Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Place for Local in a Globalizing World

This speech was written for a speaking competition in the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Alberta. It was presented Pecha Kucha style, meaning I had 20 image slides and 20 seconds to speak about each. Special thanks to Dr. Jude Capper of Washington State University, @Bovidiva, for providing some great reference material. I went home with 1st place, $500, and a shiny new iPad- so this speech was good to me! Enjoy and I'd love you to comment your opinions of the issue.

Source: Microsoft Clipart
The argument for increased consumption of local food is a great theory. We eat local food, we enrich our local economy, and feel as though we’re doing something good for the environment and our health. But is it really that simple? Is local food truly, indefinitely the better option? First of all, we need to discuss what is meant but the “local food” movement.

The generally accepted boundary for “local” is 100 miles, popularized by Alisa Smith and J.B.Mackinnon, authors of The 100-Mile Diet. It is assumed by these authors that 160 kilometres is a large enough radius to reach a diverse spectrum of food production and sustain a balanced diet year-round. They clearly are not from Edmonton, Alberta.

That isn’t to say eating local, in moderation, can’t work in any climate. The beef I consume comes from my family farm, and my family gets eggs from neighbours who raise chickens. In the summer, we get vegetables from a local veggie farm and frequent the farmer’s market for fresh, in-season fruit.

XTC Calves at the Auction- Taken by me
Let’s take a look at the beef industry in Alberta. According to Alberta Beef Producers, we process 2.7 million head of cattle per year for beef. That’s around 2.1 trillion pounds of beef available for consumption each year, or 570 pounds per person per year. If Albertans were to adopt a local-only diet, we would be consuming far more beef than necessary.

Alberta’s beef industry is a prime example of the need for global markets. We have prime rangelands for grazing cattle and a climate and soil quality that accommodates growing grains and raising cattle on feedlots. It simply wouldn’t be logical for us to take out feedlots and build greenhouses to diversify our food production.

Beef production works for Alberta. Just like almond production works for California, and coffee production works for central America. The business of feeding the world is really just a matter of sticking to what we’re good at. The most efficient way to put food on tables is not exhaust our resources producing food our climates were not meant to produce, but rather, producing what has been proven to thrive here and sharing it with others.

Albertans consume what beef we need, and send the rest around Canada and the rest of the world. We have opened international markets, such as the recent victory of South Korea re-opening its border to our beef, providing Canadian producers with increased market access.

Cattle transport truck, taken by me
When arguing for the environmental benefits of local food, advocates often list the difference in food miles. But food miles, or how far your food has travelled to reach your plate, are not always an accurate measure of the environmental impact of your meal. Food miles per unit can be studied to compare how efficient methods of shipment are in comparison.

For example, the farmer that requires customers drive to their farm to pick up eggs will not be as efficient the semi truck that delivers thousands of eggs to a grocery store. In a recent article titled “Can buying local really save the planet?” by Washington State dairy science professor Jude Capper tackled exactly this.

Dr. Capper compared eggs shipped by a low efficiency tractor trailer to a grocery store in another state to a farm 150 miles from an urban centre that people would travel to. The grocery store eggs travelled 2405 food miles, which includes the round trip for the truck and 5 miles round trip for the consumer to get to the grocery store.

The farm example involves 300 miles of roundtrip travel in a higher efficiency, smaller vehicle. At first glance, the local choice seems much more environmentally friendly. Now, consider that the tractor trailer carries 23,400 dozen eggs per load, and the consumer’s vehicle carries only one or two dozen.

The carbon footprint of buying the eggs from the store is only 2.1kg C02 per dozen eggs. The carbon footprint of the farm bought eggs is 116.3kg per dozen. As you can see, this is no small difference. The environmentally conscious consumer may want to re-think the farm visit method for obtaining local food.

Eggs. Source: Microsoft Clipart
Capper makes an excellent point in her article, saying, “It is imperative that consumers have the freedom to enjoy a selection of buying choices. Consumers making purchases based on environmental criteria should have all the facts. This includes sound science, rather than simple philosophical assumptions that ultimately lead to greater resource use and carbon emissions.”

