The Localization of Agriculture

Mobilizing to Save Civilizationby Lester R. Brown

In the United States, there has been a surge of interest in eating fresh local foods, corresponding with mounting concerns about the climate effects of consuming food from distant places and about the obesity and other health problems associated with junk food diets. This is reflected in the rise in urban gardening, school gardening, and farmers’ markets.

With the fast-growing local foods movement, diets are becoming more locally shaped and more seasonal. In a typical supermarket in an industrial country today it is often difficult to tell what season it is because the store tries to make everything available on a year-round basis. As oil prices rise, this will become less common. In essence, a reduction in the use of oil to transport food over long distances—whether by plane, truck, or ship—will also localize the food economy.

Local food = more farmers

young organic farmer

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdickert/ / CC BY 2.0

This trend toward localization is reflected in the recent rise in the number of farms in the United States, which may be the reversal of a century-long trend of farm consolidation. Between the agricultural census of 2002 and that of 2007, the number of farms in the United States increased by 4 percent to roughly 2.2 million. The new farms were mostly small, many of them operated by women, whose numbers in farming jumped from 238,000 in 2002 to 306,000 in 2007, a rise of nearly 30 percent.

Many of the new farms cater to local markets. Some produce fresh fruits and vegetables exclusively for farmers’ markets or for their own roadside stands. Others produce specialized products, such as the goat farms that produce milk, cheese, and meat or the farms that grow flowers or wood for fireplaces. Others specialize in organic food. The number of organic farms in the United States jumped from 12,000 in 2002 to 18,200 in 2007, increasing by half in five years.

Local food = a growth in gardening

organic garden

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sshreeves/ / CC BY 2.0

Gardening was given a big boost in the spring of 2009 when U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama worked with children from a local school to dig up a piece of lawn by the White House to start a vegetable garden. There was a precedent. Eleanor Roosevelt planted a White House victory garden during World War II. Her initiative encouraged millions of victory gardens that eventually grew 40 percent of the nation’s fresh produce.

Although it was much easier to expand home gardening during World War II, when the United States was largely a rural society, there is still a huge gardening potential—given that the grass lawns surrounding U.S. residences collectively cover some 18 million acres. Converting even a small share of this to fresh vegetables and fruit trees could make an important contribution to improving nutrition.

Many cities and small towns in the United States and England are creating community gardens that can be used by those who would otherwise not have access to land for gardening. Providing space for community gardens is seen by many local governments as an essential service, like providing playgrounds for children or tennis courts and other sport facilities.

Local food = more farmers markets

farmers market

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nataliemaynor/ / CC BY 2.0

Many market outlets are opening up for local produce. Perhaps the best known of these are the farmers’ markets where local farmers bring their produce for sale. In the United States, the number of these markets increased from 1,755 in 1994 to more than 4,700 in mid-2009, nearly tripling over 15 years. Farmers’ markets reestablish personal ties between producers and consumers that do not exist in the impersonal confines of the supermarket. Many farmers’ markets also now take food stamps, giving low-income consumers access to fresh produce that they might not otherwise be able to afford. With so many trends now boosting interest in these markets, their numbers may grow even faster in the future.

In school gardens, children learn how food is produced, a skill often lacking in urban settings, and they may get their first taste of freshly picked peas or vine-ripened tomatoes. School gardens also provide fresh produce for school lunches. California, a leader in this area, has 6,000 school gardens.

Many schools and universities are now making a point of buying local food because it is fresher, tastier, and more nutritious and it fits into new campus greening programs. Some universities compost kitchen and cafeteria food waste and make the compost available to the farmers who supply them with fresh produce.

Supermarkets are increasingly contracting with local farmers during the season when locally grown produce is available. Upscale restaurants emphasize locally grown food on their menus. In some cases, year-round food markets are evolving that market just locally produced foods, including not only fruit and vegetables but also meat, milk, cheese, eggs, and other farm products.

Local food = environmental benefits

Food from more distant locations boosts carbon emissions while losing flavor and nutrition. A survey of food consumed in Iowa showed conventional produce traveled on average 1,500 miles, not including food imported from other countries. In contrast, locally grown produce traveled on average 56 miles—a huge difference in fuel investment. And a study in Ontario, Canada, found that 58 imported foods traveled an average of 2,800 miles. Simply put, consumers are worried about food security in a long-distance food economy. This trend has led to a new term: locavore, complementing the better known terms herbivore, carnivore, and omnivore.

Concerns about the climate effects of consuming food transported from distant locations has also led Tesco, the leading U.K. supermarket chain, to label products with their carbon footprint—indicating the greenhouse gas contribution of food items from the farm to supermarket shelf. Sweden is a recent pioneer in labeling food with its carbon footprint along with nutritional facts.

