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Local food (also regional food) is a principle of sustainability relying on consumption of food products that are locally grown. It is part of the concept of local purchasing, a preference to buy locally produced goods and services.
The concept is often related to the slogan Think globally, act locally, common in green politics. Those supporting development of a local food economy consider that since food is needed by everyone, everywhere, everyday, a small change in the way it is produced and marketed will have a great effect on health, the ecosystem and preservation of cultural diversity. They say shopping decisions favoring local food consumption directly affect the well-being of people, improve local economies and may be ecologically more sustainable.
In general, local food is in opposition to the ideas of global free trade. Critics argue that by convincing consumers in developed nations not to buy food produced in the third world, the local food movement damages the economy of third world nations, which often rely heavily on food exports and cash crops.
Critics also say that local food tends to be more expensive to the consumer than regular food and could never provide the variety of foods currently available (such as having summer vegetables available in winter, or having kinds of food available which can not be locally produced due to soil or climate conditions).
However, proponents indicate that the lower price of regular food (which is sometimes called cheap food ) is often due to governmental subsidies (in the form of price supports or direct payments or tax breaks ) and often does not take into account the true cost of the product. They further indicate that buying local food does not necessarily mean giving up all food coming from distant ecoregions, but rather favoring local foods when available.
What defines local or regional?
The definition of local or regional is quite flexible and is disputed. Some see "local" as being a very small area (typically, the size of a city and its surroundings), others suggest the ecoregion size, while others refer to the borders of their nation or state.
However, some proponents of "local food" consider that "local" has little to do with distance or with the size of a "local" area. For example, some see the American state of Texas as being "local", though that state is much larger than some European countries. In this case, transporting a food product across Texas could involve a longer distance than that between a northern and a southern European country.
It is also argued that national borders should preferably not be used to define what is local. For people living in, say, the south of England, food produced in northern France is more "local" than food produced in Scotland. Similarly, a cheese produced in Alsace is likely to be more "local" to German people living in Frankfurt, than to French people living in Marseille.
Where local food is determined by the distance it has travelled, the wholesale distribution system can confuse the calculations. Fresh food that is grown very near to where it will be purchased, may still travel hundreds of miles through the system before arriving back at a local store. This is seen as a labelling issue by local food advocates, who suggest that, at least in the case of fresh food, consumers should be able to see exactly how far each food item has travelled.
Local is also often seen in terms of ecology, where food production is considered from the perspective of a basic ecological unit defined by its climate, soil, watershed, species and local agrisystems , a unit also called an ecoregion.
Local food is often equated with organic food
Local food is, by definition, food locally grown.
Many local food proponents tend to equate local food with food produced by local independent farmers, while equating non-local food with food produced and transformed by large agribusiness. They may support resisting globalization of food by pressing for policy changes and choosing to buy local food.
Local food is also often interpreted as being organic, or produced by farmers who adopt sustainable and humane practices, while non-local food is often seen as a result of corporate management policies, heavy subsidies, poor animal welfare, lack of care for the environment, and poor working conditions. This limited interpretation is likely due to the fact that the organic movement is largely responsible for renewed public interest in local and regional markets. Those subscribing to this interpretation often insist on buying food directly from local family farms, through direct channels such as farmers' markets, food cooperatives and community-supported agriculture plans.
For many, local food is interpreted as unprocessed food, to be transformed by the consumer or local shop rather than by the food industry. As such, local food (as opposed to global food ) reduces or eliminates the costs of transport, processing, packaging, and advertising.
As large food corporations and supermarket distribution steadily dominate the organic food market, the concept of local food is increasingly being used by independent farmers, food activists, and consumers to refine the definition of organic food and organic agriculture. By this measure, food that is certified organic but not grown locally is viewed as possibly "less organic" or not of the same overall quality or benefit, as locally grown organic products. Some consumers see the general advantages of "organic" as also invested in "locally grown", therefore local food not grown "organically" may trump generically "organic" in purchase decisions. Also, because local food tends to be fresh (or minimally processed, such as cheese and milk), as opposed to processed food, the bias against processed food is often at least implicit in the local food argument. The marketing phrase, fresh, local, organic, summarizes these arguments.
Impacts of local food systems
A goal of a local food system might be to minimize food transport distance. A consumer report published in 2003 by The Guardian newspaper in the UK found that a selection of 20 fresh food items purchased from British supermarkets had travelled an average of 5,000 miles each; in North America, an average fresh food transport distance of 1,000-1,500 miles is often cited. Transport costs must consider weight as well as distance. If food is processed, it may lose weight compared with unprocessed food. To the extent it is processed nearer production, less weight is transported a longer distance. If it is processed by the consumer, more weight may be transported, though the trip from production to processing can be avoided. The amount of fossil fuel consumed and CO2 emissions released in the atmosphere of more local, unprocessed food compared with less local, processed food are thus ambiguous. This issue is addressed by the field of regional science.
