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Why Buying Local and Organic Won't Always Affect Our Environmental Footprint


By Natalie Hase

Whether we like it or not, most of us are strongly bound to the agricultural sector, and we feel the responsibility to make the right choice from an environmental perspective. Nevertheless, it can be confusing standing in the supermarket in front of a sea of products, and consumers immediately go for the “greener choice," that being local or organic.

We’ve gotten better at knowing where our food comes from – but can we claim the same for the environmental impact of our food choices?

According to Elin Röös, researcher at the Swedish University of Agriculture and co-author of the report “Organic production and climate change,” greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change mainly derive during the agricultural production phase, rather than by transportation of the products.

Natural processes are the main drivers to the sources of these emissions. Therefore, choosing organic and local over conventional products will have little effect on decreasing the main greenhouse gas emissions coming from the food that we eat.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are three prime factors contributing to global warming in agricultural production: methane from cattle or more precisely enteric fermentation; the aggressive greenhouse gas known as nitrous oxide derived from the ground; and carbon dioxide from the cultivation of organic soils.

In Sweden, these emissions account for 75 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector. The latter is also responsible for one-third of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

But there are, in fact, other reasons to justify the choice to purchase local or organic products.

“Most often, the choice of buying local products will at first hand be of economic importance to the region, as you will support the local economy, rather than decrease emissions,” says Elin Röös. The main issue with local products is that there is no actual regulated definition of what is “local." There are no rules of where the product must come from, or how far it must be transported.

As important as it is to differentiate between organic and local products, the two concepts may often overlap.

Agneta Krogstorp is the owner of the Krogstorp Farm, a Swedish local producer of rapeseed oil. Although not a certified organic farmer, Agneta Krogstorp believes that there is often a trend among local producers to care about the surrounding environment and to prefer highly valued and sincere production methods.

“Every farmer should aim at practicing organic methods in their production, whenever possible,” says Krogstorp.

Choosing organic products is a symbol that national, and international, rules and standards were met during the production phase.

The FAO defines organic agriculture as a system, which “considers environmental and social impacts by eliminating the use of synthetic inputs,” and addresses issues such as the harmful use of pesticides and over-fertilization.

Looking beyond local and organic products, the environmental impact of food includes not only the types of products that we consume but also the vast quantities that we ingest. Changing our habits and the way we eat could therefore be a much more sustainable solution.

“The production of meat and dairy products contributes to a lot more greenhouse gas emissions than crop production does,” says Elin Röös.

“The most important decision we can make to lessen our environmental impact through food, is to diminish our consumption of dairy products and meat,” she adds.

Image credit: Sarah Gilbert, Flickr

Natalie Hase is a BSc Student at Royal Institute of Technology.

This story is part of Student Reporter's coverage on "Organic Solutions in Global Food Affairs". You can read more from the series on studentreporter.org.

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