Is "Locally Grown" the new greenwashing catch phrase?

Image Source: Pablo Paster

I was perusing the produce section of my local Safeway supermarket when I began to notice signs proclaiming that certain fruits and vegetables were "Locally Grown." I thought that this was great. Supermarkets, which had finally fully embraced organics, are now beginning to understand the consumer demand for locally grow produce. My joy was muted when I spotted the fruit pictured above.The benefits of organic foods are now well known by most. Despite the criticism of organic since the USDA came out with their official rules on organic foods, the popularity of organic food has continued to grow, even during the current recession. Continuing the advance toward more sustainable sustenance, consumers and food activists are now pushing increasingly for locally produced food, sparking several debates between Local vs. Organic. Of course we should be buying Local and Organic!

You can imagine my confusion upon spotting "locally grown" pineapples. Sure, Hawaii is only one state away from my home state of California, but the 2,500 miles of ocean that separate the two hardly qualifies as local. To rule out that these were truly California-grown pineapples I decided to check the tag affixed to each fruit. Not only were these pineapples not grown in California, they weren't even grown in the US! These pineapples came from Dole's 2,400 hectare plantation in Costa Rica!

Now, I would not claim that labeling a bin of pineapples as "locally grown" is some evil corporate conspiracy to take advantage of our ecological aspirations and intentionally mislead us. I do, however see it as a symptom of the overzealous pursuit of the "green" consumer in which "locally grown" labels are all too abundant, with no certification or government oversight to define what "local" even is.

So, What's the Damage?

Since Costa Rica is over 3000 miles away from Safeway's distribution center, by land or sea, the greenhouse gas emissions from transporting that pineapple are significantly higher than if it were truly produced locally. And let's just go with 100 miles as our definition of "local," in keeping with the 100-mile diet.

According to the GHG Protocol, for every ton (US) transported by one mile, the greenhouse gas emissions are 0.1033 kilograms (kg). So for every ton of pineapples transported from Costa Rica to California, 310 kg of greenhouse gas emissions are released, or about one pound per pineapple more than if it had actually been "locally grown."

The lesson here is that retailers are responding to market forces and are starting to offer locally sourced produce, a benefit to both local farmers and the environment, but in the absence of oversight, consumers still need to independently verify where their food actually came from.

Additional resources on buying local:
Food, Inc.
Green Food Matters: How Our Food Affects the Environment
Eating Local Food

Pablo Paster writes a weekly column where he answers your burning sustainability questions. Got a question? Just Ask Pablo by e-mailing him directly: Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com

Tags: 100 Mile Diet | Agriculture | Food Miles | Fruits & Vegetables | Local Food

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