Another effect could be an increase in food quality and taste. Locally grown fresh food can be consumed almost immediately after harvest, so it may be sold fresher and usually riper (e.g. picked at peak maturity, as it would be from a home garden). Also, the need for chemical preservatives and irradiation to artificially extend shelf-life can be reduced or eliminated.
One food quality argument holds that better nutrition results when people eat food grown in the ecoregion in which they live. The general theory is that regional conditions affect the composition of plants and animals, and eating local provides an optimized nutritional fit. Scientifically, this has neither been proven nor disproven.
Agrisystems and sustainable farming
A major potential effect of local food systems is to encourage multiple cropping, i.e., growing multiple species and a wide variety of crops at the same time and same place, as opposed to the prevalent commercial practice of large-scale, single-crop monoculture).
With a higher demand for a variety of agricultural products, farmers are more likely to diversify their production, thereby making it easier to farm in a sustainable way. For example, winter intercropping (e.g. coverage of leguminous crops during winter) and crop rotation may reduce pest pressure, and so the use of pesticides. Also, in an animal/crop multiculture system, the on-farm byproducts like manure and crop residues may be used to replace chemical fertilizers, while on-farm produced silage and leguminous crops may feed the cattle instead of imported soya. Manure and residues being considered as by-products rather than waste, will have reduced effects on the environment, and reduction in soya import is likely to be economically interesting for the farmer, as well as more secure (because of a decrease of market dependence on outside inputs).
In a polycultural agrisystem, there is usually a more efficient use of human capital (labour) (as each crop has a different cycle of culture, hence different time of intensive care), minimization of risk (lesser effect of extreme weather as one crop can compensate another), reduction of insect and disease incidence (diseases are usually crop specific), maximization of results with low levels of technology (intensive monoculture cropping often involves very high-technology material and sometimes the use of genetically modified seeds). Multiculture also preserve indigenous biodiversity.
These farming approaches happen to be the essence of the organic farming approach, although local farming is at present predominantly not, and doesn't have to be, strictly "organic" (from, for example, a certification standpoint).
Local food production would seem to strengthen local economies by protecting small farms, local jobs, and local shops, thereby increasing food security.
One example of an effort in this direction is community-supported agriculture (CSA), where consumers purchase advance shares in a local farmer's annual production, and pick up their shares, usually weekly, from communal distribution points. In effect, CSA members become active participants in local farming, by providing up-front cash to finance seasonal expenses, sharing in the risks and rewards of the growing conditions, and taking part in the distribution system. Some CSA set-ups require members to contribute a certain amount of labor, in a form of cooperative venture.
The popular resurgence of farmers' markets in many parts of the world, including Europe and North America, contributes to local economies. Farmers' markets are traditional in many societies, bringing together local food and craft producers for the convenience of local consumers. Today, some urban farmers' markets are large-scale enterprises, attracting tens of thousands on a market day, and vendors are not always "local". However, the majority of markets are still built around actual local farmers.
Another at present small but notable trend is local food as part of a barter system. In localized economies, where a variety of common goods and services are provided by individuals and businesses within the immediate community (as opposed to by outlets and branches of large corporations), a direct of exchange of values is quite feasible. Some CSA projects, for example, trade services or labor for food.
Particularly in the developed nations, the move away from local food to agribusiness over the last 100 years has had a profound socioeconomic effect, by redistributing populations into urban areas, and concentrating ownership of land and capital. In addition, the traditional farming skill set, which by necessity included a diverse range of knowledge and abilities required to manage a farm, has given way to new generations of specialists. When farming for local consumption was a cornerstone of local economies, the farmer was an integral, leading member of the community, a far different position from today. Support for local food is seen by some as a way to rediscover valuable community structures, values and perspectives.
Pioneering and influential work in the area of local economies was done by noted economist E. F. Schumacher.
History of the local food movement
The local food movement in the European Union has been hindered by EU rules requiring things produced in the EU, including food, to be marked as products of the EU, rather than as products of any particular country. The instinct of customers to buy nationally produced food in the name of patriotism was deemed to be a barrier to free trade. Of course, as was mentioned above, for people living in the South of England, food produced in Northern France is more "local" than food produced in Scotland.
- colonial food
- food seasonality
- Slow Food
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