Eat Local, Save Energy: Essential Answer

Photo credit: Maveric2003

Q: How much, if any, energy savings could be realized from eating locally (or at least partly locally)?

Asked by Jeff Churchill, ’03, Bothell, Wash.

I fully immersed myself in the local bounty of the Bay Area a few months ago when I ventured to a farmers market on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. I had entered "locavore" paradise: succulent strawberries pulled from the vine hours before in Northern California, milky cheese from a Point Reyes creamery, and sourdough bread fresh from the oven. I'm not alone in my excitement: the "eat local" phenomenon has morphed into a full-fledged call to action, with Whole Foods associates wearing "I'm a local" baseball caps and the most committed among us swearing off products grown or raised outside a 100-mile radius of San Francisco.

It's no secret that our "farm to fork" system delivers food from far-flung locations, with the average product traveling 1,500 "food miles" to our plates. In one theoretical example cited by Peter Singer and Jim Mason in The Ethics of What We Eat, a meal could feasibly travel almost 25,000 miles to a diner's plate, with vegetables and legumes sourced from Thailand, Spain, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

So is a commitment to eating local an easy fix for realizing energy savings? For some, the Earth-saving answer is an unequivocal "yes." The Worldwatch Institute reports that locally sourced products generate 5 to 17 times less carbon dioxide (CO2) than those sourced with far-flung ingredients. High-value foods transported via airplane, such as asparagus from Peru and bell peppers from the Netherlands, produce the most formidable carbon footprint, with planes emitting 1.8 pounds of CO2 per ton-mile (one ton of freight transported one mile). If I decided to send some of the Northern California-grown kale I bought at the farmers market to my family in Philadelphia, the shipment of one pound over 2,500 air miles would generate approximately 2.2 pounds of CO2 emissions. More carbon than kale? Not exactly what my parents ordered.

But the critical decision between local and far-flung food grows increasingly complex when we examine the costs of food production from start to finish—energy inputs for raising and growing; potentially harmful byproducts, such as manure from livestock; processing, packaging and mode of transport; and the energy it takes to refrigerate, freeze or otherwise store the food. As a general rule, if production in a distant location proves more energy-efficient, even accounting for the greenhouse gas emissions from transport, then we should theoretically opt for the apples and onions from New Zealand rather than ones grown locally or domestically. Sea transport supports these long-distance energy savings, with ships emitting only 0.09 pounds of CO2 per ton-mile—or about 20 times less than airplanes and a quarter as much as trucking.

Mode of transport Emissions (pounds of CO2 per ton-mile)
Air cargo 1.7739
Truck 0.3725
Train 0.2306
Zeppelin 0.1951
Sea freight 0.0087

Statistics courtesy of

What We Can Do: Forging Friendlier Farm to Fork Relationships

If you're like me, there's a rumble in your stomach—a rumble of excitement at the prospect of a food revolution, change from the ground up in local communities that will undermine our industrialized farm-to-fork system. Let's return to the power of the "eat local" philosophy, even in the absence of evaluating a product's full energy profile (food miles and production expenditures):

Transparency and accountability. Let's voice our visions for the local system and engage with our local farmers in healthy conversation to encourage energy-efficient and pesticide- and hormone-free growing and raising practices.

Eating locally and seasonally may be the ultimate solution for reducing our "foodprint" by eliminating both the long-distance transport of items unseasonal on the local scale and the energy-intensive methods used for local, out-of-season production.

Tending to your own garden or pitching a hand on a small, community-run farm could further help you to take full control of the food on your plate. The kids won't be so unhappy, either, when they hear mother's holy words reinvented: "Be a picky eater!" and maintain databases of farmers and vendors committed to the "local" philosophy. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a search engine for farmers markets across the United States. Find one near you!

If you're interested in starting your own super-local garden, check out the previous SAGE post on the topic or this article, "How to Start a Vegetable Garden," from the London Times. Getting involved in a CSA (community-supported agriculture) offers the option of a weekly, "box share" of fresh, local produce.

Annie Kramer plans to receive her bachelor's degree in 2012.