Local Foods - Think Locally and Act NeighborlyJanuary 2005
We're talking about local businesses, including local food producers. And "neighborly" means, well, help out your neighbors, as well as your neighborhood...and dangit, help yourself out too while you're at it. Who knew going local could be so beneficial?
THE GOOD:Supporting local food growers and processors, is a good thing all around. Why?
Supports local farmers who (lucky for us) make up one of the highest concentrations of sustainable growers in the country, which....
Sustains our local economy by cycling money within our community instead of channeling it to suppliers across the country or overseas, which....
Minimizes the consumption of fossil fuels transporting food (did you know produce travels an average of 1500-2500 miles?), and...
Allows sustainable farming to be financially viable (the biggest obstacle any farmer faces today), which....
Increases harvest diversity and a wider, seasonal selection for you to choose from, which....
Does wonders for a healthy food supply and environment (untainted food, fresh water, fertile soil, biodiversity, untainted oceans, the list goes on), and....
Creates incentive for more farms to transition to sustainable and organic methods.
(All this in addition to the aesthetic of human, face-to-face interactions!)
THE BAD:Actually, some of these qualities of our current global food supply may seem good...
Anything, all the timeWith global food trade, we can now have anything we want, at any time of the year. Berries in the winter? Butternut squash in the summer? You got it. The USDA predicts that 2005 will be the first time in 50 years we import more than we export.
ConglomerationA few agricultural businesses are booming, with 60 companies controlling the majority of the world's food supply, and eight food conglomerates controlling the 38 largest organic businesses. With an international market and fewer food suppliers, the food transport network has turned into a type of FedEx model, with fresh produce traveling an average of 1500-2500 miles to reach your plate.
Government subsidiesThe U.S. government continues its current farm subsidies program, which not only allocates money to a few select crops, but notoriously fosters conglomeration and benefits farms the most when assistance is needed the least.
THE UGLY:When you look at how the bad manifests itself, you can see just how unsustainable (and downright unattractive) our food system is.
Long Distances, More Middlemen, More Fossil FuelsWhen your food travels an average of 1500-2500 miles and 7-14 days from farm to plate, that means more steps and more middlemen between the grower and you, leaving U.S. farmers with an average of 7¢ - 20¢ for every dollar paid for their final product. Rural communities are now the most impoverished sector in the U.S.
Not to mention the enormous quantities of fossil fuels used to package, refrigerate and transport the distance. A 2001-2002 Global Social Venture study found that for every million we spend annually on locally-produced food, we prevent over 10 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Survival of the BiggestVertically integrated agribusinesses also contribute to the economic decline of rural communities. Large food companies have financial reserves to set commodity prices below market value, and smaller, conscientious farmers are continually put out of business. This trend is effectively transforming the agricultural landscape to large, regionally-managed farm corporations.
Instead of cycling money within a self-sufficient community, money is drained off to distant suppliers. We no longer operate as a neighborhood community; instead we "sell to a remote, complex food chain of which [farmers] are a tiny part - and are paid accordingly" (Halweil, Eat Here).
These effects apply to farms in less developed countries as well, as shown in a recent NY Times story showing the struggles of family farms in Central America against well-endowed food conglomerates.
Lower Quality & Environmental DamageLogistically, it's impossible for so few agribusinesses to farm ecologically. Fostering healthy soil and minimizing environmental damage requires thoughtful, integrated methods. (Spraying pesticides by airplane and GMO seeds don't cut it.) The number of farmers is shrinking and the acres of land for which they are responsible are growing.
When the only goal is maximum output, conventional farming (including chemical pesticides, genetically-engineered seeds, animal antibiotics, and mono-cropping) proves to be the only feasible option. The amount of toxic runoff into our groundwater and oceans as well as the animal waste produced from over-crowded factory farms is staggering.
Shrinking Self-RelianceWith global food trade, food processors can buy from wherever is cheapest. Foreign growers are often less expensive than in the States, so processors turn to international sources. Even the U.S. is increasingly dependent on foreign food suppliers, despite our prolific land and resources.
As the world is supplied by fewer food companies, fewer types of crops are grown. Varieties are chosen for durability and universal appeal. 50 years ago, regions had distinct food varieties and flavors reflecting each unique terrain and culture. Today, agribusiness encourages countries to produce fewer, standard global "cash crops" that can be sold in bulk for export to fewer processors and packers.
