Attention Food Lovers: Eco-Conscious Eating Isn’t All About Distance

Want to make a real difference with your grocery money? Find out where and how your food is produced.

Credit: Raymond Forbes/Stocksy

When the modern local-food movement sprang up more than a decade ago—inspired by all those locavores who ate up Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma—many people paid a lot of attention to the distance their food traveled from farm to table. It was logical. Transporting food over great distances produces pollution that fouls the environment, and there was growing concern about the impact of industrial agriculture on climate change. Produce imported by air got a particularly bad rap—in fact, a 2010 NRDC policy paper notes that in California, which imports food distributed throughout the nation, the smog-forming emissions from importing fruits and vegetables are equivalent to the annual emissions from 1.5 million cars.

But the local-food movement has evolved over the years. So have the ports: In 2017, the L.A. and Long Beach mayors signed a declaration setting ambitious goals to reduce air pollution at the ports by adopting clean technology. The directive demands zero-emission cargo-handling equipment by 2030 and zero-emission trucks by 2035. Still, a typical American meal contains ingredients from five foreign countries, and even domestically grown produce travels an average of 1,500 miles before it is sold, so buying locally can help reduce the pollution and energy use associated from transporting, storing and refrigerating this food. Local foods also taste better and can be more nutritious, since they likely haven’t been sitting around in a warehouse. The dollars you spend on them bolster local producers (who are likely to reinvest in your community), while helping to preserve valuable farmland and open space. And buying locally often supports smaller growers—the type whose scale and crop diversity allow them to use fewer pesticides and fertilizers than the typical large, single-crop (monoculture) farm.

This is why NRDC is working to strengthen regional-food systems around the country and advocating for solutions to bring local and sustainable foods to all communities—food that is good for you, the farmer, and the planet. For example, we’ve encouraged the nation’s largest public school systems to serve wholesome, regional, and sustainable foods to kids throughout our biggest cities. And we’re helping to establish a large wholesale farmers’ market in New York City with the same scale and other economic advantages that conventional produce exchanges have today. “More than 99 percent of the food sold in this country comes through wholesale channels, so if we are going to get better food into our schools and hospitals, we need to open wholesale avenues for local and sustainable producers,” says Margaret Brown, an NRDC attorney who spearheads the regional-food work. We also support the urban agriculture movement, which not only serve as a source of locally-grown foods for city-dwellers, but addresses food justice, too. “Community gardens are a way for people to take ownership over the food system in a very tangible way,” Brown says, by giving people access to grow the fruits and vegetables they want.

How can you be part of the local and sustainable solution? The best thing you can do as an eco-conscious consumer is learn how your food is grown and demand responsible, sustainable practices at every opportunity. Buy organic meats and vegetables or food from smaller, diversified farms. Dealing directly with local growers gives you the opportunity to get to know them. When you shop at the local farmers’ market (which may not be as expensive as you think, since many now cater to the tastes and budgets of their surrounding neighborhoods), or if you become a member of a community-supported agriculture plan (CSA) or a farm-share food program, ask these questions:

  • Is this produce certified organic or do you otherwise use organic practices? A farmer must pay fees to be certified organic, and for some growers the cost is unaffordable. They may still follow organic practices, however, so just ask.
  • Do you use nontoxic, integrated pest-management methods? Conventional chemical pesticides are literally toxic; they threaten the survival of honeybees and monarch butterflies and have been detected in 90 percent of our streams and rivers. But farmers can use nonpoisonous, chemical free methods of pest control that do less damage to the surrounding ecosystem. (By the way, you can do the same in your own backyard.)
  • Do you grow many different crops? Growing more than one crop can help farmers maintain soil fertility and manage pests without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers—and the latter are big contributors to climate change.
  • Do you limit the use of antibiotics to times when your cows, pigs, and chickens are actually sick? Animals on farms do get sick periodically and may need antibiotics to get better. But livestock breeders who routinely add antibiotics to animal feed as a preventive measure are helping to create the antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" that sicken and kill thousands of people every year.
  • Can the hens that lay your eggs, or the cows and pigs you raise, leave the barn where they spend the night? Do they have access to fresh pasture? We’d like to think the animals that produce our food lead decent, cruelty-free lives, but the words on food labels can be deceiving. The term "free range," for instance, is virtually meaningless, Brown says. And "cage free" simply means a chicken was not held in a cage, but it still may have lived in a severely overcrowded pen. Only a “pasture” or “pasture-raised” designation guarantees that animals can spend a part of their time moving freely outside. Buying as directly as you can from the farmer and asking about pasture access is the best way to get what you are looking for.

Building sustainable local-food systems is all about restoring the link between you and the farmers who feed you. Every time you linger in conversation at the farm stand or the grocery store meat counter, that’s just what you’re doing. And, hey, if you’re considering all these factors, pushing for more sustainable-food solutions in your community, and you still crave a delicious, sustainably grown banana shipped in from the tropics? Don’t feel guilty. Just eat it.

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