The local food movement, eating local, being on the “100 mile diet” or being a locavore are all synonymous with local food, whose consumption has risen to prominence as an important part of the larger green movement. Taking the baton from organic food as a poster child for sustainable agriculture, local food integrates production, processing, distribution and consumption on a small scale, creating sustainable local economies and a strong connection between farm and table.
The benefits of eating local food
Local food has myriad environmental benefits — we’ve mentioned just a few in connection with having a green Earth Day — as well as the social, economical and agricultural benefits of supporting small family farms. But there are many facets to the simple-sounding lifestyle choice.
Where does local food come from?
First of all, though, local food comes from local food systems, which exist as an alternative to industrial food systems. The local systems replace the scale and volume common in industrial systems with control and relationships; when you buy local food, not only do you know where it came from, you’re often buying it from the person or people who grew the food, a locavore plus.
So, “local” can refer to a fairly specific area — whether it’s 100 miles or 150 miles — but one farm may define the area as anywhere within a day’s drive, since that’s where they can easily and efficiently move their products. But local is more than just miles.
The ecology of local food
The concept is also defined in terms of ecology, where food production is considered from the perspective of a basic ecological unit defined by its climate, soil, watershed, species and local agrisystems; everything together is defined as as “ecoregion” or “foodshed.”
Finding and buying local food
By definition, local food can’t go far, so you’re likely to procure it via smaller markets, like farmer’s markets, grocery co-operatives, community-supported agriculture co-ops. Therein lies a big part of local food’s environmental appeal: local food reduces or eliminates the costs, both monetary and planetary, of transportation, processing, packaging, and advertising.
A tremendous amount of fossil fuel is used to transport foods long distances. Combustion of these fuels releases carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and other pollutants into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change, acid rain, smog and air pollution. Even the refrigeration required to keep your fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meats from spoiling burns up energy.
Further, food processors also use a large amount of paper and plastic packaging to keep food fresh (or at least looking fresh) for a longer period of time. This packaging eventually becomes waste that is difficult, if not impossible, to reuse or recycle. These are all reasons to support local food, but certainly not the only ones.
What else is part of the local food movement?
Sustainable farming and polyculture — planting and growing a variety of crops, rather than acres upon acres of one crop, to be grown, processed and shipped around the globe — are also common in local food production. For example, winter intercropping (that is, coverage of leguminous crops like lentils, peas and beans during winter) and crop rotation reduces pest pressure, and also the use of pesticides. Also, in an animal/crop multiculture system, the on-farm byproducts like manure and crop residues are used to replace chemical fertilizers, while on-farm produced silage and leguminous crops feed the cattle instead of imported processed feed.
Challenges to local food
So, local food promotes a stronger local economy, builds community, has a smaller carbon footprint (most of the time; more on that in a sec) and promotes sustainable agriculture, but it’s not all sunshine and roses for the movement. Critics argue that supporting local food damages the economies of third world nations, which often rely heavily on food exports and cash crops.
The energy inputs of local food
Additionally, though carbon emissions from transportation of local food are often greatly reduced through the low number of food miles, transportation is only part of the food’s overall environmental footprint; how the food has been produced, and the energy inputs involved need also be considered. For example, a study by Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand found that, “New Zealand agriculture tends to apply less fertilizers (which require large amounts of energy to produce and cause significant CO2 emissions) and animals are able to graze year round outside eating grass instead large quantities of brought-in feed such as concentrates. In the case of dairy and sheep meat production NZ is by far more energy efficient even including the transport cost than the UK.”
The best parts of buying and eating local food
Though it’s not perfect (and, hey, what is?), there’s still a lot to like about local food. Any time food miles can be reduced from the average of almost 1500 in the United States to 100 or less, it’s going to make a big, green difference. It celebrates the food that comes from the land near you, fresh and in season, connecting you to the place you live and the people who live there and grow your food. Because local food comes from close by, it doesn’t have to be picked before its ripe, to survive a long journey, so it tends to be fresher and more flavorful. And, because we all eat, several times a day, our food choices have enormous potential to leverage positive change in the world.
Learn more about eating local food on TreeHugger
As it has gained in popularity, local food has become a very popular topic on TreeHugger. We noted what it’s like living on the 100 Mile Diet, noted 10 reasons to eat local and analyzed the carbon footprint of local food. We advised to eat local food, except when you shouldn’t and saw evidence of farmer’s market trickery when it came to food labeling. Type “local food” into the search engine above to really dig deeper.
Learn more about finding local food around you
Check in with the National Sustainable Agriculture Information System, Sustainable Table and Local Harvest to learn more about local food, including where you can find it in your neck of the woods.
This post was originally published by Treehugger.