Why Local: Making tomorrow sustainable is a task for today

by Sam Ihm, Promotions Coordinator

While more grocery stores carry local produce in response to consumer demand, it’s important to understand why local food is more than just a fad. Fads come and go, but the benefits of robust local food systems and the reasons to support them endure.

Health issue

For people and planet, buying local is a health issue.  We eat to nourish ourselves, so why not give yourself the best available? Food that is grown, harvested, and consumed locally is generally fresher and more nutritious. According to food researcher and author Michael Pollan, “The longer produce spends in a truck, the more tired it gets; many of its nutrients — vitamins, anti-oxidants, phytochemicals of all kinds — deteriorate over time” (1). The concept of “food miles” was invented to bring attention to this double-edged issue, as truck travel affects not only personal health, but environmental health through the burning of fossil fuels. Pollan continues, “The average fruit or vegetable on an American plate has traveled 1500 miles from the farm”. By reducing food miles, local consumption drastically lowers our carbon footprint. Common Ground defines local as within 100 miles of the store.

Another key environmental benefit of local food systems is the farmer’s relationship with the land. Feeding the soil is an integral aspect of land use for local producers. Soil health is improved year over year through composting and regular crop rotation, and organic farms are more likely to become carbon sinks, retaining hazardous atmospheric carbon in the soil (2).  Carbon sequestration is becoming widely recognized as a potential solution to climate change: “there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in the ground where it can be used” (3). But it only works with well-managed soil, fed with enough organic matter to foster the microbes that actually transform the carbon into workable soil.

Composting and other effective soil management strategies are common among organic farms and make communities more resilient to ecological crises like drought, erosion, and wildfire in other parts of the country. The potential for local food systems to mitigate the effects of climate change merits many more words and much more attention. But for brevity’s sake, when we buy local, we are doing our part to reduce the negative environmental impacts of agriculture, while nourishing ourselves with what grows around us.

Economic & social issue

Seasoned farmer and poet Wendell Berry reminds us that beyond preserving practices and soil, local food systems “preserve the working capital of a place” (4). The more we rely on those within our own community to provide for us, the more we strengthen the local economy. Buying from local producers enables them to continue serving the community while simultaneously expanding the market to accommodate more small, local producers. A diversified economy with a greater number of small producers is more stable than one supporting more large, industrial-scale operations. A strong and stable local food economy is imperative for long-term sustainability.

Strengthening the local producer-consumer connection is a social issue as much as it is economic. Instead of outsourcing food production to an impersonal corporation and reaping none of the benefits, we’re connecting our own community’s resources. Buying from other community members – people you know, or even could know – is inherently rewarding. “Know your food” is the mantra at the heart of the co-op’s ethic to foster conscious consumerism. Getting food from a local producer builds the trust that you are getting what you pay for, which is the quality of the food and the knowledge that it was grown with care and concern for community.

Two recent scandals highlight the dangers of not knowing one’s food. First, a test of “so-called organic products imported from China found that 37% of the 232 samples showed pesticide residue” (5). Second, an industrial chicken giant which supplies poultry for Taco Bell, Popeye’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the US federal school lunch program was just cited as “among the most dangerous workplaces in America” and nabbed for exploiting immigrant workers (6).

Political issue

Increasingly, dietary concerns have turned food issues mainstream. But with more attention paid to personal health, less has been paid to the serious political issues that underlie our food system. In the age of corporatization, food has been hit hard. The National Grocers Association has spent nearly $3 million on lobbying members of Congress with an additional $300,000 given in gifts since 1996 (7). Monsanto gave $6,000,000 in the 2012 election cycle and another $4,600,000 throughout 2016. And in 2015, $101 million was spent by groups that oppose the labeling of GMOs (8). Although a law mandating GMO-labeling takes effect in 2018, the effort to oppose transparency has been remarkable. Local food is all about transparency, so the more that it is threatened, the more it becomes the solution.

Politics is power. Farming’s transformation into an industrial-scale business has shifted the power from the people to the corporations – it will take resilient opposition to regain that power. The decades-old revolving door between the food industry and the USDA and other federal agencies has led to regulations and a culture that favor large, industrial operations over small people invested in their community. These mass-producers are also mass-polluters who boast fewer nutrients per acre than their small farm counterparts, in addition to having an energy output that is just 1/12 the input when accounting for seed, pesticide, and fertilizer manufacturing, and transportation (9).

The aforementioned economic diversification that is so important to local food movements is threatened by today’s dangerous trend toward the elimination of local cultivars and the fact that 60% of the seed market is controlled by just four seed companies. The corn market is the worst off, with the Big Four owning 80% (10). This bloated market has skyrocketed entry costs to deter small farmers, only worsening the trend.

The more dire the situation, however, the more obvious our solution becomes. We must continue to fortify our local food system as we are able because with it survives our ability to choose alternatives to this destructive paradigm. We must create our own sustainable system rather than relying on unsustainable, irresponsible industrial mass-production.

When we, as a society, have outsourced the production of our own food to people who have little concern for our wellbeing and no personal connection to us, we lose touch. We lose our sense of place and with it, our relationship to the land that nourishes us. When the soil becomes a commodity, we no longer see it as something that is vital to our health. And when decades of irresponsibility turn the humus to dust, we have only ourselves to blame and only ourselves to look toward to make it better. So, we vote with our dollar, we support our community, and we protect our future by buying local. Above all, it is an ecological issue.


“Nature is a party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” – Wendell Berry



1: http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/eat-your-view/

2: https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=297

3: www.washingtonpost.com/sf/brand-connect/ucdavis/a-climate-change-solution-beneath-our-feet/

4: e360.yale.edu/features/interview_wendell_berry_a_strong_voice_for_local_farming_and_the_land

5: http://www.foodandwine.com/news/how-36-million-pounds-fake-organic-food-ended-in-us

6: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/08/exploitation-and-abuse-at-the-chicken-plant

7: https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs

8: http://www.ewg.org/research/lobbying-anti-labeling-groups-tops-100m

9: Ackerman-Leist, Rebuilding the Foodshed (2013)

10: http://farmaid.org