Experts Say Eat Local for Health, Planet and Wallet

“The farm is like a connection to the things I loved when I was little,” says working mom Shenna Fitzgerald of Denver. “I grew up with big gardens, and my mom owned a health food store and made all our bread and yogurt.”

Those memories were an influence that led Fitzgerald to buy a share in a cow at Ebert Family Farms in nearby Byers, Colo., when she adopted her son in fall 2006. Her share entitles her five gallons of milk a month for $32 a month, plus the option of buying organic local meat, cream, yogurt, cheese, produce and eggs.

“There’s so much to buy from local farms,” Fitzgerald adds. “This food isn’t trucked, shipped and boxed. There’s less energy and less junk going into my food. It’s a lot healthier for me and my son.”

Local-food advocates believe it's also healthier for the planet — and an essential part of the solution to many of the environmental, social, health and economic crises we face today.

A Five-Country Meal Takes a Lot of Petroleum

Advocates of the growing “locavore” movement believe that individuals, communities and regions that relocalize by producing their own essentials will find stability when supply chains fail or prices rise. They point to dwindling fossil fuel resources and rising levels of carbon dioxide as factors that are altering the distribution systems crucial to our transportation-dependent economy. There’s also evidence they’ll be healthier, more vibrant communities.

Ecological economists argue that mainstream economic thinking often ignores the fundamental interconnectedness of economy and environment. Nowhere is this disconnect closer to home than with food.

“Right now the caloric input to our food system is extremely high compared to the calories we get out of it,” says Jason Bradford, founder of California–based Willits Economic Localization Project (WELL), one of the first groups in the United States to undertake a community-wide relocalization effort in preparation for coming energy shortages.

The typical American meal contains ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States, according to Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at London’s Thames Valley University. Even items produced within our borders are frequent flyers (or drivers) by the time they reach our plates. One study of “food miles” conducted by researchers at Iowa State University found that conventionally grown produce in that state travels 1,494 miles on average to make it from farm to plate. Other studies put that figure at more like 2,500 or even 3,000 miles.

The neoclassical economics of that journey clearly make sense to the people producing, shipping and selling food, but the ecological economics don’t. For example, the energy cost of shipping one ton of strawberries by truck from Oxnard, Calif., to Belcourt, N.D., a distance of 1,900 miles, is roughly 1.6 billion calories. That ton of strawberries holds only 327,600 calories, yielding an Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) ratio of about 1:5000.

“That’s a pretty accurate picture of our economy’s metabolism,” Bradford says. “Shipping things great distances, eating out of season and extensive processing ramp up the energy we expend on food.” Heavy reliance on fossil fuels means most industrialized agriculture requires more energy to grow, harvest, process and distribute than is contained in the food itself.

While some may argue that conventional mass food production encourages progress because the majority of society — fed by the farming minority — is free to advance in other areas, this system is unsustainable without cheap oil. In addition, by severing the connection between people and the land that feeds them, factory farming contributes to environmental apathy and other environmental problems.

By contrast, the Iowa State University study reported that local produce in Iowa traveled an average of approximately 56 miles from field to market — an EROEI more in keeping with what eco-economists like to see.

Eat Local, Build Wealth In Your Community

Ecological economics isn’t the only way to justify localized food production. Michael Shuman, author of  "The Small-Mart Revolution" says localizing food production has real dollar value as well, and it’s attainable.

“Modest steps toward relocalization can lead to enormous wealth at the local level,” Shuman says. “A lot of communities choose to import things they could produce for themselves. Most could replace the majority of their imports with local substitutes,” he explains.

By doing so they put more of each food dollar in local farmers’ pockets, keeping money local and energizing hometown economies. Shuman cites a study by Stewart Smith at the University of Maine, which shows that 40 percent of every food dollar went to farmers in 1900, while today farmers get only 7 percent of each dollar. The rest goes to storage, packaging, marketing and shipping.

Best of all, local food will become increasingly cost-effective. “Huge shifts in agriculture in the next 15 to 20 years will create incredible opportunities for small-scale food production,” Shuman adds. As the cost of distribution rises, local alternatives will become more competitive.

That shift is already well underway. Growth of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in the past decade has made eating local easier than ever. The burgeoning locavore movement, whose members are committed to eating only food grown within 100 miles of their communities, is steadily gaining mainstream acceptance.

Farmers’ markets are proliferating too. According to "The Way We Eat " by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, in 2004 there were more than 3,700 farmers’ markets in the United States — more than double the number in 1994. And nearly 600 of those were started between 2002 and 2004, as compared to 274 new markets added from 2000 to 2002. More than 19,000 farmers told the USDA in a survey that they sold their products only at farmers’ markets.

Fitzgerald says it’s a welcome change. “It’s such a cool concept to ride your bike to work and see a cow and think, ‘that’s where my milk is coming from’,” Fitzgerald says. “I want my son to understand that you don’t always just get ingredients from the store and put them in the oven. Sometimes you dig in the dirt, you start from the beginning. It’s a value that was given to me, and I’d like to pass it on.”

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