A recent glut of books, studies and news articles aim to perpetuate the argument that local food is actually less environmentally friendly than its industrially raised counterpart. Claims range from "factory farms are better for the environment because they are more centralized" to "local farmers are not sophisticated enough to provide adequate food safety precautions."
The contentions that local food's opponents are putting forth are actually founded largely on credible data, and this is in part why the "controversy" surrounding local food persists. However, examining why locavorism does or does not make sense in 21st Century America via only one or two specific data points is leading people to the wrong conclusions.
While authors, the media and the entities paying for some of these studies all have vested interest in stirring the pot -- either selling books and magazines or maintaining their hold on our food system -- I think the American public is smart enough to see through these one-dimensional arguments, to hold more than one idea in our mind when it comes to local food.
Most local food advocates now know that the notion of food miles (the distance food travels from farm to table) isn't a proxy for sustainability, i.e., short distances don't always equal less energy. And yes, transportation only accounts for a small percentage of the environmental impact of food production. That does not mean, however, that food grown on small-scale farms is not planet-friendly.
In fact, when you add in the issues that climate change is creating, local food's practicality and environmental importance becomes even clearer. With this summer's drought and the devastating hurricane Sandy nearly unanimously attributed in part to climate change, the need for localized food systems is increasing. They provide insurance against natural disasters happening thousands of miles away disrupting the food supply system where we live. Predictions of increased flooding, wildfire, drought and powerful storm systems signal increasing risk to the infrastructure that allows tomatoes to travel routinely from Florida to Ohio. Locally grown food provides a safety net in this increasingly unpredictable situation.
Another benefit local food provides in this age of climate change: early warning. In Santa Cruz, where I grew up, a put-down among local farmers regarding other farmers was that they should "go to Chualar" -- an area where nothing would grow. Now, Chualar is a burgeoning growing region for grapes, lettuce and strawberries. In the space of 20 years, a region once generally considered inhospitable to these crops is now producing them in abundance. These are the realities of climate change, and local farmers are on the frontlines. Especially in rural areas, where formal studies on the local impact of climate change may be few and far between, the anecdotal evidence that local farmers can provide -- the same sort of knowledge that was passed around and led to "go to Chualar" becoming sage advice versus an insult -- is essential to understanding what is happening around us.
Local food impacts our quality of life beyond its positive environmental effects. When urban land use is agricultural, the amount of open space in a geographical area is increased. This type of open space provides not only economic benefits in the form of increased property values in these urban and semi-urban areas, but aesthetic and ecological benefits as well.
And then there is community. Farmers' markets have figuratively replaced the town square, something we have lost over the last decades due to sprawl and urbanization. In many communities around the country, farmers' markets are where we chat with neighbors, make new connections and find out about the issues at play in our communities. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, there are 7864 farmers' markets operating today -- a 348% increase since 1994. Clearly they are providing value to the American public.
The pace of modern American life is such that we want -- maybe even need -- to boil complex issues down to essential truths. Yet isolating a few specific factors and extrapolating solely from these to proclaim that local food is not eco-friendly, or not a viable solution, is irresponsible. This is not to say that measuring a single issue like carbon emissions as it relates to food production and transportation is not important; it is vitally important.
But, there are many more factors at play -- some very tangible, some less so -- in evaluating the importance of local food. We are literally losing ground in this country, and the role that local food plays in ensuring we are preserving and protecting that ground -- and the communities built on it, the lives lived on it -- should no longer be up for debate.