What is “Local” Food?

Did you know (as of 2009)?

  • Hawaii imports 90% of its food.4
  • In 1866, 1,186 varieties of fruits and vegetables were produced in California. Today, California’s farms produce only 350 commercial crops.5
  • Communities reap more economic benefits from the presence of small farms than they do from large ones. Studies have shown that small farms re-invest more money into local economies by purchasing feed, seed and other materials from local businesses,6 whereas large farms often order in bulk from distant companies. Large factory livestock farms also degrade local property values because of the intense odors they emit and other environmental problems they cause.7
  • A typical carrot has to travel 1,838 miles to reach your dinner table.8
  • In the U.S., a wheat farmer can expect to receive about six cents of each dollar spent on a loaf of bread—approximately the cost of the wrapping.9
  • Farmers’ markets enable farmers to keep 80 to 90 cents of each dollar spent by the consumer.10
  • About 1/3 of all U.S. farms are located within metropolitan areas, comprising 18% of total U.S. farmland.11

What exactly is local food?
Talk of local food is everywhere. But what does it mean? How local is local? Local is shorthand for an idea that doesn’t have a firm definition. Unlike organic standards, which entail specific legal definitions, inspection processes, and labels, local means different things to different people, depending on where they live, how long their growing season is, and what products they are looking for.

Practically speaking, local food production can be thought of in concentric circles that start with growing food at home. The next ring out might be food grown in our immediate community – then state, region, and country. For some parts of the year or for some products that thrive in the local climate, it may be possible to buy closer to home. At other times, or for less common products, an expanded reach may be required.

People who value local as their primary food criterion are sometimes referred to as locavores. The term “locavore” was coined by Jessica Prentice from the San Francisco Bay Area for World Environment Day 2005 to describe and promote the practice of eating a diet consisting of food harvested from within an area most commonly bound by a 100 mile radius. With such excitement and momentum building in the local food movement, the New Oxford American Dictionary chose locavore as its word of the year in 2007.

One easy way to start buying local is to choose one product to focus on. Vegetables are often a good place to start. Produce also offers a good introduction to eating seasonally—an excellent way to learn about local agriculture. Then, try seeking out sources for local meat or dairy. Check out the Shop Sustainable section for more on how to make buying local fun and easy. Search the Eat Well guide to start shopping. With a pantry and fridge full of beautiful, local foods, you may want to start experimenting in the kitchen. For recipes, cookbook reviews, tips, and other culinary tidbits, visit Sustainable Kitchen.

While local is certainly a flexible term, the basic concept is simple: local foods are produced as close to home as possible. Buying local supports a more sustainable food system because true sustainability goes beyond the methods used in food production to include every step that brings food from farm to plate.

Local vs. sustainable
Sustainable agriculture involves food production methods that are healthy, do not harm the environment, respect workers, are humane to animals, provide fair wages to farmers, and support farming communities. Sustainability includes buying food as locally as possible. Buying local food does not guarantee that it is sustainably produced. Pesticides, chemical fertilizers, factory farming, hormone use, and non-therapeutic use of antibiotics can all be involved in local food production, so it’s important to make sure that the local food you buy is from farmers or gardeners using sustainable methods.

When considering the sustainability of a product there are a lot of questions to ask, so if a store or producer is advertising that their food was raised locally, take the time to ask a few questions like: “Do you know how these animals were raised?” or “Do you know the name and location of the farm where this product was grown?”

Local vs. global
At its roots sustainable farming benefits the local community and local economy while supporting the environment by enriching the soil, protecting air and water quality, and minimizing energy consumption. Industrial food production is entirely dependent on fossil fuels, which, when refined and burned, create greenhouse gases that are significant contributors to climate change. The biggest part of fossil fuel use in industrial farming is not transporting food or fueling machinery; it’s chemicals. As much as forty percent of the energy used in the food system goes towards the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.1

By adding transportation, processing and packaging to the food system equation, the fossil fuel and energy use of our current food system puts tremendous stress on the environment. For example, between production and transportation, growing 10% more produce for local consumption in Iowa would result in an annual savings ranging from 280,000 to 346,000 gallons of fuel, and an annual reduction in CO2 emissions ranging from 6.7 to 7.9 million pounds.2

Food processors also use a large amount of paper and plastic packaging to keep fresh food from spoiling as it is transported and stored for long periods of time. This packaging is difficult or impossible to reuse or recycle. In addition, industrial farms are a major source of air and water pollution.

Small, local farms are run by farmers who live on their land and work hard to preserve it. They protect open spaces by keeping land in agricultural use and preserve natural habitats by maintaining forest and wetlands. By being good stewards of the land, seeking out local markets, minimizing packaging, and harvesting food only when it is ready to consume, farmers can significantly reduce their environmental impact. In fact, studies show that sustainable agricultural practices can actually increase food production by up to 79% while at the same time actively reducing the effects of farming on climate change through carbon sequestration.3

Sources

  1. Heller, Martin C., and Gregory A. Keoleian. “Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System.” Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, 2000: 42.
  2. Leopold Center. “Food Facts: Results from Marketing and Food Systems Research.” Iowa State University. March, 2008. p.11 (accessed online 8/16/08)
  3. 3 LaSalle, Tim, Hepperly, Paul, and Diop, Amadou. “The Organic Green Revolution.” Rodale Institute. p3(accessed online 1/4/09).
  4. Meter, Ken. “A brief history of the ‘Finding food in farm country’ studies.” Crossroads Resource Center. September, 2005. p2 (accessed online 8/17/08).
  5. Meter, Ken. “Finding Food in California: local gains, systemic losses.” Crossroads Resource Center. January, 2005. p.8 (accessed online 8/17/08).
  6. Flore, Jan L., Carol J. Hodne, Willis Goudy, David Osterberg, James Klienbenstein, Kendall M. Thu, and Shannon P. Marquez, “Social and Community Impacts,” in Iowa Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations Air Quality Study: Final Report. Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, University of Iowa, 2003: 148.
  7. Herriges, Joseph A., Silvia Secchi, and Bruce A. Babcock. “Living with Hogs in Iowa: The Impact of Livestock Facilities on Rural Residential Property Values.” Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University. Ames, Iowa, 2003.
  8. Pirog, Rich, and Andrew Benjamin. “Checking the Food Odometer: Comparing Food Miles for Local Versus Conventional Produce Sales in Iowa Institutions.” Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, July 2003.
  9. Pretty, Jules. “Some Benefits and Drawbacks of Local Food Systems.” Briefing Note for TVU/Sustain AgriFood Network, November 2, 2001.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Environmental Protection Agency. “Ag 101, Land Use Overview.” EPA. January 2004.
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