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Think Global, Eat Local

Posted on October 8th, 2011 by Stephen Hardy | Print

I love it when someone makes me think. I also love it when someone puts their money where their mouth is to live their principles. I love it even more when those principles make me look at the way I live and challenges me to be a better person or be more accountable for my life. Such was the case after I ate at the award winning Locavore restaurant at Stirling in the picturesque Adelaide Hills recently.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase:

“If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.”

While we all care about health and the environment, caught up in our daily lives it’s often too hard to think about how to become part of the solution. The children are fighting and late for school; the baby’s just upended his porridge bowl on his head again and the dog’s been sick on the carpet. So how do you find time to make the shift and become part of the solution with so much on your plate? And what happens when you aren’t even aware you are part of the problem? So what can you do and what was it about my meal at the Locavore restaurant that got me thinking? Before I can answer these questions we need some background.

Locavore is a new word. While the Oxford American Dictionary named it Word Of The Year in 2007(1), most people won’t know what it means. While a herbivore eats plants and a carnivore eats meat, a locavore eats food grown locally, within their geographic region. Particularly, foods produced within a 160 km (100 mile) radius.

I’ve been a supporter of eating locally for years. I eat fruit and vegetables in season, grow my own, frequent farmers’ markets, community collectives and buy local produce whenever I can.

So why eat local? First up, it should be fresher. In season food picked yesterday from across the street is going to be fresher than food picked weeks or months ago, kept in refrigerated cold stores and shipped across the globe. Buying local also supports local jobs and keeps money in the community. And there’s another consideration: Foods grown locally don’t have to travel as far and so have a lower potential environmental impact. These transportation costs and their associated environmental impact are seldom discussed and certainly, never mentioned either on the packaging or the labelling in the store. It’s all about Food Miles. Food Miles are a measure of how far food travels from where it is produced to where it is eaten. We’ll come back to them…

How you go about being a locavore depends on where you live. If you are snow bound for 6 months, then what can be grown and what you can source around you will be quite different from someone living in a temperate or tropical region. Nevertheless, the concept has gained widespread appeal. For example, the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen embraces the locavore ideas and principles and sources much of its produce from the local countryside. Earlier this year it was voted the world’s best restaurant for the second year in a row at the annual S. Pellegrino awards run by Restaurant magazine (2). A quick search of the Internet will yield many well-regarded restaurants around the globe embracing the locavore concept.

So what does it take to be a locavore? Being a locavore means eating things not just grown locally but also suited to the local conditions. Let’s look at the “can be grown locally” part first. If you are going to eat things grown locally, then it is important to know the local soils have a good balance of essential minerals. If the soil in a particular region is naturally deficient in selenium or zinc for example, then foods grown on that soil will also be potentially deficient in selenium or zinc. And if the selenium or zinc isn’t in the food, it won’t get into you! It is also important to grow foods suited to the local climate. You wouldn’t grow rice in a low rainfall area for example, or lamb in the north of Scotland, where the barns have to be heated in winter. The last thing about being a locavore is to get over being a locavore! If you like coffee for example and live where I do, (Adelaide, South Australia), then it’s going to be a very long time between drinks because there aren’t a lot of coffee plantations within a 160 km (100 mile) radius of Adelaide. So if you can’t get everything you need from within 160 km (100 miles), you can at least source as much as you can nearby. And for the things not produced locally, you buy from sources as close to you as you can. In my case, this would be coffee from other parts of Australia or New Guinea, rather than coffee from Columbia or Ethiopia. So the simplest way of getting your head around the locavore concept is to eat locally grown foods in season.

So while the logic and ethics of eating local looks sound, does it really make that much difference from an environmental standpoint? Well after speaking with Chris March and Nathan Crudden, the owners and founders of the Locavore restaurant in Stirling, I realised it had the potential to make a huge difference! In keeping with the Locavore name, wherever possible everything they serve in the restaurant is grown or produced within a 160 km (100 mile) radius. Since opening the doors in October 2007, the Locavore estimates their within 160 km (100 mile) produce sourcing policy has saved over 300,000,000 Food Kilometres (186,410,000 Food Miles). These numbers staggered me, as it’s twice the distance from the Earth to the Sun! As an insatiably curious scientist, I had to look into it.

