Going local is the new food craze. Restaurants are listing where they source their food, retailers are setting up sections of locally produced products, and some food zealots are pushing the all local diet. Book stores are filled with books on eating local, and food magazines feature cover stories that extol the virtues of eating local. The problem is much of the information about, perceptions of, and rationale for eating local is a hoax.
The justification for eating local falls into several categories: it is good for the local economy, it is good the environment, it is better for your health, or it makes you’re a morally superior individual. While there is nothing wrong with eating local, if you are doing so for any of the above reasons, you are being duped.
Let’s stop here and discuss what we mean by local. There is no common agreement on what constitutes local food. A recent survey by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture indicates that for most consumers local is within 50 miles. About 20% of those surveyed said within 100 miles. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed said being locally produced would not be enough for them to change their buying decision. Over 40% said they would not likely pay more for food items produced locally. In short, the survey showed that there is a certain group of shoppers who will drive further and pay more for locally produced food — but this group is not the majority of consumers.
About 25% of consumers in the ISDA study said they shopped at farmers’ markets. But shopping at a farmers’ market is no guarantee of local origin. While many products may come from just down the road, it is also common for vendors to buy from other farmers hundreds or thousands of miles away. Some markets have restrictions on this practice, but not all do. Because a farmer adds variety to his market offerings by selling products grown in another state does that somehow make that product less appealing? Currently, Indiana is not able to even supply the demands of most farmers’ markets. Only 2.4% of Hoosier farms grow vegetables; and only 1.0% grow fruits, berries, and tree nuts. Only 63,000 acres in the state are used for growing specialty crops. This is why 90% of the food consumed in Indiana comes from outside of the state.
The environmental magazine Grist recently published an article that claimed, “90 percent of our diets could be local — but only if we nix Big Ag.” This audacious and totally ridiculous claim was based on a study by 2 researchers at the University of California, Merced. Their conclusion was that as much as 90 percent of our diets could come from locally grown food — if we completely revolutionize our entire farm system. They admitted their study was theoretical, not practical, and would require some substantial changes in the US diet. Their argument, however, reveals a key flaw in the local food movement: big is bad. What locavores fail to realize is that, if more and more people get more and more of their food from local sources, the local food movement will have to move up to an industrial scale.
If we are going to stop shipping milk across the country, then we had better start building dairy processing plants in every large city. In addition, slaughter houses will have to start popping up all over the place in order to supply meat from local farms to local stores. Local zoning boards will have to set aside large sections of land to locate the food processing and distribution centers that would be needed to serve an area of only a few hundred square miles. Ironically, the purpose of the ISDA study mentioned above was to evaluate the feasibility of Food Hubs, a collection of small producers to sell to large food retailers or food co-ops. Some private entrepreneurs are already moving in this direction using the “big ag” model to put locally produced food on store shelves and in freezer cases.
If the local food movement really wants to survive and thrive, it needs to take some lessons from the side of agriculture it is so quick to disparage. Locally grown food products are fresher, taste better, and are more appealing to consumers — but only if they are price competitive and available where most people already shop. If the movement wants to become more than just a niche market, it needs to drop the environmental demagoguery and the moral guilt trip that characterizes most advocates of local food. We cannot feed the nation with Saturday morning farmers’ markets; but, with well-developed local food systems, we can provide an opportunity for individual farmers to become involved in the food business and, at the same time, give consumers a taste of fresh local products. The local food movement’s assertion that we can turn back time and return to the days when most of our food came from just down the road is a bogus fallacy. Their assertion that food that comes from across the country or across the world is somehow evil is pure propaganda.
So visit a farmers’ market, join a CSA, stop at a farm stand, and enjoy but keep in mind not all of it may be local. But don’t feel guilty if you grab a bunch of bananas from Honduras or some grapes from Chile.
By Gary Truitt