What is the environmental impact of eating organic versus eating locally grown food? Food miles are only one factor in the assessment of food sustainability.
As I bike home from the market with my local and organic products in hand, I feel good about supporting my community, reducing my environmental footprint, and “eating my view.” Yet I still wonder, “Which comes first, local or organic?”
A recent publication by the Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit (AERU) from Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, made me rethink my organic and local food choices.
The group studied the full environmental impact of food production from farm to table with a result that surprised me: foods can be transported from New Zealand to the UK, over 19,000 kilometres, and have a lower total environmental impact than UK-produced products.
Food Miles Only One Factor
The researchers found that New Zealand’s lamb, apples, dairy, and onions have one-quarter to one-half the environmental impact from farm to British table than local products. The reasons:
- New Zealand has a better climate as well as better soil and production methods for these products.
- They pasture animals year-round.
- They have fewer inputs such as machines and buildings.
- They use less fertilizer and energy.
- They produce fewer emissions.
The distance food travels from farm to table is only one factor in the total footprint of food production. In fact, “food miles” alone are relatively insignificant. Just a century ago farms consumed half the energy they produced. Today they consume 10 times more energy than they produce.
Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada estimates that Canadians and Americans consume 1,500 litres of oil to feed each person each year. Our global food system is inefficient, consuming 10 times more energy than it produces.
Scientific study has demonstrated that organic farming can improve the efficiency of our food system, reduce soil erosion, reduce water pollution, and conserve biodiversity.
In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press, 2006) Michael Pollan attributes the shift from productive farming to unproductive farming to the 1909 invention of chemical fertilizer (specifically synthetic nitrogen).
Prior to the use of synthetic nitrogen, farming used energy from the sun to produce food, consuming half of the energy it produced–an efficient and sustainable way to feed people.
Synthetic nitrogen made farming in-efficient because the cost of fossil fuel and electricity to make it are enormous. The inefficiency was acceptable and desirable at the time; without it, population growth would have stagnated. It is estimated that 40 percent of today’s population would not be alive without fertilizer.
This is because nitrogen is the limiting element to create human life. The amount of usable nitrogen on Earth was limited by the amount of nitrogen that bacteria (on the roots of legumes) and lightning could fix.
In 1920 the inventor of synthetic nitrogen, Fritz Haber, was awarded the Nobel Prize for “improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind.” The current food culture is set up for the next Nobel Prize-winning innovation.
The foundation of this supportive culture is customer demand for organics, growing at a rate of 20 to 25 percent per year. Production is not able to keep up with demand. As a result, governments are supporting farmers, consumers, and researchers. Global competition and cooperation is fostering more rapid progress.
So, Which Comes First?
Organic. Sustainable, organic farming will have the most significant impact to improve global food production. However, a key success factor for an organic farm is being part of the local market. To serve a local market well, farmers must grow and raise a diverse spectrum of products, in a manner that mimics nature and uses perennial species.
The best of all options? Locally grown organics, of course.