BuzzFeed News leads readers astray with latest attempt at environmental virtue signaling

September 6, 2022

By Tim Worstall

BuzzFeed News manages to make two mistakes here about food and the environment.

One is the idea that if we each eat one more heritage tomato, then the world will be saved. No, it’s not going to work out like that. Individual actions make a difference at the margin, true, but it is at the margin only. Changing how we eat as individuals makes very little difference to the world as a whole – unless we’re trying to count the smug points we gain by doing so.

So this isn’t all that useful as a headline nor even an idea: “How To Choose Climate-Friendly Foods If You Care About The Environment.”

What is of far greater concern is the repetition of untruths about food and the environment. This. for example, simply is not true:

“Eat local. Food from farmers markets and local growers will likely contain fewer pesticides, and has traveled a shorter distance before you buy it. All of this lowers an item’s carbon load.”

There’s nothing at all that says that local food will be grown in some more organic manner, with fewer pesticides. It’s also true that the necessarily greater use of land that organic farming requires could increase carbon emissions – and certainly increases land use.

But this goes further. Near all the transport emissions from food come from you, in your car, bringing it back from the store. Because that part of the journey usually carries only a few pounds of food – the truck that brought it in from wherever was carrying 30 or 40 tons at a time.

It gets worse than that. Total emissions from food depend on the climate where it is grown. It’s entirely possible to grow a pineapple in North Dakota – but it will cost a great deal in energy. Growing that same fruit in the tropics, then shipping it, has far fewer emissions overall. There’s actually one study out there insisting that lamb from New Zealand eaten in Wales has lower total emissions than Wales lamb eaten in Wales – even after the 11,000 miles of shipping. And it’s definitely true that growing garlic in Gilroy (the “Garlic Capital of the World”), California, has lower emissions than trying to use locally grown in Montana – yes, even after the transport emissions.

BuzzFeed News is supposed to be the part of BuzzFeed that does the serious stuff. Leave the fluff and clickbait to BuzzFeed itself; its News operation is there to try to win Pulitzers. Even so, they’re – the News site alone – within the top 100 news and media sites in the U.S. They gain some 18 million monthly visits as a result. They’re part of setting the agenda.

That trying to be serious – which is what the News part of BuzzFeed News is supposedly trying to do – does in fact mean being serious. Getting facts right and so on. Eating local might be all sorts of things but it’s not a way of reducing the carbon emissions of what we eat. Simply because transport of food is such a vanishingly small part of the food system’s emissions that it is often the stuff from further way that is lower in those planet burning gases. Which means, if writing about “Climate-Friendly foods,” saying so.


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