Eating Local Food: The Movement, Locavores and More

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.

Related Stories:

Running a Local Food Finder Site: Why I Built It

Why World Food Prices Once Again Hit Record High

Girl Scouts Boycott Cookies to Save Orangutans


Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks via flickr
written by Collin Dunn, a Treehugger blogger


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

Bill K., how do you eat vegan local if one, for some idiotic reason lives with a short growing season? it is still local if I build a greenhouse and somehow manage berries to grow in winter. oh crud. now Monsanto will patent rasberries that grow in snow...make them white to.

why can't I have magic to replace GMO science. I cannot splice and clone. no raspberries for North Dakota people in January, no rasberries for NJ in December.

Mit W.
Mit Wes7 years ago

for those above the mason-dixon line, are we to go without lemons, limes, pinapple, oranges, papayas, mangoes, grapefruit, almonds, coconut, cocoa, coffee, tea, dates, figs, kiwis, lychees, pecans,pistachios,bananas, plantains,vanilla, sugar ?

For those inland, are there to be no cod, scrod, tuna, shrimp, crab, calamari, sardines, bluefish ?

And for winter there is to be only canned and preserved?

And for those in inland arid regions, there is to be not much at all?

Mit W.
Mit Wes7 years ago

Just how much more packaging and how much fuel per ton of tomatoes, lettuce, or any other vegetable or fruit does it take to ship 1500 miles as compared to 100 miles, knowing that the long part of the transport will be consolidated, (train, ship, 18 wheeler truck)? Numbers please?

I dare say that the packaging is probably the same, cardboard boxes to hold leafy vegetables and tougher fruit in bulk and cardboard egglike crates to hold the more delicate stuff.

Hilary A.
Hilary S7 years ago

did you know that growing your own stuff can be even better for you? apparently there are beneficial enzymes which last for 3 hours after picking, so that garden fresh salad really does you good!

Bill K.
Bill K7 years ago

you actually save more energy eating vegan than eating local. what matters more is how it is produced more so than how far it is shipped. of course to eat vegan local would be ideal.

Joyce Young
Joyce Young7 years ago

My friend and I have had a garden plot for the last three years and my husband and I canned our first batch of zuchinni relish and salsa last year. I also belong to a local food buying group. Yes I understand that local food can be expensive but when I think of the environmental benefits and the benefits to the local farmers I think it is worth it! My friend grows tomatoes and lettuce on her balcony in the summer. You can easily have a couple of tomatoe plants to start with.

colleen p.
colleen p7 years ago

oh, so what I gather now, even without feed lots at all, and farming was small small small scale operations. shipping fruit from Thailand to New Jersey is small beans? even with oil drilling, refining to create gasoline.
but that is still kinder than shooting a deer to eat it, or farming pigs? even if your farm only had 100 pigs? (or breeding stock of 20)

and it's "meh" to support smaller farmers. hopefully it is just the farmers and not "well i can buy a hat from walmart for 2 dollars, I'm not going to by a hat made by this dude who lives in town for $20, what a rip off. I can get a knitted cap for way cheaper.

art and craft are not the same as veggies and meats.

but it's good to know this. I'd always have guilt in getting things shipped and flown. it's not like they don't get shipped to stores anyway. so if I want a plushie from Australia(YO help me make a petition to make plush "Tasmanian tiger/wolf" available in stores in America. I just have to cringe at s&h fees. and if I buy fruit from there all I need to cry over is the notion of letting a new insect take over NJ.

don't forget. dogs are no where near green pets either.

we don't have our renewiable biofuel yet. so I'm still skeptical in "shipping fruit from Brazil to Alaska is a drop in the bucket in carbon emissions"

Zdenko S.
Zdenko Sirca7 years ago

Yes, be a locavore! But if you are really concerned about global warming, then be a vegan locavore! There are many reasons:
- you will be healthier,
- even "organically raised" cows are a "climate bomb",
- one billion of people is starving while huge amounts of grain is given to livestock,
- your human heart knows that animals are exploited and killed in horrible pains, etc.
Albert Einstein said: "Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to vegetarian diet."

Diane V.
Diane V7 years ago

I frequent my local Hen House and love the selection. Especially like supporting local economy.