There are many problems with the agricultural system. For example, the production and distribution of food are responsible for producing many greenhouse gas emissions, leading to climate change. Advocates of locally produced food assert that one way to lower our use of fossil fuels and thus climate change is to become locavores.
Locavores consume a diet that almost exclusively consists of locally grown or produced foods. Of course, fossil fuel usage is not the only problem with our agricultural system; just as climate change is not the only reason to support local food eating. There are many positive aspects as well as criticisms of this alternative food distribution system.
It is worth learning more about locally-sourced foods to see their role in the food system. Tamzin Pinkerton and Bob Hopkins wrote Local Food—How To Make It Happen in Your Community, and they provide statistics on the growing popularity of eating locally grown food. For example, a study found that one in six Americans stated that they went out of their way to buy local food as much as possible.
Local food sources include direct sales from farmers to consumers, such as roadside stands, U-pick, community-supported agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets, and farm to school programs. According to the US Department of Agriculture Census, 42% of school districts surveyed have a farm to school program, including over 42,500 schools.
Alice Waters is the author of the Edible Schoolyard—A Universal Idea. Waters provided a little history of children gardening in their schoolyards and included a photo of students working in a school garden in New York City in the early 1900s.
Gardening is as local as it gets. According to the US Census Bureau, 25% of households grow some of their own produce. Gardening has the potential of becoming a major source of food. For example, Pinkerton and Hopkins reported that gardeners in Havana, Cuba produce more than 90% of the city’s fruits and vegetables. There are several options for those who don’t have any land available for gardening. They could participate in community gardening. Also, a new approach is to garden on a neighbors’ land for a percentage of the produce.
A significant drawback to eating locally is that it is highly restrictive in food choices. Because of winter weather, very few regions can provide food during the whole year. However, consumers are used to getting a variety of globally sourced products and consuming foods that are not in season.
Besides providing limited choices, eating locally is frequently more expensive than standard supermarket fare. Michael Pollan, author and professor of Science and Environmental Journalism, wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine. He stated that a primary explanation of why local food is so expensive is that the federal government’s farm bills have subsidized corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. Fresh produce has not been subsidized. He added that “the system is rigged to make the most unhealthful calories in the marketplace the only ones the poor can afford.”
Subsidies were also discussed in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—A Year of Food Life by biologist Barbara Kingsolver. These include: “the portion of agricultural fuel use that is paid for with our taxes ($22 billion), direct Farm Bill subsidies for corn and wheat ($3 billion), and treatment of food-related illnesses ($10 billion).
Besides the federal government subsidizing only certain agricultural practices, government agencies have enacted regulations restricting farming practices for small, local farmers and increasing their expenses.
In Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, Joel Salatin wrote about this. He stated that processing facilities are illegal in agriculturally zoned areas because this procedure is not considered farming as it is considered to be industrial or commercial in nature. In the past, farmers slaughtered their own chickens or other livestock on site, which is cheaper than sending them to a slaughterhouse.
There are other political difficulties in establishing local food distribution. Farmers who locally sell their products have to compete with the global agricultural system. Farmer and author Ben Hewitt wrote The Town That Food Saved—How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food. He stated that the US industrial food system is annually worth nearly $1 trillion. Additionally, the mainstream agricultural sector has more resources and power than local growers.
As well as political difficulties, there are sociological obstacles such as the time constraints of adding special trips to farmer’s markets, local food coops, etc. People work long hours, take care of their families, and prefer one-stop shopping.
Another sociological issue of local food is the conservative beliefs of some of its adherents. For example, Salatin, a leader in the local food movement, espouses some extremely right-wing views. He stated that minimum wage and child labor laws should be abolished, social security should be phased out, the government should get out of health care [this would eliminate Medicare and Medicaid], and the public school system should be shut down, privatized, and replaced with vouchers for private schools.
Still, another sociological analysis is that locally sourced food does not necessarily entail fair and decent treatment of farmworkers. Professor Margaret Gray, Ph.D. reports on this in Labor and the Locavore-The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic. Gray focused on the Hudson Valley agricultural region, which supplies New York restaurants and farmers’ markets, as a microcosm of national working conditions. Gray found: meager wages, long hours of difficult manual work, lack .of overtime pay, run-down housing, lack of respect … [field work and packing] requires bending and stretching, long hours on one’s feet, repetitive motions, wielding sharp tools, carrying heavy loads, and working in extremes of heat, wet, and cold. … the type of benefits guaranteed to other kinds of workers, such as sick and vacation days, health insurance, and retirement funds, were unheard of. … they lacked the basic legal safeguards that most American workers enjoy, including overtime pay, a right to a day of rest, and collective bargaining protections.
Gray added that “Food writers are fond of the notion that local farms play a role in creating community, but that communitarianism clearly does not extend to the laborers. … Any code of ethical eating that ignores this perpetuation of injustice is highly selective, if not morally hollow. A comprehensive food ethic would privilege individual human workers as much as animals and the environment.”
Besides improving the social conditions of farmworkers, some innovations to localism could be initiated to make it more complete in practice. For example, people could grow greens in their own homes.