It also must be considered how the food was produced if your primary concern is it’s environmental impact. Scientists at Lincoln University found that lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 5000 fewer tons of carbon dioxide per ton compared to lamb raised right in Britain.

This has to do with the fact that lambs could graze lush grass in New Zealand, but in Britain they had to be fed manually due to poorer pasture conditions. Clearly, we must take much more into consideration when choosing food than simply where it originated. It’s a matter of personal choice in which we must choose what factors are most important to us.

Stimulating your local economy and putting a face to the individual that grew your food are great reasons to buy directly from local producers. The social aspect of buying local is immeasurable. If your concerns are environmental or nutritional, it’s necessary to dig a little deeper than simply local or non-local.

As you can see, I am neither an advocate for an entirely local nor entirely nonlocal diet. I am advocating for science, common sense, and well-educated consumers making choices that are best for them and their families. I believe that a balance, or a “local when you can” diet is much more beneficial to numerous parties than a local-at-all costs one.

Veggies. Source: Microsoft Clipart
I challenge each of you to question when it comes to food. Decide what is important to you and select based on those criteria. The phenomenal thing about our food system is that you not only have the choice to eat when you want, but you may eat local, organic, free-range or fair-trade just as easily. However, don’t assume these labels make a food ultimately better. Look into the nutritional, environmental, and social differences. Look beyond simple labels to make educated decisions about the food you feed yourself and your family.

I will conclude with a quote from a self-proclaimed local food advocate and author, James E. McWilliams. “While there will always be good reasons to encourage the growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop in tandem with what could be their equally sustainable global counterparts.


  1. Living in the Texas Panhandle, I don't want to be limited to 100 mile diet. I eat what is grown here but I also want seafood, citrus and other food items that are not from my area. I am for freedom of food choices. Farmers know what can and what cannot be grown in their specific part of the country/world. As you pointed out, it makes more sense environmentally to grow for your area and ship it to others. We don't limit other businesses to sell to 100 mile market. My computer, etc is made outside of a 100 mile market and is shipped to me. What makes that ok but not my food?

    1. That would a limited diet if you all you ate was 100 mile radius in the panhandle of Texas.

  2. Thanks so much for posting this! I've never considered the drawbacks of local food and always assumed it was the best choice, perhaps due to media influence. It's really nice to hear different perspectives on this issue. I do try to select local choices as often as possible but now I'll think critically about how sustainable my decision is. And at least now I know that buying from the supermarket actually isn't devastating to the environment. Very interesting read. Congratulations on winning your prize; you definitely deserved it!

  3. @Pamela, you hit the nail on the head. Modern agriculture and transportation give us choices, so why not take advantage of that? It's funny how large companies in agriculture are constantly under attack, but not in software, technology, etc. Great food for thought.

    @Brenda, I'm so glad you took the time to read my post! These types of conversations are what I live for as an agriculture advocate. Thank you for being open to another point of view. I don't want to deter you from buying local food, only to consider the sustainability and other factors, as you said. Thank you again :)


  4. Thanks for the background and the information. Fresh is usually better, but remember if we ditch 'global' for 'local' you lose a lot. In one word: chocolate!

  5. Congrats Rosie! I'd like to share this with some colleagues. There are a few who 'preach' local without any apparent consideration of reason, availability, cost, impact, variety, or need.

    I appreciate knowing where my food comes from and how it is produced as much as anyone who was raised on a farm, eating food produced themselves. However I'm not above buying from around the world to get what I want/need. I just try and do some research into those products first. It's all about being a smarter consumer; of all things, not just food!

  6. Brilliant speech, Rosie! Congratulations on your recognition. Very well researched, articulated and backed up by data.

  7. Awesome points Rosie. I might steal some of them when I get in discussions about local food.

  8. Great speech, Rosie! I'm not surprised you won. You make some important points. Congrats!