Conscientious Cook: Sustainable Distance Eating

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Local=Environmentally Responsible, right? Wrong, says a recent report from British researchers.

After 199 pages of detail on everything from automatic picking machines to consumer packaging, the researchers find no strong evidence that locally sourced foods are better, in environmental terms at least, than global produce - and in some cases the opposite is true.

Whoa! What? We were fascinated by Planes, Brains and Automobiles, an article we found through megnut, and we wanted to discuss it a bit more here.

Part of this surprising result comes from the fact that agriculture and food systems are highly complex - much more than any single factor can reflect.

"Transport has been taken out and highlighted," says Rebecca White, a researcher at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute (ECI). "But you can't single out one part [of the food system] and say something that's come from thousands of miles away is automatically less sustainable - it's much more complicated than that."

America, especially California, Texas, and other parts of the West, offers unique questions that arise from our energy-intensive systems of farming. For instance, can you buy a peach from the Central Valley and still call it local if it was grown with water that has been piped in from hundreds of miles away, at a fantastic cost of energy and money?

While water conservationists point out that pressurised sprayers and drip irrigation systems distribute water to crops more efficiently than traditional gravity-based methods, they require mechanical pumping and therefore consume more energy.

There have been challenges to this report, of course, but supporters argue that again, the distance a food travels from farm to table is only one among many factors. Farm equipment takes up great energy and spews out emissions; heating for barns, electricity for lighting and pumps - these all add up.

In a study published last year, New Zealand's Lincoln University measured everything from electric fences to farm sheds, tractors and animal feed, and found that dairy and lamb production in New Zealand was more energy efficient than the British equivalent, even when the 12,000-mile trip to the UK was included.

There are many reasons to buy local - economic, freshness, and seasonality. This article prodded us, however, to spend more time reading and considering more sides of the complex, global food system we live with today.

(Image credit: Davis Co-op)

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Faith is the executive editor of The Kitchn and the author of three cookbooks. They include Bakeless Sweets (Spring 2013) as well as The Kitchn's first cookbook, which will be published in Fall 2014. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mike.

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