Sprouts can be grown in jars on a small shelf section, and microgreens can be grown in a tray that doesn’t take up much room. These greens are incredibly healthy and nutritious.
Even in urban areas, insects could be raised as they can be grown in a small space, don’t require many resources, are extremely nutritious, and can be raised with a low amount of fossil fuels.
Another alternative practice that local farmers and gardeners should adopt is to utilize local native species. Indigenous peoples are good sources for knowledge about using edible natives. Many species that are considered weeds are highly healthy and nutritious. Research should be initiated to learn how these local weeds could be grown as crops. Lou Bendrick, in Eat Where You Live—How to Find and Enjoy Local and Sustainable Food No Matter Where You Live, points out the advantage of growing plants that grew locally before European settlement. These plants are adapted to local climate, rainfall, soil and require less maintenance.
Growing crops and livestock is at the beginning of the food cycle, and dealing with human wastes is at the end of the cycle. Instead of polluting the environment, these wastes should be handled locally and returned to the soil as fertilizer. In The Town That Food Saved Hewitt stated that in a functioning food system, the waste of one producer becomes the resource of another.
Even though there are many negative aspects of eating locally, there are also many positive characteristics. Locavores state that local food-sourcing use fewer fossil fuels because of shorter transportation miles, thus contributing less greenhouse gas emissions. Various chapters in The Local Food Movement edited by Amy Francis dealt with this subject. Rich Pirog, from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, found that in the US, food traveled an average of 1,500 miles from farm to consumer.
He also reported that the conventional food distribution system used 4 to 17 times more fuel and emitted 5 to 17 times more carbon dioxide than food sold locally. Another chapter in the book reported that FoodShare found that a year of consuming local rather than supermarket foods would save half a tonne of greenhouse gas emissions per household.
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver wrote about eating a diet based on local foods: “In addition to direct transport, other fuel-thirsty steps include processing … packaging, warehousing, and refrigeration.” Even marketing uses natural resources and fossil fuels. For example, consider all the trees and fossil fuels needed to print advertisements.
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees that growing locally lowers fossil fuel use. Journalists Alisa Smith and J. B. Mackinnon are the authors of Plenty—Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet. They report that “the Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit of Lincoln University in New Zealand studied the total amount of energy used to bring apples, onions, dairy products, and sheep’s meat to market in Britain versus the same products shipped 11,000 miles from New Zealand.
The researchers found that owing to the heavy energy consumption of industrial farming in the UK, it was more efficient to maintain the $330 million trade from New Zealand than to have the British raise these products on their own.”
Another advantage of local food sourcing is that farmers receive a larger proportion of food price. In 2019, the US Department of Agriculture reported that for each dollar that Americans spent on food, US farmers and ranchers earned only 14.6 cents. The remaining 85.4 cents include processing, wholesaling, distribution, marketing, and retailing.
Also, the money made from local sales stays in the community instead of going to the headquarters of national supermarkets. A study from Food4All found that for every dollar spent on local foods, 76 cents remains in the community. As well as contributing to local communities, locally grown food can be more nutritious than what is sold in supermarkets. Dr. Corilee Watters is a professor of nutrition. She stated that produce sold in supermarkets is bred for higher yields and that research indicates higher-yielding varieties can be lower in nutrients. She added that another issue is that produce is harvested before it is ripe. However, this procedure lowers vitamin C content.
Also, supermarket produce loses nutrients during transport and the time spent on store shelves. In the US, fruits and vegetables may spend up to five days in transit following harvest. Vitamin C degrades rapidly after harvest, and this degradation continues during storage, according to Dr. Diane Barrett, a food chemist at the University of California [UC] Davis. She stated that green beans kept refrigerated for seven days after harvest lost 77% of their vitamin C. According to a 2005 study from Penn State University, spinach can lose 90% of its vitamin C content within 24 hours after harvest. This study also found that spinach kept refrigerated for eight days lost around 50% of its folate.
Besides being more nutritious, local foods are less likely to pose health risks due to contamination. Professor Jasia Steinmetz, Ph.D. is a registered dietician and nutritionist and author of Eat Local—Simple Steps to Enjoy Real, Healthy & Affordable Food. She wrote that eating locally is safer for consumers. She stated: “Food that goes through multiple handlers also has more opportunities for contamination. Local food may be safer for several reasons: fewer people handle the food; the farmer’s reputation is directly dependent on his customer’s health, and the food is usually sold as a whole, so there is less entry for contaminants.”
Another advantage of consuming food from local sources is that it could lower the damage that the global food system causes to people and the environment. Many workers working in exported crops are paid extremely inadequate wages, have deplorable working conditions, and are exposed to toxic chemicals.
Additionally, native ecosystems are destroyed to pave the way for exports. This frequently leads to deforestation, which contributes to climate change. Also, when agricultural systems are exporting food, they are frequently not producing enough for the local population.
Thus, there are many things to consider when evaluating the value of locally sourced foods. For example, farmers may profit by earning a higher proportion of the money spent on food.
Consumers could benefit by consuming more foods that are healthy and nutritious. Furthermore, the global environment would benefit. For instance, more forests might survive as fewer would have to undergo deforestation to grow crops for foreign export. This might even lead to slowing down climate change.