Localization -- Necessary, But Not Sufficient

05/31/2011 10:38 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2011

Co-authored by Corie N. Radka and Nora M. Müller

A recent HuffPost article by Tom Zeller on our research spawned hundreds of comments, most of them critical. These commentators incorrectly believe that we think localizing food systems is a waste of time. What our results show is that localization seen as food miles alone is not a solution to the complex problems of our food system -- we need to think in broader and deeper terms.

Our research found a major disconnect between production and consumption of fruits and vegetables (produce) for the Santa Barbara County food system: more than 99 percent of produce grown is exported, and more than 95 percent of the produce eaten here is imported into the county.

But most commentators focused on our further finding -- that eliminating imports of produce would only very slightly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and wouldn't necessarily improve nutrition at all. They misinterpreted this as our denying the importance of localization, or even that we support the corporate global food system!

In fact, our goals for localization to counter problems of the globalized food system are similar to those of many of the commentators. They include strengthening local communities (instead of multinational corporations), social justice (instead of glorification of greed), environmental health (instead of destruction), and improved nutrition and food security (instead of over-consumption of highly-processed food products).

Eating locally defined as reducing food miles (farm to retail distance) can be critical for reaching these goals. However, while localization is a necessary strategy with great potential, it is not sufficient. In addition, there is also a danger that it can obscure the real goals or even replace them, luring us into the "local trap."

We see two parts to this trap. First, it gives the corporations currently controlling our global food system the ability to use "local" as a green cloak to hide their goals which are often directly opposed to those of most localization advocates.

Second, it can make achieving goals more difficult when money and time are spent to localize in ways that don't benefit the local community. The challenge is to find options in all parts of the food system that work together to achieve social, environmental and economic goals, which we discussed in the supplement to our paper. We give some examples below.

Locally grown food can be sold by chain grocery stores that export most of the profits, and do not commit to providing local farmers fair prices or steady markets. Many chain grocery stores like Walmart are rushing to brand themselves as "local," but most make few verifiable commitments to the goals localization.

When these stores advertise local food we need to demand they document the sources and amounts, and reinvest profits in the community. We also need actions and policies that support local retailers and institutions to purchase local food through local distribution hubs. These hubs consolidate harvests into larger quantities to fill orders, which can support small farms with sustainable production practices.

Another common goal of localization is improving nutrition, but it won't be reached if nothing is done to change access to fresh local food or people's motivation to buy and prepare it. We need actions and policies like those in Santa Barbara by Public Health, the Food Bank and the s'Cool Food Initiative that help get that food to people who need it and education to those who may not know how to cook it.

Social justice is also an important goal of localization, but requires realizing that all local food systems are also part of the global food system. For example, international trade agreements like NAFTA are destroying the ability of Mexican farmers to support their local food systems, forcing them to migrate to the U.S. to grow our "local" food. Therefore, localization needs to support not only fair working conditions for farm workers in the U.S., but changing international trade agreements to support local food system justice everywhere.

Finally, we need to remember what individual eaters and local communities can have the most control over in the short term, which also plays a huge role in determining the impacts of our food system -- our food choices. In contrast, food miles have a relatively small effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as our and other research has shown.

For example, animal agriculture accounts for the majority of negative environmental, health and social problems in our food system. Simply reducing the amount of animal products, especially red meat and dairy, can have dramatic impacts.

While our research focused on only one aspect of our local food system, it shows how important it is to see localization (reducing food miles) as an often necessary, but not sufficient, strategy for achieving our broader social, environmental and economic goals. We need to keep those goals clearly in mind.


Corie N. Radka, recent graduate of UCSB with majors in Environmental Studies and Zoology, currently a research assistant in Environmental Studies.

Nora M. Müller, former UCSB Environmental Studies major, currently a grad student at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, Paris.

Cleveland is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at UCSB, and the inaugural Sustainability Champion for 2009-10. He is a human ecologist whose research and teaching focuses on small-scale, sustainable agriculture. He has worked with farmers around the world, including Ghana, Mexico, Pakistan, Zuni and Hopi. His current research includes the potential effects of localizing the Santa Barbara County food system on climate change, nutrition and community.