The Local vs. Conventional Food Battle

Sep 10, 2010

By Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire

With concern growing about
food insecurity, shortages and price increases, there is less resolution than
ever about the relative wisdom of where and how our food should be produced.
At one end are those who prefer supporting local producers. At the other are
those who appreciate the critical mass that can be achieved by factory farms.

Eng, food writer for the Chicago Tribune, attempts objectivity,
explaining both sides of the case while pointing out, “for many, the benefits
of local produce extend well beyond measurable issues of efficiency.” The
one thing all contenders have in common is the power of conviction. Multiple
studies provide statistics claiming to repudiate any and all opposition.

Stephen Budiansky, in the New York Times, offers lengthy arguments about
the impracticalities of locally produced food being sufficient to feed the
world. But he also exemplifies the emotional side of the argument, claiming
that “the
local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent
— and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas.”
Mr Budiansky says that “arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis,
are repeated as gospel.” He adds that “words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘food-miles’
are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of
energy and land use” and emphasizes that “the total land area of American
farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago … even though those
farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times
as much as they did in 1910.”

Mr. Budiansky recommends that “the best way to make the most of these
truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to
grow (foods) … where
they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay
the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market.”

Steven Morris,
writing in The Guardian, demonstrates how distribution “complications”
can mean products travelling hundreds of miles from their point of origin to
reach a store just two miles away. But Tim Lang, the professor of food policy
at City University London, who coined the phrase “food miles”, blames “the
reality of modern logistics … based on cheap oil, the motorway system and
mass production. If people don’t like it they are going to have to be prepared
to pay more for a more sustainable system of logistics.”

Spokesmen for
large chains such as Tesco and the Co-operative Group as well as suppliers
such as Cornish pie and pastry maker Ginsters, agree about distribution impracticalities.
Speaking to the Guardian, Ginster’s spokesman claimed “there
would be ‘mayhem’ if every producer tried to deliver to every store
in the country,” leading to vast increases in the number of vehicles on
the road, emissions and congestion, and adding “consumers would have to come
to terms with very limited choice if producers delivered only locally … there
would be no fresh fruit, no fresh vegetables out of season.”

Discussion questions: Where do you stand on the argument between locally-produced
food versus that produced through methods of mass production? How much traction
do see locally-produced foods gaining over the years ahead?

[Author’s commentary] With so much conflicting data, arguments remain
predominantly emotional and political. Even using the label “locavores” smacks
of childish sneering and name-calling. Accepting that there are advantages
to having a mixed supply and distribution system — and achieving it — are
major challenges still to be tackled.

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14 Comments on "The Local vs. Conventional Food Battle"

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Ryan Mathews
11 years 8 months ago

There’s no question that the “Eat Local” movement is gaining support — from a niche set of consumers and celebrity chefs. And, there are certainly microeconomic arguments that support the “local” position. The question is — does anyone really think there is a scalable, sustainable movement to reverse 40 – 50 years of American purchasing/eating behavior?

Would, for example, American consumers (again, at scale) accept the idea of seasonality — or will they still want grapes 12 months a year? Will they be willing to substitute the variety they’ve grown to love in favor of locally produced products? And, would they be willing to make the price/appearance trade-offs that might be necessary to sustain a vibrant local movement?

I think the answer to those questions is, “No,” but I also think localization of food sourcing will continue to grow in importance — especially in areas like Detroit — where urban farming is being touted as a remedy for de-industrialization.

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
11 years 8 months ago

In choosing between locally-owned farms and mass production for future food safety and food production, and as political and economic pressures generously intertwine, one can assume that when skating on such thin ice, the locally-owned farm’s economic safety is in its political speed and acumen.

David Livingston
11 years 8 months ago

I like shopping at my local farmer’s market. One thing I notice is the food is a bit fresher. The downside is that the vendors have the prices jacked up to about double what I can buy for at the more price competitive supermarkets. Seems most vendors end up going home with a lot of inventory and don’t seem to do much volume.

I really think it’s about price and I realize they can’t give the stuff away like high volume grocers can. As long price continues to be a factor, local produce is going to face some hurdles.

Warren Thayer
11 years 8 months ago

With the arguments on both sides being so strong and convincing, the local movement will not grow as quickly as some suggest. As for critical mass, I don’t see how it can really achieve critical mass — small farms just aren’t big enough to feed us all anymore. It’s a growing niche that will remain niche. Pricing will remain higher of necessity, which will confine most sales to upscale families.

