Local Food Systems: A Food Citizens Quest for Sustainability

Local food systems improve food and nutrition security, conserve natural resources, and promote sustainable development and community-based agriculture.

Globalization of the food industry has led to a cascade of environmental, economic and social implications. Interest in community-based, local food systems are emerging to alleviate some of these effects. The global food system was developed to increase efficiency in production, diversify consumer choice, and ultimately decrease consumer expense. As a profit-based model, the food industry failed to see its impacts on the environment, our health and community welfare. As we approach the third decade of this millennium the impacts of globalization are increasingly evident and continue to collectively undermine sustainability. Local food systems improve food and nutrition security, conserve natural resources, and promote sustainable development and community-based agriculture.

There is currently no consensus on the geographical distance that defines “local”. There was an attempt to define this term in the 2008 Farm Act, that stated that any food labeled “local” must be produced in the “locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from its origin.” For context, Vancouver Island is 290 miles in length and 62 miles at its widest point (Hello BC, 2016). A 400-mile radius would include most of Southern and Central BC, extending just beyond the BC-Alberta border. To the south the radius would include all of Washington and most of Oregon, USA. This geographical radius provides us with a sufficient range of food choices and geographical landscapes to support a number of crop varieties.

Although local food selections often cost more than those from conventional suppliers, the benefits substantiate the expense. Local foods increase the internal health of individuals, promote higher standards of environmental sustainability, and improve community well-being.

Health Benefits:

Most nutrients begin to degrade the moment foods are picked (GRACE Communications Foundation, 2015). Local, plant-based foods can be harvested when they are ripe and nutrient dense. This allows the plant to fully mature as intended, intensifying the concentration and quality of nutrients (Alsaffar, 2015). Conventional agriculture requires a longer interval between food harvesting and consumption, which impacts the nutrients within.

A carrot for example, travels on average 1,838 miles before reaching your dinner table (Kresser, 2012). The amount of time between harvesting and consumption significantly decreases the quality and source of vitamins and minerals, anti-oxidants and phytochemicals. A study at Penn State University found that spinach lost 47% of its folate after 8 days (Kresser, 2012). This degradation is occurring regardless of whether produce is conventionally grown or organic. Fruits and vegetables picked closer to ripeness are more nutritious than produce, organic or not, picked too early (Goldberg, 2014).

Local, plant-based foods can be harvested when they are ripe and nutrient dense.

Plant-based foods have been cross-bred and scientifically altered to provide high yield crops, and plants that can withstand the time required to travel (Alsaffar, 2015). This has created a reduction in genetic diversity and available plant varieties. “Local food encourages diversification of local agriculture, which preserves genetic diversity, and reduces the reliance on monoculture” (Martinko, 2016). Corn, for example, has 59 different varieties of which most are under threat. With the introduction of Monsanto’s GMO seeds (Chow, 2016), all heirloom varieties of corn are under threat of extinction. Other varieties of this crop provide the Mexican culture with many difference uses of corn and a variety of flavours and nutrients, textures and appearances. More importantly, genetic diversity helps to withstand varying weather conditions and vulnerability to disease; this is more likely to ensure a good harvest, with the accompanying economic security for local farmers (Chow, 2016).

In addition to the degradation of food quality and genetic integrity, the manner in which large-scale food systems are designed (i.e. consolidation of large quantities of food into a single space for mass production, packaging and distribution), increases the risk of contamination. “The consolidation of meat and produce production, including animal slaughter and processing, leads to a greater risk of improper processing, handling, or preparation, affecting vast quantities of food” (GRACE Communications Foundation, 2015). The Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV), as one recent example, has presented itself in an alarming number of dairy farms in the USA. Recent studies found that 89 percent of dairy operations in the USA contain BLV positive cows (Buehring, Philpott, and Choi, 2014). A 2007 study testing the milk for contamination revealed that 100 percent of the big factory farms tested positive for infected milk (Buehring, Philpott, and Choi, 2014). The BLV virus has been linked to 37 percent of breast cancer cases in the US, and poses serious threat to those who consume the infected dairy products (Greger, 2016). Comparatively, local meats are typically sourced from animals raised sustainably on grass pastures, which has recently been shown to yield higher nutrients and healthy Omega 3’s with anti-inflammatory qualities. Grass-fed beef is higher in “good” cholesterol, higher in vitamins A and E, lower in fat, and contains more antioxidants than factory farmed beef (Underwood, 2012). It has also been shown that most local foods are less likely to be contaminated by agricultural chemicals (such as pesticides), antibiotics and hormones, all of which are common in conventional food products (Underwood, 2012).

