Why Most Food Could Never Be “Local”

Produce shop in Basel Switzerland


Eating “Local Food” is an appealing ideal in theory, but it runs into several “reality issues.”  As much as people might want locally produced food, there are practical issues of land availability, land costs, grower economics, water availability, and climate which sharply restrict the range of foods that could ever be practically grown as local crops, particularly when you look at how the US population is distributed.

When you go to your local farmer’s market and see a wide range of offerings it is tempting to think that local production could be a significant contribution to our diet.  When you look at what is actually  involved in growing the food supply, a different story emerges.  I spent some time gathering crop acreage data from the extremely useful USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) web sites.  If you haven’t even looked at these sites and you are interested in agricultural issues you should definitely check them out.

How Much Land Is Involved In Growing Human Food in the US?

Pie chart of food crops by local suitability

I was interested to see how much land it takes to grow our human food crops.  Excluding the crops that are exclusively for animal feed (e.g. hay, alfalfa, silage crops…) and the ones that have a huge animal feed component (corn, soy..) I found that there are about 70 million acres of land in the US devoted to growing the crops we eat more or less directly (I factored out the ~30% of wheat for export).  Even if you are a vegetarian or Vegan, these crops all matter. I divided that area into groups by suitability for local production.  In the chart above you can see the relative growing area devoted to six categories of crops.  I will explain below why there are only about three million acres out of the 70 that are practical (or even close to practical) for local farmers to supply.

Crops With Too Low a Per-Acre Value to Grow Near Cities

Row crops that don't make sense to grow locally

The “Row Crops” listed above are our main source of carbohydrate calories, vegetable protein, and cooking oils.  These are important foods in any balanced diet, but these crops are not worth very much on a per-acre basis.  They are almost all grown in rain-fed areas where it is not practical to grow higher income crops like corn or soy.  Some are grown as rotational options in slightly higher value areas and even under irrigation in the PNW.  Still, these are not crops that make sense to grow on the relatively expensive land around cities.  A grower in those settings really needs to be growing something with more income potential per acre like a fruit or vegetable.  It doesn’t matter if the grower is large, small, conventional or Organic, it just isn’t sound business practice to devote scarce land and water in the proximity of a city to crops that have this low a per-acre value.  Also these crops need to be grown in large quantities in a given area to make their handling and storage at all efficient.  On top of that, you can’t get the necessary quality for these crops (especially barley, bread wheats or pasta wheat) just anywhere.  These are never going to be significant local foods and they actually haven’t been for centuries.

Crops That Are Climate Limited or Which Need Scale for Processing

Other categories of crops unsuited for local production

Many of the fruits and vegetables (left-hand list above) that add healthy diversity to our diets can only be grown in areas with relatively mild or even semi-tropical conditions.  For instance, avocados are “local” for me in San Diego, but they never will be for the vast majority of the country.  Some of these crops might be coaxed into a slight expansion of their current range, but they will never be part of most people’s local options.  The crops on the right-hand list above might grow in more areas, but to be practical they need to be available in large quantities in a single region to justify the capital expense for the processing facility.  In the case of Fall Potatoes (Russet types), the capital investment is for storage facilities and between that and the high yield potential, those will probably always come out of places like Idaho, Washington and Colorado’s San Luis Valley.  There are other types of potatoes that are already grown regionally, but it is the fall potatoes that keep that staple available all year.

What Crops Could Be Grown More Locally?

Crops that can, often with difficulty, be grown locally

On the right-hand column above is a list of fruit crops that could be shifted to some degree away from the West where the vast majority of it is grown today.  This would not be at all easy and I’ll describe what it would take below after we take a quick look at fresh vegetables.  Most of what makes any sense for local production are the vegetable crops in the left-hand column above.  Today, 54% of fresh vegetables are grown in the desert West because it has a longer growing season and lacks the summer rains that lead to disease and quality issues. Another 23% is grown in the Southeast because of their longer season.   For much of the country, it will always be necessary to source non-local vegetables for the winter if people want any fresh options.  Still, I was surprised at how much vegetable production does occur in other states.  The charts below look at this on an acreage basis and corrected for population.

Where US Fresh Vegetables are Grown

Fresh Vegetables vs Population

What Would It Take to Expand “Local” Even to Part of the 3 Million Acres of Possible Candidates?

The real driver for shifting more fruit and vegetable production out of places like California may turn out to be water limitation.  Unless the Sarah Palins of the world are right, California’s water woes are only likely to get worse with Climate Change.  It is just that many other parts of the country are less hospitable to fruit and vegetable crops.  That does not mean it is impossible, but it will tend to be more costly and it will take some good technology (if a grower is going to make any money doing this).  The common insistence that local food also be “Organic” is very counter-productive if people are serious about expanding local production.  For instance, people have been trying for decades to grow Organic apples in the East for receptive urban markets, but it is just too hard. Pests are real and where it rains there are diseases.  Organic has very weak pesticide options for disease control and a limited number of potent options for insect control.  It would be relatively easy to come up with a workable “tool box” of synthetic pesticide options for these new local farmers that are as safe or safer than the Organic options, but few people realize that.  The other thing that would help is “protected culture.”  These are ways of farming that are not full-blown greenhouses, but which include rain shields, growing tunnels, conches etc to help growers deal with the harsher climates.  This is most advanced today in the berry crops.

If you look at the numbers, it becomes obvious that we will always need to get an extremely important proportion of our food from non-local sources.  We might need to somewhat expand the part of our supply of certain fruits and vegetables that comes from more local sources in the future because of climate change.  We shouldn’t let philosophical constraints like Organic get in the way of doing that.

Market Image, Graphs and Tables by Steve Savage

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