Local Food Fluffery

What is local food? Is a local chicken organic? Does a local chicken eat local
watermelon? OrganicWatermelon? Where does a local chicken come from?
Where does local watermelon come from?
Photo by dooglas carl for Recycled Minds.
by douglas reeser on November 14, 2011
While looking through some news feeds earlier today, an NPR piece on local food caught my eye.  The piece cites a report from the USDA that claims that "marketing of local foods...grossed $4.8 billion in 2008—about four times higher than estimates based solely on direct-to-consumer sales." The extra growth is a result of an increase in sales to restaurants and supermarkets. From the reports, sales of local food is showing promising growth trends, however, questions remain.

The NPR piece includes an interview with a USDA economist who reveals: "Forty percent of all fruit and vegetable producers are now selling locally." And even though her numbers don't explicitly track growth, "that to me suggests some growth." So, numbers showing that fruit and vegetable producers are selling more locally don't exist, but they must be because this USDA economist thinks they are.

NPR then finishes their piece with this:
Although the $5 billion number sounds big, it represents just 2 percent of American agricultural sales. The rest — 98 percent — comes largely from sales of big commodities like soybeans and corn. Even so, the next set of numbers on local food sales from USDA should reveal whether local food is a fad, or a business model that's here to stay.
These numbers don't seem to add up. If 98% of agricultural sales come from commodity products like soybeans and corn, and the remaining 2% represents local sales, there seems to be something missing from this picture. Where do all the agricultural products that are shipped around the country fit into this picture? Think Florida strawberries, Maine cranberries, and the many fruits and vegetables that are available in your supermarket that are not grown locally. 

I decided to take a look at the report that NPR links to in their article. There are certainly more interesting factoids in the summary report, including that "small farms (those with less than $50,000 in gross annual sales) accounted for 81 percent of all farms reporting local food sales in 2008." This makes sense to me, as I can see that in most cases, a farm with low gross annual sales is likely not producing in large quantities. The problem remains, however, with the word "local."

Nowhere in either the NPR piece or the USDA report is the term "local" defined. Yes, small farmers rely heaviest on direct-to-consumer sales through outlets such as farmer's markets. According to the USDA report, "Large farms accounted for 92 percent of the value of local food sales marketed exclusively through intermediated channels." This introduces into the local food framework large farms that are using intermediated channels (distributors) to sell their products. Without a clear definition of "local" (and no regulation on the use of the word), local could mean anything. In a global economy, could the U.S. be seen as local? Is Mexico local to the US? What is local is dependent on the scale at which you look at it. 

And so, I am forced to consider what might be happening here. In the regions reported to be hotspots for local food (the Northeast and West Coast), organic foods have long been popular. To label something organic, the fruits and produce must meet federal regulations in how it is grown. Organic production has likely cut into profits of industrial agriculture, especially in the two aforementioned regions. By promoting "local" foods, which have no regulations, industrial agriculture can re-enter these markets under the guise of being healthy and good for the environment. 

At this point, "local" food has as much meaning as "natural" food. There are no regulations on the terminology, and so we as consumers can not know what is truly meant by the terms. The "local" potatoes at your grocery store may only be local on a global scale, and certainly are not guaranteed to be produced in any kind of sustainable or thoughtful manner. Whatever might be on a case-by-case level, without legal definitions of the term, consumers just don't know where their "local" produce is coming from. Buyer beware.
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