It’s the best time of year for local produce here in the Northeast where I live. It’s the sixth year in a row that I’ve been a CSA member, and this is when I get to bring home varieties of winter squash, leeks and more hearty greens, along with summer’s lingering tomatoes and hot peppers. There are many reasons people choose to eat local food in season, and taste is as big a factor as any for me.
What Qualifies as Local Food?
Food miles are frequently used as a guideline for deciding what qualifies as local food — with eaters citing anywhere from 100 to 500 miles and beyond as the “local” radius within which food may be sourced. But for some it’s expanded to a more regionally-defined area, as noted at a panel discussion called “The Science of Local Food” that took place early this summer in New York City.
In order to ensure a “more diverse food supply and to guarantee a self-reliant food system, while still focusing on sourcing locally,” the panelists argued, it may make more sense to think of local as “the closest-available product.” That way, for example, people living in the NYC area, which lacks grain-producing capacity, can have their bread, and eat it, too.
The definition for what qualifies as local may be in flux, but the core reasons people have for buying local food are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. Here are five:
1. Local Food Tastes Good
Local food tastes good because, more often than not, it’s eaten fresh and in season. The supermarket tomatoes trucked in from an industrial farm thousands of miles away can’t compare to the Sun Gold tomatoes I get to eat right off the vine at my CSA farm.
You’re also more likely to get more variety from small, local farms, where the farmers, not being restricted to planting high-yield crops that can tolerate a beating through transport and storage, can afford to experiment a bit with what they choose to grow. Variety, moreover, makes ecological sense. And for the consumer, it simply adds to the pleasure of eating.
2. Local Food is Sustainable
In fact, not all local food is sustainable. As Jennifer G. Phillips, assistant professor at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy and a panelist at “The Science of Local Food” event, argued, food miles traveled account for only 11% to 12% of greenhouse gas emissions in food production. (The bulk of emissions comes from nitrogen fertilizer production and application.) So besides emissions, one also has to take into account the quality of the soil and water as impacted by food production.
Your best bet is to ask farmers about their management practices and go have a look yourself at the land they farm.
Next: Local Food Promotes Community
3. Local Food Promotes Community
A lot of good comes from knowing your farmer and other producers and interacting with them face-to-face. It promotes a sense of community, which is invaluable. But it also promotes a sense of shared responsibility. For the consumer, there’s a responsibility to understand where her food comes from and what goes into growing and making it and the more she understands, the more she’ll want to support her farmer. For the farmer, the responsibility is to grow the best food he can using the best practices possible. It’s a win-win scenario all around.
4. Local Food Promotes the Local Economy
Just as the consumer chooses to buy from a local farm rather than a big-box store, so the farmer is more likely to use the money he earns at local businesses. Brian Halweil, another panelist and author of “Eat Here, Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket,” writes that a study by the New Economics Foundation in London found that “a pound (or dollar, peso, or rupee) spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy… When these businesses are not owned locally, money leaves the community at every transaction.”
5. Because Local Food May Be More Nutritious
Or it may not be. Regardless, as many advocates of organic food argued during the Stanford study controversy, the fact that local food may be more nutritious than industrial food isn’t the main point of eating it anyway. And in any case, as Halweil said at the panel discussion, the science to support that hypothesis is “murky.”
Some studies do suggest that local food may have advantages, though. For example, it typically isn’t transported or stored for as long a period of time, during which nutrients may degrade. Also, older cultivars of some plants are higher in micronutrients than newer cultivars that have been selected for high yields in industrial agriculture.
What are your reasons for buying local food? What would it take to convince people you know to “go local”?
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