What Does Buying Local Food Do for the Environment?

Globalization is a big word that plays a big game. Over time, that game has expanded beyond commodities and into the developing world where comparably affordable food sources are ever abundant. As a result of cheap energy and agricultural subsidies, food companies in the developed world have been forced to come up with new ways to compete.

In a nutshell, large-scale food companies have bought out smaller family farms en masse in an effort to consolidate their farming operations. New models often constitute a type of agriculture that destroy and pollute soils and water, weakening communities and concentrating wealth and power into corporate hands. To boot, food security is compromised, as demonstrated by numerous health scares that have come about over the last few years.

If there is any consolation in this story it’s that local food has exploded in direct response as a trend, a need and a business. In contrast to large-scale industrial food production, locally-based food producers are usually family-run farms who often deliver their products directly to market. More importantly, and true to the tenets of the free market, local food has opened the door to new choices of products, labels, and ways to shop. Without a doubt, the benefits of buying local are great. But what exactly is local food?

For one, local can mean different things to different people, depending on where they live, how long their growing season is, and what products they are looking for. Practically speaking, local food production can be thought of in concentric circles that start with growing food at home. Secondly, it includes food that might be grown in our immediate community – say either at the regional or national level. For some parts of the year or for some products that thrive in the local climate, it may be possible to buy closer to home. At other times, or for less common products, an expanded reach may be required.

But what does buying local actually do for the environment? First of all, local foods are produced as close to home as possible. Buying local supports a more sustainable food system by going beyond the methods used in food production to include every step that brings food from farm to plate, first and foremost, transportation. Sustainable agriculture involves food production methods that are healthy – including reduction of pesticide use – balances demand based on local needs, involves less environmentally harmful equipment and practices, and most importantly, reduces impacts on the environment by decreasing transportation needs.

By contrast, industrial food production is entirely dependent on fossil fuels, which, when refined and burned, create greenhouse gases that are significant contributors to climate change. The biggest setback of fossil fuel use in industrial farming is not transporting food or fuelling machinery, however, it’s chemicals. As much as forty percent of the energy used in the food system goes towards the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By adding transportation, processing and packaging to the food system equation, the fossil fuel and energy use of our current food system puts tremendous stress on the environment.

Small, local farms are usually run by farmers who live on their land and work hard to preserve it. They protect open spaces by keeping land in agricultural use and preserve natural habitats by maintaining forest and wetlands. By being good stewards of the land, seeking out local markets, minimizing packaging, and harvesting food only when it is ready to consume, farmers can significantly reduce their environmental impact. In fact, studies show that sustainable agricultural practices can actually increase food production by up to 80% while at the same time actively reducing the effects of farming on climate change through carbon sequestration.

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