The Local Debate

When it comes to food these days, local seems to be all the rage. One of the reasons pointed to by advocates of a more localized, or “locavore” diet is that it is more environmentally sustainable. The argument is that consuming food grown close to home requires less greenhouse gas emissions than food that is flown or trucked in from far away. However, others have challenged that claim, arguing that efficiencies in distribution contribute more to sustainability than the actual distance does.

In a 2009 speech given by former SYSCO CEO Rick Schneiders at the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum, he discusses the ways that food distribution is currently structured, giving long-distance, large-scale supply chains some advantages over small-scale, local or regional distribution on a per-unit basis. He uses the example of salad greens, where an individual farmer trucking his or her produce to market travels 10 miles per case versus 1.5 miles per case for salad greens shipped in bulk from across the country. In his speech, Schneiders wasn’t using this argument to advocated for more long-distance shipping, rather he argued for increased support for and efficiencies within local and regional distribution systems. In recent years, SYSCO has launched a series of initiatives to incorporate more local food into their operations (if you want to learn more about SYSCO’s intiative, the National Good Food Network hosted an interesting webinar on it).

There are plenty of reasons beyond environmental sustainability to which advocates point when making an argument for local food. I discuss some of these in a previous post entitled Food Miles and Family Farms: The Question of Sustainable Food. Yet the argument of the sustainability benefits of local food from a distribution perspective remains a point of debate. The evolution of regional food distribution infrastructure may change this as time goes on, but for now the debate continues.

For those of you who are interested in delving deeper into this topic, the Museum of the City of New York is hosting a panel tonight on this very topic. Is Local Good for the Environment: The Hidden Costs of Food in New York City will provide a forum for a chef, a farmer, a local food advocate, and a local food skeptic to dialog about the environmental issues connected to the NYC food system. Tickets are available on the Museum’s website, or at the door for a small additional fee.

Image Courtesy of New York Bounty

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