What if Local Food Isn't Actually Best?

More
estabrook_regionalfoods_5-29_post.jpg

Cloudforest/flickr


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."

Jump to comments
Presented by

Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon About the Toys in Your Cereal Box

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In