Local food (also regional food or food patriotism) is a principle of sustainability relying on consumption of food products that are locally grown. It is part of the concept of local purchasing, a preference to buy locally produced goods and services. Those who eat local food sometimes call themselves "localvores" or "locavores".
The concept is often related to the slogan Think globally, act locally, common in green politics. Pioneering and influential work in the area of local economies was done by noted economist E. F. Schumacher. Those supporting development of a local food economy consider that since food is needed by everyone, everywhere, every day, a small change in the way it is produced and marketed will have a great effect on health, the ecosystem and preservation of cultural diversity. They say shopping decisions favoring local food consumption directly affect the well-being of people, improve local economies and may be ecologically more sustainable.
In general, local food is in opposition to the ideas of global free trade. Critics argue that by convincing consumers in developed nations not to buy food produced in the third world, the local food movement damages the economy of third world nations, which often rely heavily on food exports and cash crops.
Critics also say that local food tends to be more expensive to the consumer than food bought without regard to provenance and could never provide the variety currently available (such as having summer vegetables available in winter, or having kinds of food available which can not be locally produced due to soil, climate or labor conditions).
However, proponents indicate that the lower price of commodified food (which is sometimes called cheap food) is often due to a variety of governmental subsidies, including direct ones such as price supports, direct payments or tax breaks, and indirect ones such as subsidies for trucking via road infrastructure investment, and often does not take into account the true cost of the product. They further indicate that buying local food does not necessarily mean giving up all food coming from distant ecoregions, but rather favoring local foods when available.
What defines local or regional?
The definition of "local" or "regional" is flexible and may be disputed, or modified by industry lobby groups. Some see "local" as being a very small area (typically, the size of a city and its surroundings), others suggest the ecoregion size, while others refer to the borders of their nation or state.
Some proponents of "local food" consider that the term "local" has little to do with distance or with the size of a "local" area. For example, some see the American state of Texas as being "local", although it is much larger than some European countries. In this case, transporting a food product across Texas could involve a longer distance than that between northern and southern European countries. It is also argued that national borders should not be used to define what is local. For example, a cheese produced in Alsace is likely to be more "local" to German people in Frankfurt, than to French people in Marseille.
The concept of "local" is also seen 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, a unit also called an ecoregion.
Where local food is determined by the distance it has travelled, the wholesale distribut ion system can confuse the calculations. Fresh food that is grown very near to where it will be purchased, may still travel hundreds of miles through the system before arriving back at a local store. This is seen as a labelling issue by local food advocates, who suggest that, at least in the case of fresh food, consumers should be able to see exactly how far each food item has travelled.
In the international wine industry, much "bulk wine" is shipped to other regions or continents, to be blended with wine from other locales. It may even be marketed rather misleadingly as a product of the bottling country. This is in direct opposition to both the concept of "local food" and the concept of terroir.
Local food is often equated with organic food
Local food is, by definition, food locally grown. Many local food proponents tend to equate it with food produced by local independent farmers, while equating non-local food with food produced and transformed by large agribusiness. They may support resisting globalization of food by pressing for policy changes and choosing to buy local food. They may also follow the practice of the boycott or buycott.
Local food is also often interpreted as being organic, or produced by farmers who adopt sustainable and humane practices, while non-local food is often seen as a result of corporate management policies, heavy subsidies, poor animal welfare, lack of care for the environment, and poor working conditions. This limited interpretation is likely due to the fact that the organic movement is largely responsible for renewed public interest in local and regional markets. Those subscribing to this interpretation often insist on buying food directly from local family farms, through direct channels such as farmers' markets, food cooperatives and community-supported agriculture plans.
For many, local food is interpreted as unprocessed food, to be transformed by the consumer or local shop rather than by the food industry. As such, local food (as opposed to global food) reduces or eliminates the costs of transport, processing, packaging, and advertising.
As large corporations and supermarket distribution increasingly dominate the organic food market, the concept of local food, and sometimes 'sustainable food', is increasingly being used by independent farmers, food activists, and aware consumers to refine the definition of organic food and organic agriculture. By this measure, food that is certified organic but not grown locally is viewed as possibly "less organic" or not of the same overall quality or benefit, as locally grown organic products. Some consumers see the general advantages of "organic" as also invested in "locally grown", therefore local food not grown "organically" may trump generically "organic" in purchase decisions. Also, because local food tends to be fresh (or minimally processed, such as cheese and milk), as opposed to processed food, the bias against processed food is often at least implicit in the local food argument. The marketing phrase, fresh, local, organic, summarizes these arguments.
Impacts of local food systems
Transport distance (see also food miles)
A goal of a local food system might be to minimize food transport distance, known as food miles. A consumer report published in 2003 by The Guardian newspaper in the UK found that a selection of 20 fresh food items purchased from British supermarkets had travelled an average of 5,000 miles ach; in North America, an average fresh food transport distance of 1,000-1,500 miles is often cited. Transport costs must consider weight as well as distance. If food is processed, it may lose weight compared with unprocessed food. To the extent it is processed nearer prod uction, less weight is transported a longer distance. If it is processed by the consumer, more weight may be transported, though the trip from production to processing can be avoided. The amount of fossil fuel consumed and CO2 emissions released in the atmosphere of more local, unprocessed food compared with less local, processed food are thus ambiguous. This issue is addressed by the field of regional science.
