Using Life Cycle Inventory to investigate the environmental benefits and system boundaries of food re-localization in Hawai’i

Clare Gupta, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Tamar Makov, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

There is growing interest in “local food” as an alternative to centralized industrial agriculture, and as a way to reduce food’s extensive environmental impacts in order to foster sustainability. However, the assumption that “local” means “sustainable” may be a “local trap” (Purcell and Brown 2005, Edwards-Jones et al. 2008; Weber and Matthews 2008). This paper responds to a call for research that challenges “unreflexive localism” (DuPuis and Goodman 2005) through a quantitative examination of the environmental impact of re-localization of key food items in the state of Hawai’i.

Hawai’i provides a particularly interesting case study. The amount of agricultural land in the state, long transport distances and local interest make Hawai’i an excellent ‘boundary case study,’ that suggests that if re-localization were to provide viable environmental benefits, Hawai’i would be a particularly likely location.

In our study, we ask the question: How does the placement of system boundaries impact our assessment of re-localization feasibility and impacts? Second, we ask, what is the degree of alignment between the food items that the local population is considering for re-localization and the potential environmental benefits arising from such a shift given existing barriers for production?

To answer these questions, we selected key food items that are currently the focus of re-localization efforts in Hawai’i—beef, dairy and canoe crops (sweet potato, taro and breadfruit). We then used life cycle inventory (LCI) to evaluate the environmental resources required for production of these items to meet current consumption levels. We compared requirements of current production system to those based on various scenarios of “local” Hawaii production defined by different system boundaries (Matthews et al. 2008). Specifically, for “local” production we compared a scenario of re-localization in which the food item was produced in Hawai’i regardless of inputs to a scenario in which we extended the system boundaries of ‘local’ to include first order inputs. We subsequently used this model to assess the environmental burden (using indicators of land, water, fertilizer and energy) of localization of each of the food items, according to our two different system boundaries definitions. We compared these two scenarios in order to determine how the placement of systems boundaries affects assessment of the benefits/costs of re-localization. Finally, we compare each scenario of a localized food item’s environmental feasibility with its environmental benefits/costs in the context of broader social viability.

Our forthcoming results provide empirical evidence regarding a largely unsubstantiated yet growing popular narrative that views local food as more sustainable, or at least as more environmentally friendly. In addition, our results reassert the importance of system boundary placement in general and specifically in food systems. The findings provide importance nuance to the debate over ‘local’ both in Hawai’i and beyond.


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