Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Benefits of Local Food -watch your assumptions...

Here's an article that's been floating around online - I've seen it pop up on facebook a bunch. It's full of arguments I hear all the time about why local food is better. While I love the positive press for local food, there's some assumptions made in these arguments that I have to admit I find misleading. Here's a shortened version - the original article is here

Benefits of Local Food: 

By Erika Ichinose Pijai, MS, RD, CDN
  • Local food travels fewer miles to land on your plate: The farther food travels, the more energy and gasoline must be used to get the food to your plate. Buying local will save energy costs and valuable non-renewable resources.
  • Local food tastes better: Local food tastes better because it is fresher and has been grown or created with the consumer in mind.
  • Local produce is more nutritious: The less time that passes between farm and table, the fewer nutrients fresh produce will lose.
  • Local produce stays fresh longer: Since the produce was picked the day before, it will last longer in your refrigerator (if you can hold off from devouring it!).
  • Local produce is safe: Local farmers are not anonymous and they take their responsibility to the consumer seriously. The risk for major E. coli outbreaks will be slim to none with locally-grown produce.
  • Local food preserves genetic diversity: While conventional farming practices mono-cropping with limited plant varieties, smaller local farms often grow many different varieties and rotate their crops to provide a long harvest season with an array of different colors and flavors.
  • Local produce benefits the environment and wildlife: Well-managed farms conserve fertile
    soil and clean water in our communities.
  • Local food connects you to the land through the farmers who grow your food: Talking to the very farmer who grew and picked your food gives you insight into the relationship between the seasons, the land, and your food.

This all sounds wonderful. And much of it may often be true, but there are 2 things I feel a need to point out:

 1. This one is most important in my mind: 'local' and 'organic' are entirely different principles! Factory farms are local to somewhere. Local meat & produce is NOT necessarily safe. It doesn't necessarily benefit the environment and wildlife. It doesn't necessarily preserve genetic diversity. There's a better chance that locally-grown food is produced more sustainably since farms that sell locally tend to be smaller and smaller farms tend to have more careful & diverse growing practices....but that's quite the chain of mere tendencies. If you want sustainably-produced food, choosing "local" is not enough. Organic certification requires adherence to a range of sustainability standards. Organic is about production practices. Local is about distribution practices. They're both valuable and important. They're just not the same thing.

2. Local produce is not necessarily fresher, nor is it necessarily tastier or more nutritious. It has the capacity to be these things, since it doesn't have to travel. But a local farmer could choose to store meat, vegetables or fruit for weeks before distributing them. A local farmer may still be selling through a distributor who doesn't move the food quickly. A local farmer may also be growing for distant markets. Ask when it was harvested! If the seller doesn't know, they didn't grow it themselves.

The benefits of "local" (for you, the environment AND the farmer) sometimes break down when you aren't buying direct from a grower. Ask questions at the farmers market. Find out about growing practices. Find out just how far your "local" food travelled. If you're concerned about health - for the environment and for your body, choose local, small-scale AND organic.

The last point in the article above is key: talk to the farmer if you can - build a relationship you can trust. Buying local is incredibly valuable. Just don't be duped into assuming it's something it's not.