Is Local Food Really the Best Choice?

I’ve been working on this post for a while. I hope it has some new information and thoughts. I have a lot to say and the post is pretty long, but there are still things I couldn’t fit in. So ask about something if you’re looking for more. Also, I still have a lot to learn about food, so I may be leaving things out and saying things that aren’t supported by a lot of information. A lot of this is just thought.

It’s easy to think a product that’s grown 50 miles from me in my own state automatically makes more sense than something grown a few thousand miles away in a different country, or even continent. However, there are people who would disagree with me and they present many valid and powerful counter-arguments. Here is an example of some of these ideas presented in two articles. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/09/12got_cheap_milk / Local food is mentioned only briefly here. There are really insightful comments if you scroll down and be sure not to miss the second page of the article. http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/11/14/the-inefficiency-of-local-food/ and a video to go along with it http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xqcfip_freakonomics-does-eating-local-hurt-the-environment_lifestyle I’ll try to summarize what I think are the key arguments in these articles and present my thoughts.

Certain foods grown best in only a few places. If everyone tries to grow these “locally,” there are a lot of unnecessary inputs and energy that wouldn’t be needed if they were grown in climates where they naturally fit. The example of eating local lamb in England shows that just because something is from closer to home, does not mean that it’s better for the environment or more sustainable. I don’t think any of us want to support something that’s sucking up extra energy, even if it is local. Here in California we are lucky to have a temperate climate that supports a huge range of crops. While at Chewonki, I heard of someone growing tomatoes hydroponically (in water, without soil) in a greenhouse in the middle of a Maine winter. That product is local, but it may be using more water and energy than I want to support. This is where knowing the plants which grow well in your region and season is important.

The second article reveals some economic inefficiencies of a localized food system. It points out some economic weaknesses of localized agriculture to go along with the idea that certain plants grow best in certain places, each area specializing in a number of crops. I think this part of the article over-simplifies things. There can still be specialization to some extent. I am willing to support something that comes from a little farther, maybe a few hundred miles, if I know it is grown well. I just think small-scale, shorter distance trade makes sense here. This is still a valid point and a weakness in hard-lined locavorism.The article points out that a change to a localized food system would not only damage trade, but  would also require more inputs and more land. That the change would be expensive and drastic is indisputable, but what if the new localized crops are replacing large, conventional farms? And the idea that a localized food system would use more pesticides doesn’t apply if the food is grown unconventionally and without chemical inputs. Obviously, I can’t discount the entire study cited in this article and I believe that it is valid research. It points out another hole in the local food argument. But I also believe there are a variety of different farming techniques that could help smooth the land-use change. 

Localized, small-scale farms could also be seen as less efficient than larger scale operations. But the pollution of these farms  is nothing compared to larger ones. This can’t be ignored because pollution actually makes these farms less economically efficient if we look at natural capital (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_capital). In other words, are large farms really more efficient if they are causing long term damage to the land and environment that will cost a lot of money in the long run? If we think about the future, small farms are more economically sensible and sustainable in their impacts on the environment. In my mind, a large and concentrated food system isn’t the answer, and I am okay with stopping those trends mentioned in the article if it means each community is more self-sustaining.

However, it’s still true that small-scale, localized farming is probably using more inputs per output, making the healthiest foods more expensive. But as the first article mentions, organic farms can be as or more efficient as larger conventional ones. The trick is getting all of the farming methods down so that we can get to that peak efficiency. In a book I’m reading called Green Gone Wrong (which will definitely appear in a later post), a farmer talks about growing foods by trial and error and discovering things he never would have known by just trying things out. Through trial and error, small-scale localized farming can become super efficient and adopted well in each area according to that area’s climate. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for someone in Maine to be growing oranges so they’ll have to get them from Florida. We can keep orange prices steady  by not forcing them into environments where they won’t do well or will require more inputs. As for decreasing prices in grain and unhealthy products like corn syrup, I think localized agriculture can actually help solve this. If each region sticks a little bit more to specialty crops so that corn and soy aren’t being grown absolutely everywhere, we can have a more proportional food production of fruits, veggies, and grains. Besides, grains are a filling dietary need and are a great option for poorer people if corn and wheat stay cheap. It’s not bad to have something cheap and grown across different regions as long as it doesn’t get ridiculous. I’m talking about a point when we have to find products to put the crop into in order to keep prices from going down as supply skyrockets (e.g. corn).

In response to the end of the second article and borrowing from a comment on the first one, people in developed countries eating locally grown food is not the reason that people in developing countries don’t have food. Often, these people used to grow a variety of subsistence crops from which they could feed their family. But a demand for a cash crop like rice (as is true with India) may have forced these farmers to switch to growing a single product. If we support these products, then we are in fact contributing to a lifestyle that is hurting the world’s poor. So, it seems that the answer would necessitate these farmers going back to the range of crops they have traditionally grown to achieve true self-sufficiency, needing only themselves or their neighbors for food. This is in fact localized agriculture. But how can we support this type of a food system in another country? This is a very complicated question that I’ll attempt to answer in another post (not that it has a definite answer).

In the end, it’s not like I can create a “big picture” from all this information, though I always wish I could give a simple rule. I guess it’s just important to note that eating local is not a cure-all. There are lots of complications involved with the kinds of farms we want to support and I think the importance of the second article is to think about the future of our food system. Complete localism throughout the country certainly seems idealistic and possibly very harmful to the economy. But I think a balance of localized and some larger scale agriculture could possibly work out.

In the independent research project I did for my Environmental Issues class, I talk about how it may be important and necessary to support products that are grown very far away from us. I’ll talk about this in a later post.

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