn, a new study reviewed by trustworthy food advocate Marion Nestle in The Atlantic says that emissions due to transportation are a relatively small portion of the average food item’s greenhouse gas contribution. The report says that most of the polluting gases are made during the production phase, and singles out meat in particular as a high-polluting product. Now, I’m sure that the transportation/non-transportation ratio varies dramatically by product, since presumably refrigerated items zap more energy than un-refrigerated, and Chilean blueberries more than New York apples (at least to get to me, anyway). But it’s a fair point. The distance a food item travels to get to you should not be the sole reason to buy it or avoid it.
Nestle defends local food’s merits, even while acknowledging that the “food miles” concept may be less compelling than previously thought. As I’ve discussed before, there are a lot of reasons to eat locally; reducing transportation waste is only one of them. One conclusion the report reaches is that reducing meat consumption would have a much more dramatic effect on greenhouse gas production than eating an all-local diet. In a roundabout sort of way, eating locally has made me eat less meat, since I am restricting my access to the cheap feedlot meat that does so much damage to the environment (not to mention perpetuates a lot of misguided ag subsidies).
In any event, I’ll feel a little less guilty the next time I choose a Sonoma sauvignon instead of a Virginia viognier. (Virginia does produce some quality wines, by the way, but they tend to be expensive). But it’s important to remember that making environmentally responsible decisions about food involves a complex calculus of many factors. Making small improvements on several fronts (eating less feedlot meat, buying organic instead of pesticide-laden produce, avoiding products with excessive plastic packaging, etc) can add up to a significant reduction of personal environmental impact.