Written by Jane Grueber
Sustainable, organic and local are the Gold Standard when it comes to fresh food. What is local? Are locally grown or raised foods better than those produced by conventional industrial agriculture? Does buying local matter?
The term ‘locavore’ was coined in 2012 to describe those people choosing to purchase food close to where they live. How close is close? Many consumers and producers agree that food grown or raised within about 50 to 100 miles from your home is local.
In Canada, about 60% of ‘locally’ grown or raised food is sold through other venues (not supermarkets). It can be found in health food stores, community supported agriculture projects, farmers’ markets, pick-your-own, farm gate stores, or gleaning (collecting the food left behind after the harvest). Chefs and restaurants are some of the biggest users of ‘local’ products.
Do the terms ‘local’ or ‘regional’ mean that the food is grown in a sustainable manner or that it is better, healthier, more nutritious, or better tasting? The people at Sustainable Table say that this is not necessarily the case.
“It only means that a food was produced relatively close to where it’s sold – the term doesn’t provide any indication of food qualities such as freshness, nutritional value, or production practices, and can’t be used as a reliable indicator of sustainability.”
“The local/regional food system is used to describe a method of food production and distribution that is geographically localized, rather than national and/or international.
Food is grown or raised and harvested close to consumers’ homes, then distributed over much shorter distances than is common in the conventional global industrial food system. In general, local/regional food systems are associated with sustainable agriculture, while the global industrial food system is reliant upon industrial agriculture”. (Sustainable Table: Local & Regional Food Systems, p. 1)
Organic practices are clearly laid out and legislated. Farmers must meet stringent criteria year after year to keep their organic certification. Some local farmers may follow organic practices but choose not to get their product organic certified. They may market their products at the farm gate as non-spray, biodynamic or pesticide-free but not wield the actual organic certified stamp.
In contrast, the terms ‘local’ or ‘regional’ are neither clearly defined nor legislated. The terms are essentially moving targets. The availability of ‘local’ food depends on the growing capacity of the region. If you live in a region that can grow food throughout the year, it will be easier to get your hands on fresh food grown close to home (within 100 miles). If you live in less forgiving climes then ‘local’ sourcing of food may be much more challenging and ‘regionally’ sourced food may be more appropriate (e.g., food grown in Western Canada).
Why buy local?
It is likely that at this point in time, organic producers are your local farmers; your neighbors.
“Local food systems rely upon a network of small, usually sustainably-run, family farms (rather than large industrially run farms) as the source of farm products.”
“Many small-scale, local farms attempt to ameliorate the environmental damage done via industrial farming by focusing on sustainable practices, such as minimized pesticide use, no-till agriculture and composting, minimized transport to consumers, and minimal to no packaging for their farm products.”
Buyer beware of ‘greenwashing‘. According to Sustainable Table, due to increased consumer demand for ‘local’ or ‘regional’ food and the vague definition of these labels, some industrial producers are marketing their food as ‘local’ or ‘regional’ to imply that their foods are grown closer and/or more sustainably than they actually are.
Here are some resources and good reads on the topic of buying local:
- The Benefits of Eating Local Foods
- Community Research Connection: Farmers’ Markets and Local Food Systems
- Sustainable Table – Seasonal Food Guide
- Sustainable Table – Local and Regional Food Systems
- BC Farms & Food Map
- A Taste of Vancouver Island: Dining Guide
Here are top 10 reasons for eating local from EcoWatch.com:
- Supports local farms: keeps local farms healthy and creates local jobs at local farms and in local food processing and distribution systems.
- Boosts local economy
- Less travel: local food travels short distances and therefore relies on less fossil fuels
- Less waste: because of shorter distribution chains for local foods, less food is wasted in distribution, warehousing and merchandising
- More freshness: this goes without saying – local food is fresher, healthier and tastes better because it spends less time in transit from farm to plate. It is also picked when it is actually ripe so it has the maximal amount of nutrients.
- New and better flavors: appreciate new flavors of seasonal fruit and vegetables
- Good for the soil: local food encourages diversification of local agriculture, which reduces reliance on monoculture-single crop grown over a wide area to the detriment of soils.
- Attracts tourists: local foods promote agrotourism
- Preserves open space: buying local food helps local farms survive and thrive, keeping land from being redeveloped into suburban sprawl.
- Builds more connected communities: local foods create more vibrant communities by connecting people with the farmers and food produces who bring them healthy local foods.