Americans have two great loves, eating and shopping, and their Thanksgiving holiday is the occasion when they enjoy both activities in all their gluttonous splendour. But while the central concern of most Americans last week was how to avoid getting trampled in the Black Friday stampedes at the mall, a more conscientious group was stressing over the morality of the holiday menu: should the vegetables be organic, or local?
It turns out that if you’re actually serious about taste, health benefits, and environmental impact, the correct answer is “neither.” The dispute between organic and local is one of those enormously high-strung civil wars that sweep through the environmental movement from time to time. And like its most notable predecessor, the paper-or-plastic conflict that raged across supermarket checkout counters in the late 1980s, this is one of those fights that is a genuine sucker’s game: the only way you can win is by not playing.
The jig has been up for organic for a while now. Originally promoted as the magic bullet of the produce aisle, with better taste, health benefits and environmental grades than regular food, organic has turned out to be none of those things. It didn’t help the organic brand that Wal-Mart started selling by the gross to the ambulatory eating machines of Middle America, but at least its defenders could cling to the idea that an organic tomato or lemon was more nutritious than its conventionally grown counterpart.
The bottom fell out of that conceit last spring, when a massive study out of Britain concluded there is absolutely no evidence of any such benefits from organically produced foods over conventionally produced food.
As a result, the local-food forces seemed to be in the ascendant. The great appeal of local food is it combines direct support for a regional economy with what appears to be a low environmental impact. After all, it stands to reason that the shorter the distance between the plow and your plate, the less energy consumed through transportation, helping reduce emissions that cause global warming.
But that last point took a serious hit last week with the release of a new three-year study showing that for a number of food staples, moving them around in huge container ships as part of a global supply chain is more energy efficient than locally sourcing stock. The report focused on the life cycle of salmon production, but the authors suggested their conclusions could be generalized to any number of common food staples.
The key to their argument is that it isn’t enough to look at where the food was produced, because “near” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.” You have to consider all inputs, such as food, fertilizer, refrigeration, transportation. Most of the transportation energy it takes to bring food to your table is expended in the last few miles, and cars and trucks are far more polluting than highly efficient trains or ocean-going container ships. So much so, in fact, that it appears that British shoppers would be doing the environment a favour by spurning domestic apples and lamb and importing them from New Zealand.
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