It’s January and I just bought some locally grown lettuce. The grocer specifically labeled it as locally grown with a fancy sign making it look like it was better lettuce than the other stuff. So I saved the world! I just bought local which is surely better….right?
Well, not necessarily. It may come as a surprise, but if you are buying or eating locally grown food, it may not be food grown in your community. There is no set determination for the definition of locally grown. Locally grown products may have been grown at a local farm just up the road, in the same county as your farmers market, or possibly even within the same state. However, in other cases, locally grown produce may have come from 250, 400, or even 1,000 miles away from the point of purchase.
The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 defines locally grown as “being transported less than 400 miles within the state in which it is produced.” But retailers, states, farmer’s markets, and other organizations may use their own definition.
By the Food, Conservation and Energy Act definition, if I was a farmer in Council Bluffs, Iowa (western side of the state) I could sell my produce in Bettendorf, Iowa (eastern side of the state) which is 310 miles away. Similarly, if I was a farmer in Hornbrook, California (extreme north) I could sell my produce in San Diego, California and call it local. But that is more than 800 miles distance to the south! Seattle, Washington which is two states away and north is closer to Hornbrook at only 480 miles away – but then my produce couldn’t be called local.
Specialization and Trade
There are a couple of theories behind local food. 1) It is better for our health, 2) it is better for the environment, and 3) it is better for the local economy. Let’s look at the environmental argument first.
“Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.” – Steve Sexton.
This is called comparative advantage. Ignoring the concept and the advantage means it will require more inputs to grow the same amount of food. This means more land will be used. More chemicals will be used. More carbon emissions will be spewed out into the atmosphere. There are a number of different models floating around on the internet, but they suggest that if we were to transition to a purely local production system in agriculture it would take between 25 percent and 50 percent more land to produce the same amount of food we produce today.
The other environmental concern is carbon emissions from transportation of food. But estimates suggest that only 11 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation. The bulk of carbon emissions in the food system – 83 percent – come from production. So while it would be nice to reduce the carbon emissions from transportation, we can make a bigger impact by improving technology on the farm and reduce emissions on the production side of the system.
Local food is often associated with organically produced which is often associated with being the healthier option. But is it? This one is a bit more complicated to unravel. Local food is defined (yes, but earlier I said it wasn’t defined….stick with me here) by the distance it travels from where it was produced to where it was sold. By definition, that means it has nothing to do with the quality of the food or whether or not it is healthier.
What can have a larger impact on the health benefits of the food is what time of year it is grown and produced. For example, a tomato that is grown in the summer months with adequate rain and nutrients will likely develop more natural sugars, be packed with vitamins and minerals, and be very ‘healthy.’ By contrast, a hot-house tomato that is grown in the winter months with less daylight will not be as healthful. It won’t have had the same opportunity to develop those nutrients. BUT, the difference is small and really negligible. The most important part of a healthy diet is eating lots of variety of whole foods. Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat meat. Drink milk. Worry less about where the food came from and more about portion size and diversity of diet.
Many local food producers are small-scale farmers and many of those raise produce organically. There is an assumption that organically grown produce is raised without chemicals, but this isn’t necessarily true. Organic growers can still use pesticides. So if your goal is to reduce exposure to chemicals then buying local isn’t a sure thing. And buying organic isn’t a sure thing.
Consider this: nearly all apples contain detectable levels of pesticides. But, the presence of a chemical doesn’t equate to the presence of a risk. Fewer than 0.1% of apples tested have pesticide residue levels higher than the governmental limit. Even though most apples tested have detectable chemical residue, most were far below the permissible level. So the benefits of eating the apple and getting good nutrients outweigh the risk of chemical exposure.
A Boon to the Local Economy
While the premise of buying locally produced food falls short on the environmental factors and the health factors, it shines when considering the local economy. Studies have shown that small farms are more likely to earn a positive net farm income by selling locally. Other studies indicate there are nearly 32 jobs created for every $1 million in revenue generated by farms who are directly marketing their produce. This is compared to only 10.5 jobs per $1 million with large farms.
In our modern society, the number of farmers continues to decrease. As farms get larger and more efficient, the number of people it takes to grow food declines. Currently, less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in food production. But, local food can help increase the number of farmers. Local food sales receipts are upwards of $4.8 billion. These direct-to-consumer sales are great, but the real answer might lie in connecting small and mid-sized farms to large-scale food buyers.
Local producers can also benefit through programs like Farm to School. This national program is used in more than 42,000 of the roughly 100,000 school districts across the country. The premise is to connect local producers to local school districts providing the ingredients they need to produce up to 30.5 million school lunches every day. This is a great way of helping source local produce. There is an educational element to it so kids can learn about where their food comes from. But the primary benefit is giving priority to local producers.
Local food can also come in the form of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. This can be a fun way of getting to know your local farmers. All goods are locally produced and usually seasonally grown. It can be fun to get a box of lettuce and carrots one month and a box of turnips the next month! Anyone know any good recipes for turnips?!!!?
Ultimately, food choices are hard. Locally produced food is a nice idea. But it doesn’t always make sense. It can be a factor when you consider what produce to buy, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. And don’t confuse local with organic or other gimmicky descriptors. Just eat a well-balanced diet. Not too much, not too little.