Another effect could be an increase in food quality and taste. Locally grown fresh food can be consumed almost immediately after harvest, so it may be sold fresher and usually riper (e.g. picked at peak maturity, as it would be from a home garden). Also, the need for chemical preservatives and irradiation to artificially extend shelf-life can be reduced or eliminated.
One food quality argument holds that better nutrition results when people eat food grown in the ecoregion in which they live. The general theory is that regional conditions affect the composition of plants and animals, and eating local provides an optimized nutritional fit. Scientifically, this has neither been proven nor disproven.
Agrisystems and sustainable farming
A major potential effect of local food systems is to encourage multiple cropping, i.e. growing multiple species and a wide variety of crops at the same time and same place, as opposed to the prevalent commercial practice of large-scale, single-crop monoculture.
With a higher demand for a variety of agricultural products, farmers are more likely to diversify their production, thereby making it easier to farm in a sustainable way. For example, winter intercropping (e.g. coverage of leguminous crops during winter) and crop rotation may reduce pest pressure, and also the use of pesticides. Also, in an animal/crop multiculture system, the on-farm byproducts like manure and crop residues may be used to replace chemical fertilizers, while on-farm produced silage and leguminous crops may feed the cattle instead of imported soya. Manure and residues being considered as by-products rather than waste, will have reduced effects on the environment, and reduction in soya import is likely to be economically interesting for the farmer, as well as more secure (because of a decrease of market dependence on outside inputs).
In a polycultural agrisystem, there is usually a more efficient use of human capital (labour) as each crop has a different cycle of culture, hence different time of intensive care, minimization of risk (lesser effect of extreme weather as one crop can compensate for another), reduction of insect and disease incidence (diseases are usually crop specific), maximization of results with low levels of technology (intensive monoculture cropping often involves very high-technology material and sometimes the use of genetically modified seeds). Multiculture also seeks to preserve indigenous biodiversity.
These farming approaches happen to be the essence of the sustainable organic farming approach, although local farming is at present predominantly not, and is not required to be, strictly "organic" from a certification standpoint.
Local food production could strengthen local economies by protecting small farms, local jobs, and local shops, thereby increasing food security. One example of an effort in this direction is community-supported agriculture (CSA), where consumers purchase advance shares in a local farmer's annual production, and pick up their shares, usually weekly, from communal distribution points. In effect, CSA members become active participants in local farming, by providing up-front cash to finance seasonal expenses, sharing in the risks and rewards of the growing conditions, and taking part in the distribution system. Some CSA set-ups require members to contribute a certain amount of labor, in a form of cooperative venture.
The popular resurgence of farmers markets in many parts of the world, including Europe and North America, contributes to local economies. They are traditional in many societies, bringing together local food and craft producers for the convenience of local consumers. Today, some urban farmers markets are large-scale enterprises, attracting tens of thousands on a market day, and vendors are not always "local". However, the majority of markets are still built around local farmers.
Another at present small but notable trend is local food as part of a barter system. In localized economies, where a variety of common goods and services are provided by individuals and businesses within the immediate community (as opposed to by outlets and branches of large corporations), a direct of exchange of values is quite feasible. Some CSA projects, for example, trade services or labor for food.
Particularly in the developed nations, the move away from local food to agribusiness over the last 100 years has had a profound socioeconomic effect, by redistributing populations into urban areas, and concentrating ownership of land and capital. In addition, the traditional farming skill set, which by necessity included a diverse range of knowledge and abilities required to manage a farm, has given way to new generations of specialists. When farming for local consumption was a cornerstone of local economies, the farmer was an integral, leading member of the community, a far different position from today. Support for local food is seen by some as a way to rediscover valuable community structures, values and perspectives.
History of the local food movement
The local food movement in the European Union has been hindered by EU rules requiring things produced in the EU, including food, to be marked as products of the EU, rather than as products of any particular country. The instinct of customers to buy nationally produced food in the name of patriotism was deemed to be a barrier to free trade.
Another organization [FoodRoutes Network] has been working for a number of years in developing local chapters of its "Buy Fresh Buy Local" program. It helps consumers to become involved with the development and revitalization of their local food system. The organization was founded by the Kellogg Foundation to bring hope that there will always be healthy food available to all. Today there are over 40 chapters around the USA.
Criticism of the local food movement
Critics of the local food movement point out that transport is only one component of the total environmental impact of food production and consumption. In fact, any environmental assessment of food that consumers buy needs to take into account how the food has been produced and what energy is used in its production. For example, it is likely to be more environmentally friendly for tomatoes to be grown in Spain and transported to the UK than for the same tomatoes to be grown in greenhouses in the UK requiring electricity to light and heat them.
An extensive study Food Miles – Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry by Lincoln University of Christchurch New Zealand refutes claims about food miles by comparing total energy used in food production in Europe and New Zealand, taking into account energy used to ship the food to Europe for consumers.
"New Zealand has greater production efficiency in many food commodities compared to the UK. For example New Zealand agriculture tends to apply less fertilisers (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 sheepmeat production NZ is by far more energy efficient even including the transport cost than the UK, twice as efficient in the case of dairy, and four times as efficient in case of sheepmeat. In the case of apples NZ is more energy efficient even though the energy embodied in capital items and other inputs data was not available for the UK."
Given the high level of subsidies required to support many food producers in the European Union, this is also seen as an indicator of the inefficient resource use from farming in Europe, compared to low or unsubsidised producers in Australia and New Zealand.