When you spend as much time reading food news coverage, you start to see the same stories cycling through over and over again. Not through any fault of the food writers or activists, but from persistant misconceptions about local/organic/vegetarian issues. One of the stories that just won’t seem to die is the myth that organic sustainable agriculture can’t feed the world. But as I reported last week, local food gets a similar bad rap. So I thought I would gather together some of the information available from food policy experts to explain why local food does work as a systematic means for feeding many.
First, let’s look at the basics of demand, the backbone of any sound economic decision. The USDA reports a consistent rise in the number of farmer’s markets operating across the nation, which certainly has risen to meet demand.
Given this reality, the USDA has commissioned some recent great research as to the limitations of local food markets. Why, the research asks, if demand is increasing, does local food still account for a relatively small segment of the food market? First, the report discovers that the share of the market is growing even more exponentially than the number of markets (so the number of markets are increasing, but so is the amount of money spent per market).
The smaller trends that emerge from this report, however, are where the most promising aspects of local food systems live:
- 81 percent of the farm selling directly to consumers are small farms (making less than $50,000 a year) — so locally spent food dollars are more likely to support a small business
- Farms that sell locally employ an average of 13 fulltime employees for every $1 million in sales, as opposed to just 3 fulltime employees per million in a globally-producing farm. So locally spent food dollars support four times as many workers (who, given the above, are also more likely to be members of the local spending economy as well).
- Vegetable, fruit and nut farms dominate the local food markets. Not corn farms. Or soybean operations. So a locally spent food dollar is more likely to be spent on actual food, not global commodities trading.
Finally, the USDA report also addresses the main causes of hinderance on the local food economy, all of which can be addressed, and many of which would have additional positive economic and environmental benefits. Primary among these are access issues. Local producers are hampered by a shortage of processing facilities — an issue that especially affects local meat producers who often have standards for their meat processing. But potential customers for local foods are hindered both by an absence of information networks to find the local food and of transportation to the market or farm stand.
Which means local food has the potential to expand into other local industries, to encourage investment in the local economy and to increase community connection and involvement. These are the “inefficiencies” that concern local food nonbelievers–but they are actually opportunities.
Mark Bittman’s column this week illustrates a great example of how all this potential can come together to begin to shape an entirely new way of thinking about food. Local sourcing gives us the ability to reimagine our food system — to find new models for producer and consumer communication, or to work with integrative, biodynamic growing practices. These new models of buying and selling and growing food will be the future of a world with less oil.
I think the people who assert that local food can’t possibly be a solution are the same people who say we shouldn’t invest in renewable alternative sources of energy because none of them are efficient, affordable, or high-yielding enough to replace fossil fuels. We’re dealing with a paridigm disconnect. I don’t want the industrial food system to just be replace with a locally-source food system that produces and distributes the same products in the same way anymore than I want enough solar panels to power the entire United States.
Local food activists, just as renewable energy researchers, want a new system, a decentralized, smaller-scale system that never has to utter the phrase “too big to fail.”