"The combination of cheap food from overseas and the consolidation of domestic production compromises [each country's] ability to feed itself" (Wilkins, "Think Globally, Eat Locally", NY Times).
Compromised Food SecurityThe global food system's dysfunction is obvious when you look at countries that have historically sustained themselves are now dependent on others. Many, including the recently departed Secretary of Health & Human Services, have wondered why terrorists haven't attacked our food system. Not a thought that normally comes to mind, but it brings to light the vulnerability of our current supply network. The FDA will only inspect 100,000 of the 5 million containers of U.S. food imported.
Self-Defeating Agricultural PolicyThe U.S. government has awarded $130 billion in farm subsidies since 1995, with 70% to the top 10% largest producers. Over half the industry, predominately small- and medium-sized farms, receive nothing.
Ironically, farm income has had a 40% increase in the past two years and yet, during that time, government contributions to the largest growers have doubled. Keith Collins, Chief Economist for the Agriculture Department, confirmed that subsidies are not necessarily correlated with the natural ebb and flow of supply.
Amazingly, recipient farms do not even need to be currently growing one of the qualifying export crops (cotton, rice, soybeans, corn, wheat, sunflowers, canola, barley, peanuts, flax, oats) or have lost money from a declining market. So, a farm may not have even harvested that year, and/or they may have not even felt the effects of a market decrease, but as long as the price declined at some point during that year, they can collect $300,000 or more.
Again, our current system encourages large agribusinesses to produce (or at least historically produce) an overabundance of single cash crops for export, while ensuring the decline of locally-focused, smaller producers and their biodiverse harvests.
Organics Turned Ugly?A common misconception about organics is that it all comes from local producers. In reality, consolidation and buy-outs are becoming more common as with conventional agriculture. Again, big businesses eager to capture a piece of the booming market are buying smaller companies as well as family-owned farms. And, the same negative effects from conglomeration unfortunately apply.
Also, when organic farms are too large - like conventional farms -, it's simply impossible to provide the same care to the soil, water run-off, and healthy ecosystems. Large farms typically adopt the less stringent "USDA organic" labeling, and many practice mono-cropping (which degrades soil fertility) and/or neglect more conscientious run-off and waste treatment (which increases toxins leaching into waterways).
Obviously, organic agribusinesses have less of an environmental impact than conventional, but supporting local, organic farms is by far the healthiest for you, the soil, and our fresh water supply.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:The easiest way to address these issues is with your buying dollars. Support local growers and locally-owned and sourced food companies. You know it's all good!
1. Learn what's in season
- Check out this site's What's in Season section, including how to shop for and cook seasonal produce.
2. Buy locally-produced foodsBuy direct from farmers. Or, support restaurants and stores that buy direct from farmers. Many now publicize where they purchase their produce and meats. If yours don't, just ask!
- Local farmers' markets, CSA delivery programs, organic restaurants, organic stores: for SF, East Bay and Marin County.
- People's Grocery: in Oakland.
- Cityslicker Farms Distribution program: in Oakland. (Collaborate with People's Grocery.)
- Grown in Marin: for Marin County.
3. Support small, family farmers
- Om Organics distribution network: for San Francisco restaurants.
- Marin Organic: in Marin County.
- Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF): supports small, local farmers.
4. Preserve local food heritage
5. Grow your own foodIn your backyard or a community garden:
- Garden for the Environment: in San Francisco.
- San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG): in San Francisco.
- Cityslicker Farms Education and Backyard Gardening programs: in Oakland.
- Common Ground Garden Supply & Education: in Palo Alto.
6. Learn moreOrganics, sustainability, local communities and economies are all intrinsically related.
- Local Farms vs Large Agri-business: general section in this site on small farms vs big agri-business.
- Worldwatch Institute: feature on local food.
- Environment Working Group: details on farm subsidy trends.
- Eat Here: a new book on the surging local food movement, homegrown pleasures, and changing the way we eat.
- More resources
7. Support organizations making change(like this one!)
If you have any additions or corrections to this page, please contact us.
Headline quote by Tod Murphy from Farmers Diner in Vermont.
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