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Eating "Green": Let's Get The Facts Right Before We Nosh

Grocery Store
Photo By: Chris
Grocery Store

Many environmental activists claim that you can do your part to help fight global warming by eating locally grown foods. Sadly, that’s a myth, albeit one that environmentally conscious millennials, eager to reduce their carbon footprints, vigorously cling to.

My generation really cares about climate change, so the least we can do is get the facts right. The whole “eat local” movement is based on the logic that transporting food over longer distances results in greater carbon dioxide emissions. That’s undeniable, but it really doesn’t mean much by itself.

First off, how much more carbon intensive is it to buy food from the next continent over rather than the next county? Not all that much. In a Reason article called “The Food Miles Mistake,” Ronald Bailey lays out some of the facts about carbon emissions caused by the production and transportation of food.

As it turns out, a study done in the United Kingdom found that consumer shopping trips generated 39.38% of food miles, the distance food travels from the farm to your plate. Since the United States is a much more automobile friendly country than Great Britain, I’d imagine that the percentage is even higher here. The same study found that air freight, loathed by local food activists, accounted for less than 1% of food miles.

Think about those numbers. People driving to their local grocery store make up 40 times more food miles than airplanes shipping food from halfway across the world. The carbon emissions from your car when you go to shop for local foods are way more damaging to the environment than the jet fuel that gets burned shipping that food.

So eating local doesn’t really cut down on the aggregate distance food has to travel to get to our dinner table by a significant margin at all. Better to take a bicycle when you go shopping than to buy local.

It gets worse. Eating local can actually do more damage in terms of global warming than eating foreign. Depending on where you live, local foods may generate far more carbon emissions than foods grown far away. Why? Because transportation isn’t everything.

Here’s an interesting fact from Bailey: “In the United States, a 2007 analysis found that transporting food from producers to retailers accounted for only 4 percent of greenhouse emissions related to food.” Where do the rest of the emissions come from? Growing the food, and you driving to the store to pick it up.

Food production is an energy intensive activity. If your local fruits and vegetables were grown in a greenhouse or hydroponically, that uses a whole lot more energy and releases a whole lot more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than growing them out in the sun somewhere tropical. In that case, NOT eating local is the green thing to do.

If you live in a temperate climate and you buy local foods that can be produced with far less energy in a tropical or sub-tropical climate, you’re actually doing your part to make the globe just a wee bit warmer. If you really want to reduce your carbon footprint, don’t buy local, buy tropical.

Questions? Comments? Send them to millennialmoney@cnbc.com