The environmental benefit of eating local is overrated

There's a common misconception that eating locally produced foods is important from an environmental point of view. Even the UN tweeted about it. This is wrong.

Transport makes up only 6% of the greenhouse gas emissions from food:

Source: Our World in Data.

The reason for this is that most foods are transported by ship and not plane. Only about 0.16% of food miles are done by plane:

Source: Our World in Data.

It makes sense to try and avoid foods that are transported by air. Typically, those are foods which are highly perishable, such as asparagus, green beans and berries.

In some cases, eating local food even has a more negative impact on the environment than buying something that has been produced half way around the world. For example, heated greenhouses are energy intensive and can produce more greenhouse gases than transporting something for thousands of kilometers by water or road.

It's clear that avoiding meat and dairy has a much bigger impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

So, why do people keep saying that we should eat local?

It could just be ignorance. However, I think that it's often a straw man argument pushed by interest groups that want to keep selling meat and dairy. It is something that is easy to do and seems to make sense on the surface to many people. Let's take another look at that UN tweet from before:

Source: Tweet from @UN on Oct 28, 2019.

In addition to eating local food, they also recommend unplugging unused appliances and using less hot water. Like avoiding plastic bags or plastic straws, this is good advice but a long shot from making a meaningful impact on climate change.

Arguments like these try to shift away the spot light from big companies who collectively make up a large chunk of the greenhouse gas emissions to individuals. People think that they did something meaningful by buying local food, which, as we have seen, is not the case.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't do those things. We absolutely should, but it shouldn't be the main talking points of organizations like the UN or WWF.

To make real change, we must eat less meat and dairy, move to more renewable energy sources and reduce air and road travel significantly.

PS: I'm only talking about the impact on climate change in this article. Eating local and organic food has other benefits such as supporting the local economy and in most cases it's a good idea to do it.

Comments or questions? Join in on the discussion on this Twitter thread.

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