I found some answers in the Food Miles in Australia report from the Centre for Education & Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES) (3). The study looked at the distance travelled by the items found in a typical Melbourne shopping basket. The report estimated the total distance travelled by the 29 common foodstuffs in their average shopping basket was over 70,000 km (43,500 miles), or nearly twice round the globe! And this was representative of the shopping for a week! Multiply this week after week and it comes to an estimated 3,640,000 km (2,261,800 miles) per household per year! That’s 10 times the distance from the Earth to the moon – just to get the food from where it was produced to your plate. It doesn’t take into account the energy used for refrigeration during storage and transport or the energy used to produce the food in the first place.

Sure, massive ships, trains and trucks transport vast quantities of food over large distances very efficiently. But 70,000 km (43,500 miles) or twice round the globe for a week’s worth of groceries? These numbers are mind-boggling. So let’s see if we can put them in terms we can get our heads around. How far is 70,000 km (43,500 miles) in terms of our everyday experiences, our day-to-day lives? Well for starters, it’s about as far as I drive in 5 years! Let’s stay with driving for the sake of this exercise, because its something we all do. And let’s pretend the massive ships, trains and trucks won’t be bringing the food to me this week and I have to drive the 70,000 km (43,500 miles) to collect all the food in my average Melbourne shopping basket. Well if I could travel at 100 km/hour (62 mph), the legal speed limit in most Australian states, it would take me 700 hours of continuous driving to cover 70,000 km. That’s over 29 days! So if the estimates in the Food Miles in Australia report are correct, I’d have to drive my car non-stop for a month to collect a week’s worth of food! And how much petrol or gasoline would I use? At 8.56 litres of fuel per 100 km (33 miles per gallon), my car travelling 70,000 km would use 8,178 litres (2,160 US gallons) of fuel! And if we assume my basket of food contains 25 kg (55 pounds) of food and everything I need for all the meals I prepare during the week, each of the 21 meals I eat that week would have used nearly 390 litres (103 US gallons) of petrol or gasoline to get to my plate! That’s about 5 times my body weight of gasoline for every meal of around 1 kg (2.2 pounds)! This isn’t mind-boggling any more. It’s mind-blowing!

The above calculations are not intended to be scientifically accurate or valid. They are simply an attempt to make the findings and implications of the Food Miles in Australia report understandable, to put them in terms of our day-to-day experience. In the real world, economies of scale come into effect. Even so, running the numbers on how far food is transported and the environmental costs involved is a very scary exercise because that’s where the twice round the globe, 70,000 km (43,500 miles) travelled per basket per week figure came from! For precise estimates of the energy involved in transporting our food and the assumptions and calculations used to generate them, consult the Food Miles in Australia report (3).

Given the size of the problem, there’s certainly a lot of scope to become part of the solution! So what to do? Well if you want to reduce your environmental impact with minimal effort then think about becoming a locavore where you can. It’s very easy to do and makes sense for a host of social, health and environmental reasons. It also makes sense to get behind those who are supporting the initiative. If you are interested in learning more about the eat local / Food Miles debate, have a look at the references in the Food Miles in Australia report (3).

So I applaud the owners and staff of the Locavore restaurant in Stirling for making me think, living their principles and for being the inspiration for this blog (4). My challenge to you is to embrace the “Eat Local” or “100 Mile Diet” philosophy. The “100 Mile Diet” is a simple way to make a difference every day in a host of ways and move from being part of the problem to becoming part of the solution. And you’ll likely have fun doing it and eat more healthily in the process! So grow your own, swop food with your friends and neighbours, join a community growers’ collective, find a local farmers’ market or a store specialising in local produce and get out there and find the foods and food producers near you. They will be there and if your experience is similar to mine, you may be in for a very pleasant and tasty surprise. Bon Appetit!

Until next time, stay happy and healthy.

References

(1) Oxford Word Of The Year: Locavore http://blog.oup.com/2007/11/locavore/
(2) Wallop, H.: Noma in Copenhagen named best restaurant in the world. The Telegraph, Tuesday 20 September 2011.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/7635378/Noma-in-Copenhagen-named-best-restaurant-in-the-world.html
(3) Abraham, A. B. and Gaballa, S.: Food Miles in Australia: A Preliminary Study of Melbourne Victoria. Published by Centre for Education & Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES) July 2007 and updated March 2008.
Available online at: http://www.ceres.org.au/sites/default/files/CERES_Report_%20Food_Miles_in_Australia_March08.pdf
(4) Declaration: Promoting Good Health has no financial or commercial interest in the Locavore restaurant in Stirling and received no payment or inducement to write this article.

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