It has all but become an article of faith that sourcing food locally is the most sustainable alternative to our current global food production system. But there is a growing body of evidence that local may be only part of the answer.
Speaking at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions event last week, Richard Pirog, the associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, said larger regional food economies might be the solution. "We're finding that you get some of the benefits of local systems and some of the efficiencies of the broader national system," he said. "They're the best of both worlds."
For instance, I happen to live in northern New England. Fresh, local tomatoes are available here for only a few short weeks per year and the price is sky-high. If I feel that I cannot afford nearby fare, it would be far better for me to buy a commercially grown tomato from southern New England than one from Florida. Availability would not be as time-limited, the price might be more reasonable, and my purchase would keep money in the greater region and encourage the sort of transportation and marketing infrastructure needed in an economically viable food system.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University came to the same conclusion when looking at ways to curb obesity and poor diet, problems that are particularly severe in poor urban neighborhoods. Fostering a regional or "watershed-based" supply of food, they said, would enable retailers to reduce prices by "dramatically decreasing production, processing, and transportation costs and improve quality by decreasing the distance from farm to plate, lessening the need for long shelf-life processed foods better suited to traveling long distances."
But before we jump on the medium-sized-is-beautiful bandwagon, Pirog, who all but invented the term "food miles" and is author of the 1998 paper (PDF) that gave rise to the constantly repeated figure that the average produce item travels 1,500 miles before it reaches a table, cautioned that a lot of work needs to be done to determine what such a system would look like and how its various components (farmers, distributors, packers, financial backers, business consultants, government agencies, and meat processors, to name a few) would coordinate their efforts. "So far, we've just been making bits and pieces of a regional system. We haven't seen how they would operate as a cluster," he said.
Until then Pirog's advice is simple: "Eating a balanced, sustainable diet is the best thing for the environment and for your health."