The modern grocery basket is a true symbol of human innovation. Its contents span continents, offering a taste of all things weird and wonderful, at a convenient arm’s reach for the avid shopper. For many, it symbolizes feats of industry and an ostensible abundance of choice. Yet for the conscientious consumer, filling this grocery basket can be an agonizing task – as we sift through terms like natural, organic, and sustainable and try to decide which product really means it, we each develop our own rules for being “good” shoppers. We place our faith in labels like fair trade and USDA organic, and strive to buy food that is local, whether that takes the form of commitment to food grown in one’s state or within a radius of 100 miles.
Growing up on a family farm, I was lucky enough to have local food available to me every summer. Readers may be picturing a Kingsolverian Eden, or perhaps a blog photo of an influencer sitting serenely amidst sunflowers. The reality is, of course, far less glamorous: days could be spent getting intimately acquainted with corn borer worms, searching amidst dozens of boxes for one rotten tomato that you can smell but can’t find, or explaining to the inquiring customer that everything really is grown right here, pointing outside to the cornstalks and pantomiming the passage of time with the explanation of when peaches will be ready. Life at food mile 0 was not perfect, but it was the embodiment of local.
I now work at Equal Exchange, importing produce from over 2,000 miles away, a distance that might shock the steadfast local eater. I have had to rethink the meaning and importance of what makes food “good,” and confront the myths that have surrounded the locavore movement as it has become more popular. There are few laws that regulate “local”: the 2008 Farm Bill sets the limit to local at 400 miles from a product’s destination, while the Food Safety Modernization act sets a stricter limit of 275 miles. The original locavore movement is still stricter; its founders originally set local to 100 miles. With no official label, non-local products may still tempt shoppers with pastoral scenery and artistic hints that their products are from nearby.
Bananas are not local. They do not come from within 275 miles of my family’s farm. In fact, they come from about ten times that distance. However, this does not mean that they do not align with locavore values. To navigate the mysteries of the modern food system, we may better promote the vision and values of the locavore movement by confronting the theories that have upheld it.
Eating locally, ideally, keeps money flowing through a community, in turn ensuring that those in the community continue to benefit from it. However, not all companies that are geographically close to a shopper are small farms, nor are they guaranteed to continue to cycle profit through a community. Some grocery stores or food companies may be owned by a holding company, and obligated to remit money back to their parent company. Others may have reached such a massive scale that they are focused on national and international growth, sacrificing sustainable practices along the way.
Shopping to meet this tenet of the locavore ethos is never simple, but taking a follow-the-money approach enables shoppers to support products that share their values. And this is where bananas come in. Buying EE bananas from a local food co-op not only keeps money cycling through your community, but also ensures that communities of farmers in Ecuador and Peru are receiving a fair price for their products, which then keeps money flowing through their communities, as well. In a way, eating fair trade bananas gives you a local eater two-for-one, and you support both your community and the cooperative community of farmers that grew the fruit. It may not have been grown physically close to your co-op, but it creates an interconnected network of solidarity between communities.
According to Mike Berners-Lee, a professor at the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University, bananas are truly commendable for their small carbon footprint, weighing in at 80 grams CO2e (160g/lb) per fruit when you factor in its travel time and the agricultural processes behind it. This number may be even lower in 2020, as many maritime organizations have committed to lowering fuel emissions, committing to fuels and vessels that are safer for the environment.
Compare this 80 grams per banana with 3.3 kilograms CO2e for a pound of strawberries (imported by plane or greenhouse-grown out of season will have the same sized footprint). Local meat would be still higher, at about 19 kilograms CO2e per pound.
Luckily for banana lovers, many fruits and vegetables have particularly low footprints because they are eaten raw, dodging the steep toll that a quick fricassee may have on the net emissions of the fruit. Sustainability pundits estimate that for cooked products, transport weighs in at 6-7% of total emissions, while cooking is closer to 11%, and production is an astonishing 81% (W. Wakeland et al 2012: 225). It is in production that bananas, particularly sustainably-grown bananas, gain their edge. They are already in a natural greenhouse, taking advantage of the heat and humidity of their local environment, unlike a local year-round greenhouse which creates emissions by trying to simulate bananas’ natural environment.
Being a sustainable locavore requires, like many things, that you ask questions of your food. The following questions may not always lead you to purchase a local product, but they will enable you to think critically about the items in your grocery basket and choose items that are socially and environmentally valuable.
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Berners-Lee, M. 2011. How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Vancouver: Greystone Books.
National Agricultural Library. Mailboxes, Mom and Pop Stands, and Markets: Local Foods Then and Now. US Department of Agriculture. Web. https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/ipd/localfoods/exhibits/show/food-locality/local-distance
Pollan, M. 2001. Naturally. The New York Times. https://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/naturally/
Wakeland, W., S. Chollette, and K. Venkat. 2012. Food Transportation Issues and Reducing the Carbon Footprint. In J.I. Boye and Y. Arcand (eds.), Green Technologies in Food Production and Processing, 211 Food Engineering Series. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, LLC.