Last week I wrote a post on reasons to eat locally-sourced foods. While writing that article, it occurred to me that there are also good reasons not to eat local food. Oftentimes the “local” label is applied liberally to refer to food grown on small-scale farms who produce according to organic and sustainable principles. But really, “local” just means grown and/or processed within a certain radius of where you live. For some locavores, this means 100 miles, 250 miles, or within certain states (co-ops in Minnesota generally consider food produced in Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas local).
For conscious eaters, there may be factors more important than locality to take into account when making food choices. If you live down the street from an industrial broiler chicken farm, its chickens are local food, for example, but would you want to eat them? Would you rather eat a pastured chicken that was shipped halfway across the country? Thankfully, where I live, it's fairly easy to find foods produced in ways that are aligned with my values and I don’t need to think too much about these trade-offs. But not everyone is so lucky. Here are some reasons you might prefer non-local food to what you can get in your own backyard:
The meat and potatoes diet just doesn’t do it for you.
Some areas of the world just aren't ideal for food growth -- during the winter or anytime at all. Does that mean people shouldn't live there? If you've ever tried to stick to a local diet in the winter months in the Midwest, you realize food selections drop markedly. You can get eggs and meat and potatoes and dairy and ... more meat. Unless you've canned or frozen local foods during the growing season, there are no berries, and not very many fruits or vegetables. A touch of cilantro, pepper, or coconut oil can add a lovely dimension to a dish. Is it so wrong to want them year-round?
Food preservation methods like canning, dehydrating, and freezing can require lots of energy as well.
If your goal in eating local is to reduce your fossil fuel use, consider the amount of energy it takes to prepare and store food in a way that extends its shelf life. There’s no easy way to calculate the energy required to can your own tomatoes vs. having them shipped in from Mexico outside of the local growing season, but that doesn't mean there aren't trade-offs.
It’s easier and cheaper to not worry where your food comes from (for now, at least).
One of the biggest barriers to eating sustainably and ethically produced food is the cost: the cost of money, the cost of time and convenience, and the cost of changing old habits into new ones. One of the main reasons large-scale industrial agricultural systems emerged in the first place is because it's cheaper to grow monocrops in very large quantities and then distribute them across a wide area. It drives down the per-unit prices and externalizes some of the costs associated with this type of food production. It also allows us to spend a smaller proportion of our income on food. As more locally-based systems scale up, those food costs will go down. But for now, early "good food" adopters tend to pay more.
We are global citizens who want to support more than just our own communities.
One of the arguments for eating local is that it supports the economy where you live. But does that mean we consider other economies less important? The environmental movement, which is closely aligned with the local food movement (and shares many proponents), champions conserving and protecting our natural resources for future generations and those who live in other parts of the world. Isn’t this something locavores should value as well?
There are currently many international economies supported by industrial agriculture and global trade. While global trade does not always lead to positive outcomes for local communities, in some cases it can help introduce and foster human rights around the world. It encourages connections to people outside of our own communities, helping us become global citizens rather than simply local ones.
It’s safer not to put all your eggs in one basket.
Okay, I know I listed this reason in the “why you should eat local food” post, but it’s an argument that can also be made to support a mix of local and large-scale agriculture. If one area experiences natural disaster or food production fails for some other reason, having a system of trade and transportation can help ensure food security for those in afflicted regions.
Conscious eaters have a variety of factors to take into account when deciding what food choices to make. Labels like “local” and “organic” can help streamline this process, but from time to time it’s prudent to reexamine what these labels mean and why we chose them in the first place. It will help us ensure our actions are indeed aligning with our values.