Recent studies by agricultural economists have shown that when taken literally, the “locavore” movement threatens a heavier burden on the environment than our current system, significantly higher costs for certain regions, and pressure on small-business poly-crop farmers who wish to remain independent. However, while a totally local production system might not be the right strategy for our rapidly increasing population and diverse national climate, it is important to buy local when you can, support local businesses, and do as much as possible to learn about what goes into the food you consume.
This past year, I had the privilege of working on an organic vegetable farm in Vermont helping to run the farm’s CSA, which stands for community supported agriculture. In a CSA, members order food directly from the farm, often buying a share up front for a certain percentage of produce and providing the farmer with capital to use throughout the growing season. CSAs are a great way to become part of a community, to support a local business, and learn more about where your food comes from. However, it is important to differentiate between supporting local agricultural and the idea, espoused by some “locavores,” that all the food you consume should come from within 100 miles of your home.
Steven Sexton, professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University defines a locavore system at the state level: “a ‘pseudo-locavore,’ farming system … one in which each state that presently grows a crop commercially must grow a share proportional to its population relative to all producers of the crop.” Localizing all food production would mean essentially forsaking the comparative climate advantage of each region with respect to certain crops, requiring more land, chemicals, and energy in production, and almost certainly counter-balancing the environmental good of fewer carbon emissions from less shipping and trucking.
Sexton estimates that the “pseudo-locavore” system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals. Furthermore, although one of the stated goals of locavores is to fight the obesity epidemic in the United States, the re-allocation of resources in a strictly locavore production system would likely keep foods like grains and corn syrup cheap and make fruits and vegetables more expensive, precisely the wrong prescription for fighting obesity.
However, the problem with Sexton’s argument is that it misrepresents the local food movement. Most people interested in supporting local food do not expect local agriculture to provide the same kind of diversity one can find in the supermarket and small independent farmers certainly do not want to be forced to grow certain crops and not others. Most members of our CSA, for instance, buy fresh produce when they can and buy imported produce when they cannot. Or else they don’t expect fresh produce year-round and freeze or use preservation techniques (is that really so terrible?).
As customers, they realize that the cost of producing certifiably organic food is higher and therefore the food itself will be more expensive, making it difficult for low-income households to afford. What they want is to buy food they know is fresh and nutritious when they can and to help local farmers make their produce as affordable as possible. This is why they support programs such as the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (SNAP) that help those on food stamps shop at farmer’s markets. They understand that many in our society have no other option than to purchase industrially produced food. They are just rightfully suspicious of the quality, and healthiness of that food and ethics of major, multi-national producers.
In an interview on American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” anti-locavore writer Pierre Desrochers argues that the “agricultural protectionism” that comes from an emphasis on buying local food will eventually hurt the commerce of multi-national food producers. Such an assertion is absurd. Corporations such as Cargill and ConAgra bring in multi-billion dollar profits a year. Consumers deserve protection, not major corporations. Desrochers characterizes all proponents of local food as followers of the strict form of locavorism Sexton warns against and suggests that their goal is to return to a 19th century agrarian society.
That’s like saying parents who want their children to spend more time outside and less time on the internet will soon resuscitate the Luddite movement. Most people who support local agriculture do not wish to abolish industrial food commerce; they couldn’t if they wanted to, even with federal subsidies. They want to support local farmers, keep money in their own communities, and keep an eye on what goes into the food they consume.