A recent studies found that 89 percent of dairy operations in the USA contain Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV) positive cows.

Environmental Sustainability:

Agriculture, which came into being between 5,000 to 10,000 years ago (Weisdorf, 2005), was developed as a means of efficient and simple food production, relative to traditional hunting and gathering techniques. Researchers calculated that a farm in the 1920’s would expend 1 calorie of energy to yield 3 calories from the food produced (Hellwinckel, 2011). Over the past 100 years this efficiency has decreased significantly as our dependence on fossil fuels has grown. Petroleum based machinery is currently used to plant, water, spray, harvest, process and transport foods. In 2010 it was estimated that 7 calories of petroleum based energy were required to produce 1 calorie of food available for consumers (Hellwinckel, 2011).

Over the last 100 years, globalization of the food industry shifted agriculture towards a profit-based model leading to numerous inefficiencies. Increasingly, foods such as crab, salmon and chicken, caught and farmed in Canada and the USA, are shipped to China for processing before being returned to our grocery stores for consumption. Regardless of the transportation costs, it is cheaper to process these foods in China due to a significantly cheaper labour rate (Deike, 2014). Trident Seafoods is a US-based company that ships approximately 30 million pounds of its 1.2 billion-pound annual harvests to China (Deike, 2014). The founder of Trident, when questioned of the rationale remarks, “there are 36 pin bones in a salmon and the best way to remove them is by hand, something that would cost us $1 per pound labor here, they get it done for 20 cents in China” (Deike, 2014).

The energy required for current agricultural methods has contributed to this significant increase in reliance on fossil fuels and ultimately to an unsustainable food production system.

The energy required for current agricultural methods has contributed to this significant increase in reliance on fossil fuels and ultimately to an unsustainable food production system. Locally grown food is typically associated with fewer negative environmental impacts. With reduced processing and transportation required for local foods, the carbon and water footprints are significantly less. With a large amount of research concluding that our oil production will peak in the early 2000’s, before 2020, it seems imperative to lessen our dependence on this energy source. “If our supply of oil were infinite and the atmosphere could handle unlimited amounts of carbon dioxide without global temperatures being affected, this imbalance would not be so concerning” (Hellwinckel, 2011).

Other environmental impacts include, extensive deforestation and its associate impacts related to erosion and loss of carbon sequestration, the contamination of our water supplies from pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other commercial chemicals used in conventional agriculture, and the significant contribution of greenhouse gas emissions due to methane produced by cows and the bi-products of petroleum based machinery, to name a few.

Strengthening Communities:

There are a number of reasons why choosing local supports and strengthens our communities. Supporting local farmers not only stimulates a healthy local economy, but it also encourages conservation of agricultural land within, and surrounding, communities. There is an organization called Loyal to Local who created the slogan “eat your view”. Supporting local agriculture encourages the preservation of our open spaces that would otherwise be vulnerable to development (Pollan, 2006). Supporting local agriculture also helps to promote sustainable development, strengthen local economies and generate new opportunities for growth within communities. Agritourism, for example, is a growing industry that supports local economies (Pollan, 2006). Most importantly, choosing local helps to connect communities. Using direct farmer to consumer food systems, such as farmer’s markets, connects community members with farmers and food producers within their region. This helps establish important networks and opportunities for education.

Choosing local helps to connect people and communities.

As consumers we may feel powerless to oppose the multi-national corporations supplying us. Our power lies in our ability to remove the demand, thus removing the supply of unsustainable foods by changing our consumer habits towards local food choices. The term ‘Food Citizens’ refers to those who intentionally purchase foods that promote a sustainable food system, such as locally produced, organic and seasonal foods (Rose et al., 2008). As knowledge spreads we can return food production to its original purpose – localized efficiency and simplicity. In our pursuit of sustainable agriculture, it is our role as Food Citizens to protect local farms and farmland, encourage development of local food systems, and increase awareness within our community regarding local food choices. The local food system movement is one of many that will help achieve environmental, economic and social sustainability for generations to come.

Thanks for reading! Have questions or comments about local food and our current food systems? Let us know in the comments below.

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