The list of reasons why I aim to eat as locally as possible keeps growing all the time, but some of my favorites include: it makes me feel more connected to nature and the seasons; it means that I eat more whole, non-processed food that is therefore healthier; and it is a great way to build and support our communities.
In addition to the psychological and health benefits that come from eating a local diet, it is also much more environmentally friendly in some very important ways. There are many, but I’ll focus on two here.
It reduces our carbon footprint.
The traditional Western diet is a fossil fuel hog. We use synthetic, petroleum-based fertilizers to feed our crops, we sow and harvest those plants with huge, energy-intensive machines, and to top it all off, the food is then shipped all around the world (using fossil fuels in planes, trains, and automobiles) for processing, packaging, and finally traveling to your location. Additionally, the very process of tilling the soil releases huge amounts of carbon into the air. In fact, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other part of our economy — somewhere between 19 and 37% of carbon emissions depending on what study you look at. What’s sick, and a true indication of how unsustainable this system is, is that it now takes 10 calories of carbon-based fossil fuel energy to make ONE calorie of food that you’ll find in a traditional supermarket. As Michael Pollan put it in his letter to the president published in The New York Times (2008), “When we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases”.
Eating local changes a lot of this. Many local farmers are smaller-scale (less energy intensive) and use methods that reduce their dependence on excessive fossil fuel inputs and inappropriate tilling methods (farmers love to talk about their farms — ask about their methods if you’re concerned). Also, local food cuts out the midway travel-thon that most food goes through — food is either going directly from farmer to consumer, or processed at a local facility before being sold. There are not vegetables grown in California that are shipped to China for processing and packaging that are then shipped back to the Eastern United States for consumption (yes, this happens).
Anything that we can do to limit our carbon footprint is ultimately good for ourselves and other animals, including orangutans, because we’re taking steps to lessen the deleterious effects that climate change will have on disrupting ecosystems.
LOCAL FOOD DOES NOT CONTAIN PALM OIL
This is the big one for orangutans, and also relates back to the previous point drawing links between industrial agriculture, carbon emissions, and global warming. Huge swaths of rainforest land are cleared to support the industrial agricultural system, primarily for food like soybeans, palm oil, and cattle. Rainforests are storehouses of carbon that is then released into the atmosphere when they are destroyed (and then the food grown there is shipped around the world for processing and traveling to markets further exacerbating the issues at hand).
Forest in Merawang Subdistrict, Bangka County, Bangka Island being cut for palm oil plantation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As serious and life-threatening as global warming is to us and all other animals, there are more obvious casualties happening daily because of the conversion of rainforest to plantation. The battle between palm oil plantations and orangutans is a particularly brutal one.
Orangutans need large areas of land to find enough food to support their large body size. They also are extremely intelligent and form mental maps of where their preferred feeding sites are located. They roam between these sites, knowing at what time of year they must be in certain locations to find the most energy-rich foods.
When someone comes and cuts down the forest where orangutans live it is not easy for them to just pack-up and relocate to a new area of forest — it might be occupied by other orangutans who have already capitalized on all that food, and they haven’t learned where all the feeding locations are outside of their home range. It would be like losing all of your current ways of procuring food — what would you do? How would you find food?
And so, many orangutans continue to hang out in the palm oil plantations where they are then considered nuisance animals by the palm oil companies that then trap, shoot, burn, or leave orangutans to reach any number of horrible ends.
This orangutan chewed off its own arm to escape a trap set in a palm oil plantation. Luckily, it was found and saved before dying. It will likely be re-released into the wild. Photo: Caters. Click on photo to link to article.
What to do?
Some palm oil activists have advocated boycotting palm oil products, but focusing on a boycott of industrialized products can be maddening. Almost half of the processed products you find have some derivative of palm oil.
A few of the thousands of products with palm oil.
Other palm oil activists suggest supporting companies that have signed on to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which aims to “promot[e] the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders.”
The problem with the RSPO is that it is greenwashing. Crops grown in monoculture systems such as palm oil are inherently unsustainable, and it will never be sustainable for people in the United States and Europe to depend on a crop that was grown in Southeast Asia. It has to fly all over the world for processing, packaging, and delivery before it reaches us, creating unnecessary carbon emissions and waste.
Monoculture palm oil plantation. (Photo credit: angela7dreams)
Additionally, the companies that have signed on to the RSPO, while they might be interested in having good PR this way, are still huge corporations with questionable practices happening at every other level of production. And the food is probably not healthy for you.
Instead, let’s embrace diets and lifestyles that are beneficial on all levels — for orangutans, for our local environments (and therefore those abroad), our communities, our health, and to help stop global warming.
The best decision: eat locally from small, sustainably run farms. And grow your own food, too!
Let’s look at the food in my Midwestern United States diet in mid-May.
What is here? Foods grown and processed in Northeastern Ohio including:
- kale & lettuce from my backyard
- milk to make cheese and yogurt
- whole wheat to make bread (shown in front left), crackers, pasta
- butter (that will last for months)
- green onions, scallions, cucumber, shallots, radishes
- lots of asparagus
- grassfed cow cheese and truly free-ranging, grassfed chicken eggs
- millet, cornmeal
And I also depend on things like sauces, berries, other vegetables that I’ve frozen, canned, or dehydrated in other seasons, and wild foraged foods.
What is not here?
- Anything with PALM OIL
- Industrially produced foods
- Monsanto-based products
- Name brand, corporate-owned food
- Heavily processed “food”
- Exotic fruits and vegetables that had to come from other countries
I admit, this is more of a lifestyle change than just a diet change, and it takes time. Especially at this point in time, it requires skills that many of us have lost, planning that we’re not used to doing, and time for processing and preparing our food that has to be reclaimed.
I’m certainly not perfect with this as I still depend on some products that I can’t find locally or don’t know how to replace, and I am still learning skills and how to create a life that affords me the time and space to work with food in a way that I find meaningful. However, we have to start somewhere.
The joys that come from moving to a more local diet make it well worth the effort (REAL, fresh strawberries are back? Hallelujah!), and it provides a sense of power when so many sad, maddening things are happening to our world’s ecosystems and animals. You can know that you are truly taking steps toward making the world a better place, and other people will learn by your example.
If you still want to do more, check out Orangutan Outreach, Slow Food, Millions against Monsanto, watch documentaries like Food, Inc., and sign petitions to stop destructive agricultural practices when you see them pop up.
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Also, be sure to find local farms and farmers’ markets in your area: Local Harvest
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Help others step lightly!