This month I take the risk of antagonizing some readers of this magazine who have made the idea of “buying local” a core part of their efforts to improve the sustainability of their foodservice programs. Why? Because I would like to put out for discussion the idea that in a surprising number of cases it is hard to be sure such initiatives actually have the intended impact on one's overall carbon footprint, and that in some cases they may even have a negative impact on it.
I believe this is an issue that all too often gets swept under the rug in discussions about sustainability because of the inherent “feel good” aspects of having contact with a local grower or producer of a product. And especially on college campuses, it is a discussion in which the customer base hardly ever wishes to engage. For many, “buying local” seems to be an automatically embraced credo, with or without supporting evidence.
While the sense of connecting with the agricultural community is certainly valuable and educational, there are many good reasons to question whether efforts to source as much food as possible from local providers is always more sustainable, efficient or even safer (from a HACCP point of view) than procurement from quality-assured traditional sources.
There's no room in a single column like this one to make even a partial case for either side of this argument. But from a science-based point of view, any true comparison requires a full life-cycle assessment of the energy inputs and outputs and environmental impact of specific food sourcing options.
In my experience, few of those who make the case for buying local as a general practice can point to such in-depth analyses, and neither can those who broadly dismiss the buying local argument (typically, large food manufacturers, producers and distributors).
For me, the dilemma is that both points of view are almost certainly true in different situations. And as the old joke goes, “We know we are only right half the time, but we don't know which half.”
Lately, I have found that even some of those who have in the past been prominent supporters of the “buy local” philosophy are coming to question the universality of their previous stands. They are asking questions like these:
Is a product sustainable simply because it was produced locally, without information about the specific planting, growing, harvesting, manufacturing, packing, shipping and other methods used in production? How can such factors be evaluated?
Is produce found in an open air farmer's market always “fresher” than vegetables that are harvested and hydro-cooled withing hours of picking, and then shipped in refrigerated transport for 3-4 days?
How relevant are so-called “food miles” in defining sustainability?
In a volume production situation, how realistic is it to buy from many small, local growers who employ different means of producing, packing, shipping and specifying their products? How reliable, consistent and definitively “sustainable” can such practices be?
Can volume buyers have more of an impact on global sustainability by using their purchasing leverage to influence the practices of large scale food producers?
I am certain many readers of this magazine have their own observations to make about these kinds of issues and I would like to encourage those who do to participate in an online discussion to explore the topic at greater length. Join it by posting your own comment under the online version of this editorial.