Local food became a thing so long ago at this point that we now have a thriving network of CSAs, a word to describe people who only eat local food (localvore), and a growing movement towards supporting small, local farms over massive agribusinesses. We also have the more subtle economic local movement encouraging us to shop at local businesses and support our local economies.
Yet, we also have some assumptions inherent in both of these movements that aren’t quite true, assumptions that maybe need a little more thought to parse out the truth. I prefer to eat local food, and I prefer to purchase from local businesses, but my understanding of these things has grown over time, and I don’t do it for the same reasons I used to.
For me, the first thing I realized about local anything is that, despite the fervor of some advocates, “local” does not equal “good.” On the whole (but not always) it is better to purchase things that have traveled less, since on the whole (but not always) those things can have lower carbon emissions. As someone who things climate change is the single largest problem humanity is facing/has created, that means I am drawn to local food and products.
But, I said can have lower emissions, not do. The actual carbon emissions of something depend radically on the practices of those who made it. That tomato from Argentina might actually have lower carbon emissions than the tomato you bought at a local farmer’s market, if the Argentine producers made a lot of tomatoes, shipped them mainly by train, and didn’t have to till very much (all things that reduce the average total emissions associated with a piece of produce). Likewise the carbon emissions of a small farmer may vary depending on whether they have to till the soil more often (releasing carbon), use more fertilizer (on rocky New England soil), and drive a (comparatively) small number of tomatoes to market in a (comparatively) fuel-inefficient truck over hilly roads.
This same problem applies, in varying ways, to some apparent benefits of local purchasing. For example, I like the idea of keeping the money I spend in my local economy, thus supporting my neighbors and community and fostering more egalitarian distribution of wealth. But, even though I might be buying from a locally owned store, that store might turn around and invest their profits in a portfolio that includes Wal-Mart stock and, to some extent, helps drive other local sellers out of business. Or that local business may have gotten a loan from, say, Bank of America, and paying down that loan may be funneling wealth out of the community.
There are more examples of this problem, but the point I am trying to stress here is that, while I support purchasing local food and goods and do so myself whenever possible, choosing a local option does not automatically mean you are doing what you think you are. You still have to check.
What buying local will do for you is make the task of checking up on things much more manageable. Every item we buy has a chain of impacts associated with it, a series of feedbacks that impact things far beyond the obvious. The longer that chain of impact, the more likely that there are unintended consequences somewhere along the way. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a fad for colorful feathers in ladies’ hats decimated the population of hundreds of species of birds. The people buying those hats couldn’t check the provenance of the feathers, but their contribution to the overall demand was devastating.
So, when I buy local, I treat that as the beginning of my choice, not the end. I don’t buy the local tomato assuming that it has lower carbon emissions than the Argentine tomato; I buy the local tomato because in many cases I can find out. I can go to my local farm and buy a tomato from their farm stand and know how it was produced. If there’s something in that practice that I don’t like, I can look for somewhere better.
If I buy the Argentine tomato, the process is opaque: all I see is that a tomato is there, and generally where it came from. I don’t know whether someone drained a peat marsh or burned a plot of rainforest to plant that tomato. I don’t know if it spent most of its time on a container ship. I don’t know if it was sent to Louisiana and shipped north in a tractor-trailer. And I probably can’t know those things.
So I buy local, not because I assume it’s better, but because among my local options, I can choose who to support. I can decide what I care about, and use my purchasing to have at least a little bit of impact. I buy local because when I am buying things from far away, it isn’t money I am trading for that convenience: it is knowledge.