As agriculture localizes, livestock production will likely start to shift away from mega-sized cattle, hog, and poultry feeding operations. The shift from factory farm production of milk, meat, and eggs by returning to mixed crop-livestock operations facilitates nutrient recycling as local farmers return livestock manure to the land. The combination of high prices of natural gas, which is used to make nitrogen fertilizer, and of phosphate, as reserves are depleted, suggests a much greater future emphasis on nutrient recycling—an area where small farmers producing for local markets have a distinct advantage over massive feeding operations.

In combination with moving down the food chain to eat fewer livestock products, reducing the food miles in our diets can dramatically reduce energy use in the food economy. And as world food insecurity mounts, more and more people will be looking to produce some of their own food in backyards, in front yards, on rooftops, in community gardens, and elsewhere, further contributing to the localization of agriculture.

Adapted from Chapter 9, “Feeding Eight Billion People Well,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at http://www.earthpolicy.org/index.php?/book_bytes/2009/pb4ch09_ss5

  1. Jess

    What a great summary of some of the benefits of the local food movement!

    I would also add that local food = stronger communities. Not only does purchasing from small farmers support the local economy, learning where your food comes from also means you… know where your food comes from! The human interactions and relationships formed by a flourishing local food movement result in stronger, more engaged and resilient communities.

  2. Uncle B

    We eat local foods at home! We pressure can, dry, pickle, kraut, wine, salt and brew all to preserve summer’s bounties and any mistakes the super markets and butcher’s shops make too! We cloth ourselves from rummage sales, church affairs and hand-me downs, and have given up car ownership all-together! We have cash left over to support local charities, and actually donate potatoes, and tomatoes each year to the food banks in our town! This second-hand computer with Ubuntu, the free OS downloaded from the net, works fine! All our canning bottles are bought used at yard sales, as are the bottles we fill with wine and beer, root beer, and ginger beer. We even made a fine dandelion wine one year and have a stock left for aging in the cellar! Sauerkraut has given us large amounts of condiment to go with summer and winter sausages, and pickled fish and canned beef fill in the winters meals with nutritious protein. We bake bread, and can get more out of a bag of flour by sour-doughing than you can from the dollars spent on baker’s bread, and we like course grained rough ground fours which are generally cheaper and best kept frozen before use. dried veggies with dried herbs and some chicken broth make for very appetizing soups, and Boston Baked Beans made in an iron pot, with pork hawks or shoulder roast, then pressure- canned for keeping, makes for supper’s delight! Home brew, dark and sweet, rough bread and beans with big hunks of meat! come-on now, that’s got to beat Mc Donald’s hands down! Retirement and a small scrap of land on the edge of town doesn’t get any better.

  3. Tyler Gilbertson

    Lately I have found interest in thinking outside the box with a variety of different topics. In order to “think outside the box”, I unfortunately feel like I have to tell myself to do so; This didn’t occur after reading your analysis. When thinking outside the box, you seem to find much positive out of a negative situation. For instance, when you described the oil crisis as being a negative situation because we are forced to pay more for fuel. Like you said, although it hits the wallet hard when having to fill your tank, it is outlook towards the localization of food.
    Schools and universities growing gardens on their own premises because of budget cuts, is a great example of a possible negative situation turned around with a positive outlook. Children learning how to garden and understand the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables in their diets seems to be as important early in their lives as learning how to eat in general. Coming from an obesity epidemic stand point, this type of action shows adolescents a sustainable lifestyle to live by.
    Your summary of positive outlooks to localizing agriculture was beyond superb but here are a few more reasons to buy local and/or join a local farm. As more and more local food options become available, the community as a whole most likely will increase their social basis. In result, the community becomes closer together.
    Joining a community supported agriculture program gives you and your family a chance to invest in your own well-being. Most likely there is a high variety of different food options throughout the season which is fresh, flavorful and contains a high amount of vitamins. With these three alone, you are already improving your health through a better diet. When an order has been received by a family, it is a great opportunity to involve children when opening the box of fresh fruit. CSA can improve the knowledge of adults and children as each individual understands how, where and by whom their food is grown. For the consumer, different varieties and recipes may be introduced to yet another direction available to take in your diet.
    As a CSA producer, farmers are able to share the risk of farming with members and have a chance to get to know the people they are growing for (creating a positive farmer consumer relationship). By cutting out the “middle-man” to this type of change, producers generally receive a higher and fairer return. No matter who the producer is, it is vital to make an income. With CSA, farmers are guaranteed a secure income which is most commonly pain in advance.

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