Before the hair on your neck stands on end, I’ll be crystal clear. Getting food from close by is awesome. Local foods stand up better nutritionally (i.e. the sooner you eat it, the better it is...), and certainly driving food five miles is better than 3,000 miles. Buying local also helps the local economy. I got it. And yet...
My issue with the locavore movement is that I sometimes find it to be (much like Atkins and Paleo) an excuse for eating "pleasure center" foods like flesh and dairy just because they’re local—foods that are not necessary for optimal human health when whole plants are available. I think there’s a certain commonsense approach that can be infused into this picture, just as with every "movement" that seems to pop up just when the last one is getting a bit tired. As humans, we tend to overthink otherwise very simple issues (food being one of them), and this instance is no exception.
I head up a wellness center at an all-vegan resort that sports a predominantly whole foods, plant-based restaurant and an organic farm, from which the restaurant gets a substantial amount of produce. Yet, from time to time we’ll get the customer who inquires whether this or that ingredient is from our farm, or local in general. The fact is that sometimes it’s not—we buy local when we can.
The response we get when the ingredient is not local is typically an expression that can best be described as a mix of condescending disappointment and tempered shock.
However, when it comes to the carbon footprint of food production, transportation of food is not the biggest factor, and is actually pretty small comparatively to the other factors involved.
Processing and packaging of food far outweighs travel when it comes to how much our food sources strain the environment. Raising animals for food (dairy, eggs, flesh) is by far the worst, but refining and processing whole plants isn’t helping either. Animal food production requires a ton of resources (including awesome plants that could go to feeding the world’s hungry many times over, and really well to boot) to raise these big animals for slaughter or breast milk (yes, it’s breast milk even if it looks like spray cheese).
So the “I eat local dairy” guy just ain’t an environmentalist, nor, I would argue, ethical. Local or not, confining animals creates an imbalance in the world. It allows for an unnaturally large population of animals that could not be sustained in nature. As a species, we stopped hunting for just what we need a long time ago. Instead, we have created a massive and unprecedented industry around food production—animal and plant—that is causing great harm to our environment.
My point is this. Our food becomes more ethically and environmentally sound the more we eat plants that are as close to their natural, unaltered state as possible, no matter where they come from. If you can get them locally grown, excellent. If not, get ‘em anyway.
Let’s all take a deep breath and not overthink this too much. Instead, apply all that left over ‘thinking energy’ to becoming a living example of compassion and true sustainability in the world. As my favorite yoga instructor, Maurice Kaehler, and I would yell at each other across the streets of Los Angeles whenever our paths would cross: “Steady Ujjayi!”