What Is Local Food and Agriculture?

Caption USDA

Tractor hauling baskets of greens harvested from Amy's Organic Garden in Charles City, VA.

One Sunday a locavore walked to the farmers market to buy carrots, turnips and pasture-raised chicken that was all sustainably grown within 50 miles of her home. After preparing a root vegetable ratatouille for next day's work lunch, she strolled with her family to the local craft brewery to sip on beer fermented from local barley and dine on organic farm-to-table cuisine.

For some, this vision of local food speaks to an unreachable lifestyle of extreme dedication. For others, local food fans and farmers have been romanticized to the point of parody. The reality is that such a description is an ideal, not a prescription, and it's now fairly commonplace for people to seek out and eat at least some local food.

As local food has gained popularity, the term has become overused to the point where it's misused. When it pops up on a restaurant menu or a bag of chips, the term local is often equated to sustainable or even healthy. Local food is just good food, right? It often is, but it's not always so simple.

Geography, Scale and the Problem of Definition

Because local food grew as a sibling to the good food movement that emphasized buying food from environmentally and socially responsible farmers and ranchers, there's been a conflation in thinking that the two were identical. Growth and awareness of local food contributed to the rise of the food movement, and vice versa, but local and sustainable are independent and not synonymous, even if there's often overlap. The biggest problem is that there is no official definition of local food and agriculture, so consumers must decide its meaning based on facts and their own interpretation. That said, there are useful guidelines to help make meaning of local food. (Read here for an in-depth look at Local Food.)

A local food system, conversely, is one of many and indicates a method of food production and distribution that is geographically bounded, rather than being involved on the national or international level.

Proximity of the farm in relationship to your fork is the primary ingredient that determines local food. Does that mean local food is local only if it's produced and sold within 50 miles? 100 miles? On this important point there will probably never be a strict marker, but the idea of 200 miles, or the expanse of a region seems to be the threshold. As a definitive contrast, local food is not part of the global industrial food system, which grows then sends food around the country and world. Major international agribusiness and food companies dominate this single, unified industrial system that grows, processes and distributes (typically) conventionally produced food from far-flung places.

A local food system, conversely, is one of many and indicates a method of food production and distribution that is geographically bounded, rather than being involved on the national or international level. Food is grown, produced and harvested near to where consumers live and is transported over shorter distances. A commitment to local food production and consumption creates a locally (or regionally) economic community connecting the farmer to nearby customers. A common feature of a local food system is the smaller to mid-scale farm operations and distributors that are embedded in smaller networks.

The way food is produced - from conventional to organic and beyond - doesn't fundamentally determine whether food is local or not. For example, while meat from a giant factory farm could be truthfully advertised to surrounding communities as "local," the meat would not be considered sustainable. Moreover, since the term local has no regulation or hard-and-fast definition behind it, the localness of that factory farmed meat is in the eye of the beholder. It's the large-scale nature of the operation and network that places it in global industrial food system.

Building a Local and Regional Food System

Networks of local food production and distribution generally begin on smaller farms that grow and raise a diversity of food products that often incorporate environmental sustainability into their practices. Food processing normally happens on the farm or in nearby locations, with the distributors plugged into two types markets: the direct-to-consumer market, and the food hub (aggregators and distributors) and institutional market. As of 2012, the USDA reports 7.8 percent of US farms marketed foods locally, either directly to consumers or through middle-men, with an estimated $6.1 billion in total sales.

Building local and regional food systems is important because of the many economic, social and environmental benefits that it offers to all the people who live in those communities, while also providing a substantial amount of food to eat.

Many people are familiar with the direct-to-consumer market in the form of farmers' markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs). One indication of the popularity of local food is the stunning growth of US farmers' markets seen in USDA records that show an increase from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,268 in 2014. Yearly sales at US farmers' markets total an estimated $1 billion. Other growing segments of the local food system are the direct to retail (e.g., groceries), food service (e.g., stadium food vendors) and the institutional market (e.g., school food service).

A definition of local food should expand to other alternative types of agriculture that aren't always recognized. Burgeoning agriculture production methods like hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, vertical farming and even aquaculture are cropping up around the country. It only makes sense to be broad minded and inclusive, because as society progresses, so too does agriculture.

Building local and regional food systems is important because of the many economic, social and environmental benefits that it offers to all the people who live in those communities, while also providing a substantial amount of food to eat. The diversity and varying scales of farming and production systems within a region form complementary interactions between farmer, processor, distributor and consumers. These systems add value to local economies and provide resilience for the food system to face climate change and other environmental challenges like drought and pollution. Local and regional food networks imbue food systems with self-reliance while acknowledging that imports of food products from outside those systems will continue.

The food movement us at the point in its growth and maturity that it must find coherence in what it creates. To build local food systems that are more socially, economically and environmentally beneficial, one must start by defining the terms of construction. This is just the beginning of the constant work it takes to create a local food system that's good for all.

 

Image "20110505-RD-LSC-0157" by USDA on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

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