So Much for Eating Local

Environmentalism embodies numerous religious rituals. Recycling is one — it doesn’t matter if the practice is economically or even environmentally productive. It’s essentially an act of worship to the Earth.

Similar is the mantra that people should buy, eat, and produce locally. In theory, of course, one saves on transportation costs. But there’s a moral subtext — that somehow staying close to your home is superior to wandering across the country or globe interacting with nameless masses beyond your own community.

Now it turns out that localism can be bad for the environment. Because — imagine this! — foreigners sometimes engage in more efficient economic and better environmental practices. University researchers recently took up the issue, with results sure to confound the most doctrinaire environmentalist. Reports The New York Times:

Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

These life-cycle measurements are causing environmentalists worldwide to rethink the logic of food miles. New Zealand’s most prominent environmental research organization, Landcare Research-Manaaki Whenua, explains that localism “is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle than during transport.” The British government’s 2006 Food Industry Sustainability Strategy similarly seeks to consider the environmental costs “across the life cycle of the produce,” not just in transportation.