Stan’s a resident of West Lafayette, Indiana. He considers himself to be an environmentalist. He believes that rising CO2 levels are a major driving factor of climate change and believes that we have indeed entered the Anthropocene. He sees local foods as a way to cut down on his carbon emissions and save the planet. So even when it’s freezing outside he still decides to walk the extra mile to get some locally grown tomatoes. When he reaches home he looks at his roommate's grocery bags and scorns his roommate’s decision to get imported food instead of locally grown food.
What Stan doesn’t realize is that the locally grown tomato he’s so proud of has a larger carbon footprint than the imported one. Tomatoes are seasonally grown and require high temperatures to grow. They need a temperature range of 65° F to 75° F to grow, but the average high temperature in West Lafayette during the winter is 32.9° F. So to produce tomatoes locally during winters, a hot house is required. This method of production consumes a lot of electricity and may use higher amounts of fertilizers, ultimately leading to a higher production of CO2 than what is released if the tomatoes are imported from warmer to colder places.
If we can’t assume that local foods are always sustainable, why do sustainability efforts often emphasize buying local? For one thing, buying local seems to be a logical way of protecting the environment: if you want to shrink your carbon footprint, buy produce that has traveled 10 miles in a pickup truck instead of 10,000 in a semi. As you just learned, however, calculating the environmental impact of a local vegetable is not as simple as that. Another argument in favor of local foods’ sustainability comes from the idea that local farmers are well positioned to strengthen the social sustainability of their community by actively participating in local economies and bringing people together. While agribusinesses may be viewed as operating simply to make money, local farmers are thought to be motivated by their love for food, the land, and their desire to see their communities thrive. These farmers are supposed to be conscientious producers, avoiding the tragedy of the commons that can occur when each actor makes decisions that are purely rational and cost/benefit motivated. However, not all local farmers have excellent motivations and they may also be largely motivated by profit instead of sustainability. Due to the overlap between the local foods movement and sustainability efforts, determining whether or not a local product is truly sustainable is not straightforward.
In addition to the challenge of determining sustainability in the local foods movement, not everyone agrees on what qualifies as “local”. Some producers advertise their products as local if they are supplying consumers within the same state, which can be misleading if the consumer believes that local foods come from within a hundred miles (a popular definition of local). The varying sizes of states further compounds the issue. In reality, though the local foods movement centers on the proximity of producers to consumers, considering the distance the food has traveled is only one part of sustainability. Water use, fuel consumption, social justice, and many other things all play a role. Since sustainability has many facets, purchasing local foods should be based on an understanding of the larger food system rather than a blind adherence to a local foods mantra.
So what should you consider before you start shopping at your local farmers’ market? Here are a few guidelines that we hope can help you identify truly sustainable local foods.
The first, and easiest, way to start your research is to understand what grows well in your area. Local foods often aren’t sustainable when grown in greenhouses that utilize large amounts of energy. For a Midwesterner, this means that buying basil locally in the summer is a logical choice, but that local basil in the winter has probably generated additional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to the herb’s need for a warm, well-lit environment.
Another factor to consider when purchasing local foods is your budget. Local food is infamously expensive, but this is not always the case. A concerned citizen looking to reduce their carbon footprint and support producers in their region can still find local foods that fit their budget. College students at Purdue can find many local fruits and vegetables at prices comparable to those in grocery stores (especially in the summer), although local meat may still be prohibitively expensive. The cost barrier inherent to local food production, noted by some local farmers as the biggest issue with the local food system, could be mitigated with a shift away from large scale food operations and demand growth.
One option available here in Lafayette would be joining a co-op such as City Foods. This would be a way to trade some labor for much cheaper local foods. It also gives you an inside look at how your food is being grown and gives you a better idea of the sustainability of the process. If possible it is always a good idea to learn as much about how your food is grown so that you can make decisions for yourself on what you would like to purchase. While this isn’t always possible, it is much easier with local food than with globally distributed food.
An example of successful local food use can be seen right here in town at McGraw’s Steak Chop and Fish House. Over the past summer, McGraw’s started purchasing locally grown microgreens. In this case, the short travel distance of the product made for decreased GHG emissions and greatly reduced price from what was being provided by a national food distributor. The local product was also of much higher quality and freshness. Buying local, did require extra effort on the part of the restaurant, however, and meant that in the winter substitutes had to be found for the local microgreens.
This brings us to the current state of local foods, and why a global local foods movement seems so unrealistic. National policies focus more on poverty reduction and development than environmentally sound agriculture, and any shift to local foods would require a major shift in mindset and agricultural law. We have grown accustomed to eating our favorite foods year round; eating seasonally in most of Indiana would mean living like a squirrel in the winter. Much like McGraw’s, consumers would have to start modifying their diets and spending much more time finding local sources for their food. It’s important to recognize the limitations of local food and the possibility that slow change could help shift our dependence on the global food supply to more sustainable and self-sufficient local economies.
Consider everything you’ve read so far. How can you translate this into your individual lifestyle? There are a million factors that go into how you pick what’s on your plate. Making informed purchasing decisions is a simple way that you can reduce your carbon footprint and promote sustainability in the world around you. If you want to purchase fish, go for it! But before you hand over your cash, look into where it came from. Is salmon that is transported all the way from Alaska really more sustainable than salmon from a Midwestern fish farm? How much energy did it consume to store and transport that tomato from across the country? It’s hard to know! There is not always a clear answer to these questions, but you’ll never make a difference if you don’t put in the effort to understand the impact of your food. Our recommendation? Try to find some primary sources that you can trust, and look for certifications that reliably indicate sustainable options. Visit your local farmers’ market and look for some truly fresh, truly local produce and learn about how it got from the field into your hands. Engaging with and supporting your local food producers is the best way to ensure your food travelled the minimum amount of miles and consumed the least amount of energy possible.
 Adair, interview with Sabrina Myoda, Feb 2018
 Rebecca Wood, McGraw’s, interview with Connor Lucas, Feb 2018
 Kate Ashford, “9 Low-Cost Ways to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint”, Forbes, June 2017
 Chris Adair, manager of Purdue Student Farm, interview by Sabrina Myoda, Feb 2018
 Whitney Sager, “Definition of local food explored by small farm specialist”, Iowa State Daily, Oct 2008
 SFGATE, “What Conditions Do Tomatoes Need to Grow?”, Homeguides.sfgate.com, n.d.
 Terrapass, “Food Miles: Is Eating Locally Always Better?”, The Footprint Blog, n.d.