Any plant foods are good for the planet


Shopping at the local farmers' market offers variety and supports local growers. But does it reduce your carbon footprint?

Shopping at the local farmers' market offers variety and supports local growers. But does it reduce your carbon footprint?

Reducing our environmental footprint is on everyone’s mind these days, and eating local food plays a big role in that. “Local” also has become a marketing buzzword, as The New York Times’ Kim Severson noted in her terrific story about national food manufacturers seeking ways to jump on the local bandwagon. Severson interviewed big players, like Frito-Lay, about their attempts to inject local fare–and appeal–into mass-market food, as well as Jessica Prentice, the Berkeley, CA, baker who coined the phrase “locavore.”

Prentice advocates eating food sourced within 100 miles of where you live. If you reside in a rich food region, like, say the Bay Area, that’s a challenge you can meet more easily than if you live in, oh, Missoula, MT, where the winters are long and the growing season fleeting. I would argue that greatest success of Prentice and other local-food devotees has been to get the rest of us to take a closer look at where our food comes from and to find out what actually is available locally. When I lived in Alabama–hardly a bastion of agricultural variety, at least compared to California–I was pleasantly surprised to discover locally made goat cheese and high-quality pork, in addition to a reasonable variety of fruits and vegetables.

There’s much to recommend eating locally–or at least regionally–cultivated food, but does it really reduce your carbon footprint? Yes, but not as much as you think.

Recent food safety scares have made local food more attractive to consumers, the thought being that  if there is a food safety concern, it’s easier to trace the source and contain the outbreak. And I certainly like the idea of supporting local farmers–my extended neighbors–especially in this tough economy. There’s also the culinary incentive. A trip to my local farmers’ market offers a choice of many types of carrots, or potatoes, or lettuce, or whatever. The stuff is wonderfully fresh, gorgeous, and inspiring.

But does eating local food reduce my carbon footprint, as touted by local-food advocates? Mmmm….a little. Last year researchers from Carnegie Mellon released an intriguing study reporting that “food miles”–the distance food travels to your table–only account for about 11% of the average household’s food-related greenhouse gas emissions. People’s dietary choices, as opposed to food-source selections, have a much bigger impact. Switching to an entirely locally based diet would lower your greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of driving 1,000 fewer miles per year. Not bad, but simply shifting from meat and dairy to plant-based foods just one day a week would yield the same benefit, regardless of where those plant foods were sourced. That’s because producing red meat and dairy products is energy intensive. If you switched to an entirely plant-based diet, you’d save a whopping 8,000 food miles a year.

Eating more plant foods is good for you and for the planet, says Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, of the American Institute for Cancer Research. Limiting red meat consumption to 18 ounces or less per week may reduce your risk of colon cancer, while eating more plant foods (including vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, and whole grains) is linked with a lower incidence of all types of cancer. The AICR recommends filling your plate at least two-thirds with plant foods. And the health benefits are the same, whether those foods come from your neighborhood farmers’ market or the supermarket.