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Local food is trendy, but is it eco-friendly?

Which is better for the environment and the economy — a tomato grown nearby or one from the supermarket?

Local food, hip among urbanites and touted at the White House, is stirring more debate as new research suggests its benefits have been oversold.

“I like the food,” says Joseph Conklin, a customer at the Local Market, a store in Falls Church, Va., that sells products made within 100 miles. He says he wants to support local businesses: “You get a better feeling shopping here” than at a national chain.

farmers_marketSuch stores are popping up nationwide, and more farmers markets are open year-round. First lady Michelle Obama has added to momentum with her well-publicized backyard garden.

Two new books, however, say local food isn’t necessarily more eco-friendly, even though it travels fewer miles. They cite research showing long-distance transportation accounts for only about 4% of the greenhouse gas emissions in food production; most occur at the farm itself through the use of tractors and other equipment and materials.

So if you want to buy local food for its freshness or to support area farmers, fine, but don’t do it to save the planet, conclude researchers from the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group. Their two-year study, “Cooler Smarter,” was published this spring.

by Wendy Koch

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