In part one of this blog I acknowledged that I enjoy local food as a special treat in my diet but described three reasons that the true “locovore” concept was impractical: Limited Food Diversity, Quality Issues, and Water Issues. I’ll continue.
Many commentators have focused narrowly in the issue of “food miles,” but there is a more appropriate way to think about these issues that is the well-developed science of “Life Cycle Analysis” (LCA). That looks at energy, carbon, water or whatever is of interest across the entire life cycle of the product. So for instance, if you do an LCA comparison of lamb produced in the UK vs lamb produced in New Zealand and shipped to the UK, the energy and carbon footprint across the entire process is quite a bit better per pound of lamb from New Zealand. This is because their productivity is so much higher that it more than makes up for the ocean shipping (which is really quite energy efficient). Local food frequently has a higher carbon footprint because there are certain places that are just so much better for growing a given crop (Apples in Washington, Potatoes in Idaho, Corn in Iowa, Lettuce in the Salinas Valley, Peanuts in Georgia…). If you are a farmer you will want to grow the crops that are best suited to your location, and no location is great for everything.
The Mathematics of Land Availability
It takes hundreds of millions of acres to grow the food for the US. Our urbanized society lives in concentrated areas. There are not enough acres close to those cities to grow the crops. Also land prices are much higher close to cities making it economically impossible to grow all but the highest value crops near cities. I did some searches on how much land it takes to feed a person and found a whole bunch of estimates with a huge range of values but very little supporting information. Those that made calculations supporting the idea of “local food” failed to consider how much of the land around cities is actually suitable for food production. If someone has seen a rigorous calculation of this nature I’d be interested to look at it.
In the US, we are blessed with vast expanses of rain-fed cropland with excellent soils, and that is the best place to grow our large acreage crops. Just because not that many people live in rural Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas… does not mean that we shouldn’t grow crops there. It is our best option from a sustainability point of view.
To reiterate, there are definitely virtues of “locally produced food” and they should be enjoyed. There are also some very good health, enjoyment, and practical reasons that even a significantly local food supply is impractical for most people living most places. I would encourage everyone to take advantage of local options when they make sense and to feel fine about anything but the few, absurd, non-local options (like water in a glass bottle shipped from Europe). I would also like to see some people reduce their “smugmissions” about how much of a locovore they are.
Photo of a Swiss produce stand by Steve Savage (probably a good mix of local and non-local food)