Regional, Not Local, Sourcing May be the Solution to Our Broken Food System

Can we meet halfway?
Can we meet halfway?

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 only be 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 that 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 Masssachusetts 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 pass along savings in production 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, whoall but invented the term “food miles” and is author of the 1998 paper that gave rise to the constantly repeated figure that the average produce item travels 1,500 miles before it reaches our tables, 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.”

Post to Twitter

5 comments

  1. Excellent point. I’ve always thought that hyper-local eating is a nice, but unrealistic for many people. Regional food systems should be explored.

  2. Anastasia says:

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. I’d like to dig a little deeper, if that’s ok.

    I’m not sure science or economics is behind this statement: “it would be far better for me to buy a commercially grown tomato from southern New England than one from Florida”. Would you care to elaborate?

    Sure, tomatoes from southern New England may be more available and more reasonably priced than tomatoes from northern New England. Yes, such a purchase would “keep money in the greater region and encourage the sort of transportation and marketing infrastructure needed in an economically viable food system”.

    However, what if tomatoes are difficult to grow in southern New England? What if, in order to grow high enough yields to be profitable, SNE tomato farmers need to use more inputs than farmers in Florida? What if climate conditions make tomatoes in SNE more susceptible to disease than tomatoes in Florida?

    I don’t think the answers to questions like these are obvious. Many times, local is better than distant, and I imagine that even more often regional is better than distant regarding environmental impact of growing and transporting a crop since there is more opportunity in a region to fit climate to crop. However, I can imagine many situations where producing a particular crop in a given local area or region would simply be wasteful when another region is extremely well suited for growing that crop, even once you factor in the transportation costs.

    To make good science based comparisons between farms in different areas and the farming methods used, it would be really helpful to have an index that takes everything into consideration, from inputs, to yields, to transportation, to environmental impact of the farms. Agricultural Life Cycle Analysis is one way to do it, but it doesn’t seem to have caught on much, unfortunately. I’ve written a bit about LCAs here: http://www.biofortified.org/2008/09/reducing-the-environmental-impact-of-farming/

  3. Great information – thank you! I think about this a lot. I buy mainly from local farmers but I’m still confused as to whether or not I should give up tropical fruit. I live in Los Angeles and there are bananas, mangos, and coconuts in all the stores. I ate them a lot until I read about the global impact. So do they become an occasional treat, or is the impact really not so big?

  4. Sarah says:

    I eat mainly seasonal foods (or at least I try to) and I’ve always thought that regional food systems were the way to go. That being said, I think there is room for “luxury” items like chocolate and citrus fruit in small amounts in every diet. But this whole, everything on the planet available year round thing is not good for our taste buds or the environment.

    I think about local and regional food the way I do vegetables vs. meat. I think people should eat mostly regional, with a few forays into more exotic, non-local foods. Just like we should all be eating mostly plants, with occasional noshes on meat.

    I think the best way to get people to “convert” to local and regional foods is to get them to taste the difference between a strawberry shipped unripe from California or Florida to New York City, and an heirloom strawberry grown on a small farm or in a backyard somewhere nearby. The taste is what will get people to eat local and regional.

    Gotta say, as someone on a tight budget, I also like the idea that a regional foodshed could bring down costs! :)

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Nourish Network How Do You Define “Locavore”?

Leave a Reply