“Think global, act local” has functioned as a political imperative in recent decades. The idea behind the slogan was simple: global challenges are approached from municipal or regional perspectives, based on attitudes that print a change at home, in our daily lives. It is something that has permeated especially in the environmental discourse, and that has been translated into an impulse of “proximity” products.
That is, eat “local” for the sake of “global.” Is it an effective idea?
Not much. This great article by Hannah Ritchie is illustrated in Our World in Data. Taking this study on the ecological footprint of more than 38,000 farms around the world as a reference, it comes to a resounding conclusion: it is preferable to set aside red meat to consume them “locally”. Better a nut transported from Madagascar than a steak produced in the town next door.
Why? The work computes the emissions attributable to each link in the production chain, from cultivation to fertilizers, through processing, packaging or sell in the supermarket. In general, transport has a marginal impact on the total volume of emissions of each product, below 1%. Extensive land use and the emission of gases such as methane have a more relevant role.
Responsible. Thus, no matter how much we banished the transport of the equation, beef production would continue to have an environmental footprint far superior to the rest of the food. Also the bovine. The explanation is simple: the conversion of forests or natural spaces into grassland areas or dedicated to the cultivation of feed, the main uses of the Earth, has a very high ecological impact. 27% of the planet’s surface is dedicated to it.
To add to the emission of natural methane to ruminants, a factor that substantially reduces the footprint of other meat products, such as poultry or swine. At the other end of the table, fruit trees or cereal crops have an impact between 15 and 50 times lower. In this reduction, transport is hardly important.
Contrasts. The idea of ”local vs. imported” is not even accurate in vegetable products. Other studies have indicated how the Nordic countries can reduce their environmental footprint more efficiently by consuming Spanish tomatoes and lettuces during the winter, even if they are produced thousands of kilometers away, rather than vegetables produced in local, high-emission greenhouses.
Uneven. It is something that WHO and environmental organizations have been warning for some time: reducing our global consumption of meat is recommended, especially beef and cattle. Developed countries have the most responsibility here. The average Spanish consumes around 46 kilos of meat a year, far from the 100 kilos attributable to the Australian, but also from the 5 kilos of the Indian.
Trend. Two trends operate in the opposite way: on the one hand, meat consumption continues to rise worldwide; on the other, veganism and vegetarianism have gained numerous adherents. They already represent around 5% or 6% in countries like the United States, very carnivorous, or Israel. The reasons are both ideological and structural changes deeply rooted in the long term (we are increasingly urban, our relationship with animals has changed).
If you want to reduce the environmental footprint of your dish, the most effective way is that: get away from red meat. Not so much the “local” product.