Eating Local Might Not Be as Important as What You Eat

Items at local farmers markets don't have to travel as far as the produce in your local grocery store. Natalie Maynor [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

You've likely heard the argument to support the "eat local" movement: Local purchases support local farms and small businesses. The food is less likely to be sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizer because smaller farms are more likely to use organic methods. It doesn't have to travel for hundreds or thousands of miles, so it's better for the planet.

It all makes sense and it's great for all those reasons — but it might not be the most ideal way to reduce your carbon footprint.

The website Our World in Data points out that being a locavore isn't the best way to protect the planet.

"'Eating local' is a recommendation you hear often — even from prominent sources, including the United Nations. While it might make sense intuitively — after all, transport does lead to emissions — it is one of the most misguided pieces of advice," writes Hannah Ritchie.

"Eating locally would only have a significant impact if transport was responsible for a large share of food's final carbon footprint. For most foods, this is not the case."

How emissions play a part

Greenhouse gas emissions from beef to nuts.
Greenhouse gas emissions from beef to nuts. Our World in Data

The site illustrates this concept with the chart above, showing 29 different foods, from beef at the top to nuts at the bottom. At each stage across the supply change, you can see how much emissions play a part. They start with land use change on the left all the way through retail and packaging on the right. Transport is shown in red and is generally a small part of each food's emissions.

For most foods — especially the largest emitters — farm processes (shown in brown) and changes in land use (green) are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions. Farm processes include methane emissions from cows, emissions from fertilizers, manure and farm machinery. Land use change can include deforestation and changes in soil carbon.

The data comes from what is believed to be the largest meta-analyst of global food systems done so far, published in the journal Science in 2018. Researchers analyzed data from 38,000 farms producing 40 different agricultural goods in 119 countries.

"Translation: What you eat is much more important than whether your food is local," writes Sigal Samuel in Vox. "So, next time you find yourself trying to choose between a couple of different dinner options — local prawns versus non-local fish, let's say — remember that from an emissions standpoint, the fish is the better choice even though it comes from farther away."

The one exception is food that travels by air, when emissions can be high. However, only about 0.16% of food is air freighted. Most perishable foods — like avocados and almonds — travel by boat instead.

"It is often hard for consumers to identify foods that have traveled by air because they're rarely labeled as such. This makes them difficult to avoid," Ritchie writes. "A general rule is to avoid foods that have a very short shelf-life and have traveled a long way (many labels have the country of ‘origin' which helps with this). This is especially true for foods where there is a strong emphasis on ‘freshness': for these products, transport speed is a priority."

Less meat is nearly always better

When making food choices based on the planet, less meat is nearly always better.

carbon footprint of protein foods
Meat products have higher emissions in most cases than non-meat alternatives. Our World in Data; Click here to see larger version of the graphic

Based on the same data, this chart shows that plant-based foods tend to have a lower carbon footprint than meat and dairy products. The information is based on global averages.

Beef and lamb are way over to the right on one end of the emissions scale, while plant-based foods like nuts, peas, beans and tofu have the lowest carbon footprint.

"This is certainly true when you compare average emissions," Ritchie writes. "But it's still true when you compare the extremes: there's not much overlap in emissions between the worst producers of plant proteins, and the best producers of meat and dairy."

So eating plant-based foods is almost always going to be a better environmental choice than meat. But if you're choosing meat, then there are more planet-friendly options.

"It's worth noting that some types of meat are much harsher on the environment than others," Samuel writes. "Replacing beef or lamb with chicken or pork — again, regardless of where you get the products from — is an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint."