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The Pros (and Cons) of Localized Eating

One of the questions that I get all the time is, “Hey Fred, why do you never talk about the benefits of eating local foods? And how come you eat so much imported fruit?”

At least a few times per week I receive questions in regards to local food and imported produce.

A lot of people feel that we should not eat any imported foods at all, and instead only eat what can be found in the area where you personally live. One of the big red flags that are brought up by these “locavores” is imported produce.

Obviously, bananas and mangoes don’t grow too far outside of the tropics, so doesn’t that mean that only those living in tropical climates should eat these foods, or include them with any significance in the diet?

First of all, the idea of eating only local food is not new. Many Macrobiotic Diet promoters promoted it decades ago, some of who strictly forbade eating imported and exotic food unless it was brown rice, which they considered the ideal food.

The locavore movement has grown quite a bit since, and has spawned all sorts of trends and inspired many people to be more conscious about where their food comes from.

A few years ago, there was even a man who tried to live for an extended period of time on foods that grew in a 100-mile radius from where he lived in the Northwest. He called his diet the “100-Mile Diet.”

The biggest reason people give for eating only local foods is the environment and all of the fuel used in the transportation of bringing exotic foods to your local grocery store, and eventually your home.

However, some recent studies show that this concept is quite flawed. Many people imagine that fossil fuel use in the food business mainly comes from transportation, but in reality it’s only 4 to 15% of the total energy used to produce the food.
Most of the fossil fuels and energy are actually burned during the production and storage of food, not its transportation!

Transportation in ships and trucks can be extremely efficient, to the point that people might actually burn more fuel by driving to buy their groceries than the total fuel that was burned in bringing the produce to the store in the first place.

There was even a study a few years ago that showed that it was more ecological to eat imported apples from New Zealand during the spring, when North American apples are not in season, rather than buying local apples that have been stored in giant refrigerated warehouses, stored from last year’s crop.

Where do you think all of those apples you see any time of the year in supermarkets in northern climates come from? They keep them in giant storage facilities to prevent them from spoiling, even if they’re local.

Far more important than where your food is coming from is the type of food you’re eating in the first place. Imported mangos are much more ecological (and healthful) than local grass fed beef.

Buying local food in season does make sense and is a great way to support your local communities and enjoy fresher foods (not including last year’s apples). But having a variety of foods, including certain imported foods, may even make more sense for your health and wellbeing.

Another reason that people give for only eating local food is the support that it provides for local farmers.

An interesting fact is that fruits and vegetables are one of the few products that less-affluent countries across the world can export. If everybody in the West stopped buying imported bananas and mangoes, it may not actually be the most beneficial thing for the world as a whole.

All of these countries would simply switch from growing bananas, mangos, and papaya to growing unhealthy products that are next in demand, like coffee, palm oil or beef.

Eventually, everybody would quit buying all of these fresh fruits and vegetables, the price and availability for these items would rise, and there would be cheaper and more readily available cheeseburgers, cups of coffee, and cooking grease. Is that really what the world needs?

I’d rather support poor countries growing fruit!

So, I’ll continue to support the farmers in my local area whenever I can (mostly in the summertime) as well as supporting farmers across the world for the rest of the year.

I buy a lot of fruit both in-season and locally, but I also buy imported tropical fruits that may not be available where I live in Canada. Many of these fruits are not organic, and I personally think that it’s not such a big deal and continue to eat them.

In the grand scheme of things, you may be better off eating a wider variety of foods and nutrients instead of limiting yourself to eating only the purest and “perfect” foods you can always find.

One thing to keep in mind as well is that it’s not likely you’ll find produce that is totally “clean”, unless you grew it yourself. And even so, there’s still pesticide and radioactive fallout residues in our air, water, and soils from decades ago. Even organic produce can have pesticides on it (and generally does), just “organic” insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides.

Fruits and vegetables, whether they are organic or not, are low on the food chain and are healthier than anything else you could eat, organic or not. In other words, a commercially grown banana is far better for you than organic cheddar cheese.

In the kind of world where we live today, it really doesn’t make sense to try piously to eliminate certain foods from your diet just because they are not locally grown.

It still does make sense to and is great to grow as much of your own food as possible, and to support your local farmers whenever you can, too.

But someone living in a cold climate like Norway will have to rely on more imported foods to eat a healthy diet than say someone living in southern/central California, where the local produce and farmer’s markets are abundant year-round. This also happens to be where most locavores reside and spread the local-gospel through non-local means, like the Internet and printed books…

People can eat a wide variety of diets, but people also tend to be healthiest when following certain parameters of healthful eating. This includes eating plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, and procuring those wherever you are in the world and being the healthiest being you can be is more powerful than spending all day trying to convince yourself that you’re really content with the boiled local cabbage and dried up potatoes you’ve been trying to live on the last 3 months in Ohio in February.

Do what it takes to be the best version of you possible, even if that includes eating some mangos shipped in from halfway across the world!

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.