Could your local, trucked-in potatoes spew more C02?

Rating: NNNNN Q My prof says local food is not that eco-friendly greenhouse-gas-wise, arguing that ships are the least harmful.

Rating: NNNNN

Q My prof says local food is not that eco-friendly greenhouse-gas-wise, arguing that ships are the least harmful way to transport products. He also says imports help developing nations. Your take?

A How timely! It just so happens that disparaging the darling of the eco movement, local food, is all the rage in the British media right now, perhaps because PM Tony Blair and others have been pushing “buy local” behaviour. Sadly, our PM has done no such thing, but it’s still a good idea to prime yourself for debates on this front.

It’s true that local food may be grown with just as many pesticides as food grown abroad, meaning it may be just as polluting to soil and surrounding workers and wildlife. That’s why buying local and organic is best.

But if we’re going to narrow the discussion strictly to greenhouse gases, your prof would have to be naive to think that a banana or mango comes straight from shore to shore without any trucking at both ends. When I was in Costa Rica, the roads were clogged with dirty 18-wheelers crammed with bananas on their way to the banana airport, from which carbon-dioxide-emitting cargo planes fly north.

And ships, well, they’re not as earth-friendly as you’d think. While they may only suck up 2 or 3 per cent of the world’s fossil fuels, they use the dirtiest, cheapest petrol around (literally bottom-of-the-barrel scrapings from the fuel refining process). One lone cargo ship belches out as much pollution as 2,000 diesel trucks, according to a report by Bluewater Network. Stuff like smog-inducing nitrogen oxides and sulphur. The U.S. shipping sector alone spews 600,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year. (We can, of course, re-evaluate all this if the whole shipping biz jumps on biodiesel options being pilot tested by Environment Canada.)

Meanwhile, back in Canada, produce from Niagara, our local fruit belt, travels only about an hour and a half on a truck. That truck may not be as fuel-efficient as, say, FedEx’s emerging hybrid fleet, but the journey is still less polluting than an hour and a half on a tractor-trailer from a Guatemalan plantation to port and then a week on an oozing ship.

Finding truly local food can be a challenge, though. An apple labelled “grown in Canada” might be from BC and have travelled thousands of miles farther than an apple grown in New York State, for instance. Although some grocery stores now let you know when a pear or peach was grown in Ontario, wouldn’t it be nice to have a food miles label on your grapes or spinach to fill you in on how far they’ve travelled?

The Economist, that stuffy British mag, just carried a piece trashing the local food movement, saying, among other things, that a shift away from the centralized supermarket system to decentralized local food systems would mean putting more inefficient trucks on the roads and more car rides to farmers markets.

Perhaps that’s so, but for one thing, no one’s saying supermarkets shouldn’t get in on the local food action. In fact, some, like Loblaws and Whole Foods, have expressed interest in supporting organic produce grown locally rather than buying the stuff trucked in from mega-farms in California. And if our government truly wants to green our economy, it’ll look into funding the fuel efficiency of those trucks. Plus, Toronto farmers markets are well served by public transit, so most of us aren’t schlepping to roadside stands in Caledon to get our greens.

As for your prof’s point about import food systems benefiting the developing world, let’s get real here. We’re the countries that sabotaged the local subsistence economies of the developing world, and we’re doing them no favours by dumping subsidized wheat and such on them, undercutting poor farmers and giving them pennies in return for their colonial crops.

The truth is, we should all go back to buying local as much as possible. And if we’re going to buy mangos or lychees from the developing world (hey, no one’s talking about banning tropical delights), we should be paying fair trade prices for goods that truly do people some good.

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