Local food is poised to go mainstream, but several barriers remain in place.
We’re in the midst of a consumer revolution. People are demanding greater transparency from those they do business with in hopes of better understanding how their choices impact the world around us.
There’s no better example of this trend than our evolving relationship with food. Together, we’re awakening to how disconnected we’ve collectively become from the food we eat. More than 76% of our grocery purchases are processed foods, and the remainder is typically trucked over long distances from industrialized farms. We no longer have a sense for where our food comes from, how it’s grown or the people who grow it.
While the local food movement has steadily gained momentum over the past 50 years - due to the work of visionary pioneers like Alice Waters, Wendell Berry, Carlo Perini and many others - this growing awareness of how disconnected we’ve become from our food is helping local become more popular than ever before.
So what’s stopping local food from going mainstream?
The answer is complex, but experts typically focus on three primary barriers.
Buying local food isn’t easy. While there are more CSAs than ever before, and sales of locally sold food topped $8.7B in 2015, there still isn’t a singular set of 21st century digital tools or a national trustworthy brand to connect buyers with farmers at the local level.
The dominant distribution system is optimized for moving conventional produce great distances. Food now travels upwards of 1500 miles from farm to plate, 25% more than 20 years ago. This long-distance system is detrimental to local economies and farmer equity - today’s farmers receive less than 12 cents for every dollar in agricultural sales. Worse, it’s bad for our health - increased distance reduces nutrient density, creates more opportunity for contamination, and contributes to global warming due to increased fossil fuel consumption.
We’ve lost our agricultural roots. While we all have an instinctual understanding of the importance of food and nutrients, when we no longer fundamentally understand how food is grown and why it matters, we risk the allure of fresh, local food being lost in favor of utilitarian convenience. According to this recent study, children taught to grow their own vegetables are 5 times more likely to eat them.
Rarely, throughout the course of human history, has a generation faced such irrefutable evidence of significant transition and change as we do today. It feels as though each day we’re confronted with fresh science-based revelations that tell yet another example of how our planet is changing, often dramatically, as a direct result of our habits and values. Since the 1970’s we’ve used more than one third of our global natural resources, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and related activities are one of the leading causes of global warming having doubled over the past 50 years, and according to the UN we’re depleting topsoil at such fast rate that we only have 60 harvests left on the planet. Plus, in the US we waste approximately 40% of our food annually.
This evidence of change is tough to read, let alone conceptualize. But for us, we find solace in a singular certainty: a shift to local food has the potential to turn things around.
According to the Rodale Institute, if we were to transition the worlds’ farms to sustainable, regenerative practices we could sequester more than all carbon being emitted today through the creation of healthy soil. Most (but not all) local farms use sustainable practices that promote soil vitality and don’t rely on energy intensive techniques or synthetic pesticides. By shifting our purchases to local, we can divert resources from industrial agriculture to local, and re-engineer the supply chain.
A transition to local will help to create the new food system we need - one that’s sustainable, that accurately accounts for all costs, creates positive impacts, and supports vibrant local economies while meeting our 21st century needs and beyond.