Anne Howe
11 years 8 months ago

I think there is a place for locally-grown produce to have a larger role in mass production of packaged foods. While I buy many products locally at the farmer’s markets, I also personally support any CPG manufacturer that willingly farm-sources their ingredients to provide for quality, flavor and the continuance of productivity for American farms.

However one does the math, there is really nothing more satisfying than to put your money in line with your true values. A few dollars more here and there is well worth it, in my view.

There will always be a need for mass-produced food, as well as consumer desire for higher quality CPG brands with better ingredients and amazing flavor. The shopper value equation continues to shift toward a desire for better quality and the emotional benefits it provides as an adjunct to price.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
11 years 8 months ago

Buying local is certainly important to a lot of people, but does that mean only buying local or buying local when it is available or buying local when the quality is as good or better? For retailers they need to know what the customers coming into their store want and they need to be able to trace their products back to the source.

Kai Clarke
11 years 8 months ago

This is an absurd argument. Just because you live close to a particular producer doesn’t mean that you should support that producer. We live in a global economy that requires a global view of product availability, and product pricing and availability are global, not local.

Robert Straub
Robert Straub
11 years 8 months ago

As long as factory farms continue to view appearance as more important than flavor, I will have no problem spending the extra money at my local farmer’s market.

Ralph Jacobson
11 years 8 months ago

The challenge with the drive toward local produce is that there is a perception that it is safer. That is simply untrue. There is no rule that makes one source of food inherently safer than another. There are many global efforts happening as we speak to address this challenge, however we have a long way to go prior to there being any steadfast rules for consumers to follow. Video: Summary of Food safety Forum – Washington, DC

Craig Sundstrom
11 years 8 months ago

“…the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas.”

Thank you Stephen; my thoughts, exactly.

Ed Rosenbaum
11 years 8 months ago

Watch me ride the fence on this subject. I am a major advocate of eating locally produced foods until they do not have what I want. Fruits are a good example. I enjoy eating certain fruits year round. They are not always available from the local produce markets. So I will purchase them where I can get them which obviously is not local.

So I am a where and when possible local food purchaser; but will not give up my taste to become politically involved.

James Tenser
11 years 8 months ago

Since it’s the close of the summer growing season in much of the country, perhaps we can all agree that there are times when nothing tastes better than locally-grown corn, tomatoes or stone fruit.

But I eat bananas and grapes year round and enjoy a nice pineapple too, and they have to travel.

I also harbor a wariness of “factory-produced” and widely-distributed foodstuffs (the recent egg scare comes to mind, and past instances of tainted spinach). Concentrated production can lead to expanded risks when things go wrong.

Economies of scale allow us to feed a hungry world–a good thing. But local foods enhance the quality of life.

I say we’re hugely fortunate in this country to have a vast choice when it comes to both locally and remotely grown foods.

Sheri Kurdakul
Sheri Kurdakul
11 years 8 months ago
I am a supporter of “buy local,” but also shop at Whole Foods for items I cannot get at my local farms (dog food, crackers, garbanzo beans, etc.). Ralph hit the nail on the head (see comment above) when he said that local does not necessarily mean safer, but it certainly makes it easier to investigate farm conditions. Have you ever been to a livestock farm that produces for a large agribusiness company? I doubt it–they don’t encourage field trips and they don’t like their workers talking about conditions and practices. Ever been to a local family farm? They usually encourage you to walk around, sample the offerings, and speak openly with the workers. Stephen Budiansky stated, “the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago … even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910” yet he fails to mention the fact that numerous farmers were priced out of their farms by agribusiness, forcing… Read more »
David Milstein
David Milstein
11 years 8 months ago

The debate needs to be viewed in a much broader context. The real issue is about sustainable food production for the world. We need to get away from either/or solutions and understand that the situation is sufficiently serious for us to be considering a systems approach with a wide range of options and to apply solutions that are most appropriate for local conditions.

Should your readers be interested, we have developed a short position paper on the subject which is available on request. For a more detailed scientific view, see “Food security: Feeding the world in 2050.”

From a short term marketing point of view, the local movement will remain a viable but small section of the market in more affluent counties.


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