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Is buying local better for the environment?

Barbara Alden Wilson is a writer specializing in health and medical topics. You can follow her on Twitter at @BAldenWilson and on her blog, muchtomyamazement.com.

The locavore movement

Farmers market and farm-direct purchases can be good for both the community and your health. But does buying local really make a difference environmentally?

Local produce in bag

No matter where you live, chances are a farmers market operates nearby, whether seasonally or year-round. And for those who live in or near rural areas, roadside stands on the edge of farms are very common. With so many of us reconsidering our carbon footprint — the amount of resources we consume and waste — buying food locally may seem appealing. But along with the appeal comes a bit of mystery and perhaps trepidation: Exactly how is what your buying produced? Will higher prices make the effort too difficult? Is buying organic at a traditional grocery store just as environmentally friendly? Learn how and why to buy local, and when you may want to reconsider "local-only" purchases.

Local produce

There are several good reasons for buying local, says Lacey Swartz, owner at KV Organics and co-chair of the Green Health Task Force for the New Jersey environmental group, Sustainable Cherry Hill:

Isolated tomatoes

  • Local produce is fresher because it's picked more recently than in the grocery store.
  • The food hasn't traveled many miles, which requires using a large amount of costly, polluting fossil fuels.
  • The food hasn't been sprayed with preservatives — which can affect one's health — to maintain a fresh appearance.

Local livestock

When it comes to livestock, however, it's not necessarily how the animals or animal products are transported; it's what results from raising them. Gary Adamkiewicz, senior research scientist in environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health, points out how meat production affects the environment on the Harvard Extension Hub online newsletter in Buying Local: Do Food Miles Matter?:

  • Lamb, beef and pork are some of the worst climate change offenders. Not because of how they are transported, but because livestock accounts for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. That calculation exceeds emissions from cars, trucks, buses and other transportation combined.
"Changing what we eat can have a bigger effect than changing where it's from," Adamkiewicz writes.

Buying outside of your locale

But when it comes to buying outside of your locale — when you want oranges during winter in the Northeast, for example — consider how it must be shipped, Adamkiewicz advises. What's his philosophy on shipping methods? Bad if by land (specifically by truck), good if by sea (especially if the food has a small production footprint) and worst if by air (such as asparagus and berries from South America).

Swartz recommends a thoughtful approach to buying locally as well, and doesn't rule out expanding one's food origins.

"Some people are intimidated by the 'locavore' movement because those who have embraced it can be very adamant about buying only local," she explains. "We like the term 'glocal,' which focuses on global economy sustainability. It means you can still buy avocados and pineapples, even if you live in an area where they cannot be locally produced. But if they are produced without genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and in a sustainable way with reasonable transport factors, people are still contributing to a sustainable lifestyle when they buy them."

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