March 14, 2015

Is the Local Food Movement Really Sustainable?


When asked why they buy local food, the stereotypical tote-bag-carrying farmer’s market customer will tell you that their reasons have a lot to do with environmental sustainability and doing their part to save the planet.

The argument they usually provide is that buying local means that their produce doesn’t use as many fossil fuels in transportation, which means fewer carbon emissions are generated during transportation. This is true, however, this argument only considers one element of a fairly large process.

According to a study conducted in 2008 by Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Engineering and Public Policy, only 11 percent of commercial agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions are generated during transportation. 83 percent of commercial agriculture’s greenhouse gases are released during the production phase of agriculture (Matthews 2008).

Looking at this, you can see that the proportion of greenhouse gases generated through transportation is relatively low. The larger issue is commercial agriculture’s production phase. This knowledge, combined with the knowledge that many areas cannot produce certain crops without constant inputs of fertilizers and water, may mean that, although there are many reasons to buy local, environmental sustainability is not one of them.

The following analysis is based on information garnered through the above-mentioned interview and research into the industry. This analysis is not meant to argue for or against the local food movement; it is meant to simply investigate the environmental sustainability of the local food movement.

What is local food?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defined local food in 2008 as being, “less than 400 miles from its origin, or the State in which it is produced (Martinez 2010).” However, consumers still have a varied definition of the local food movement and some stretch or limit the scope of that definition, to include agriculture that complies with sustainable production practices, fair farm labor practices, animal welfare, and small size (Lazor 2015). For conventional purposes, I will be referring to the USDA’s definition when I reference the “local food movement” throughout the duration of this article.

At the Beginning

The first time I thought about environmental sustainability was in 2006, when Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, won the Academy Award for best documentary. For me this was an incredibly interesting topic and it seemed that the film contributed more voices to a discussion already in progress. Though this film is not, I think, responsible for a change in consumer habits, it brought attention to a heavily debated topic.

As ordinary people began to talk about the issue of climate change, consumer concern with environmental sustainability began to grow and, as a result, greener alternatives saw more use. An example of this is that in blue-collar workplace buildings, LEED certification went from 40 buildings registering for certification in 2006, to 111 buildings registering in 2007 (Lockwood 2008).

In 2008, Green Gauge released a report that highlighted consumers’ growing concern with environmental sustainability (Kenyon 2010). This concern was soon reflected in business practices. As consumers looked for more environmentally friendly alternatives, the market responded and made what the consumer accepted as “greener” alternatives more readily available. One of these “greener” options was local food. Proponents touted local food as a way to decrease the carbon footprint of your food, and subsequently, yourself. Growing interest in local food resulted in a steady growth of farmer’s markets around the country.

Local Food: The Positives


According to research done by Carnegie Mellon University, the average distance that produce travels is 1,640 kilometers, or approximately 1,019 miles (Matthews 2008). In comparison “local food” can travel 400 miles at most. A paper published by Cornell University shows that this disparity means that the “global system uses anywhere from four to seven times as much energy (fuel to transport the food), and produces five to 17 times more CO2 (from the burning of the fuel) than a regional or local food system (Cornell).”

Sustainable Practices

Local food also provides a larger opportunity to implement sustainable processes. This is because local farms are often smaller, which is why they have less widespread distribution. This smaller size allows the farmer to pay more attention to soil quality and keep the soil healthy. This attention to soil health can provide a sustainability talking point that the farmer can use to sell their products. Furthermore, using local land for farming ensures that that land is kept as open space and is not built on (Lazor 2015). Some studies show that because local farms are often small they can more easily adopt environmentally friendly practices without substantially changing processes or making large capital investment (Rosset 2000).


Local food provides social and financial benefits unrelated to sustainability. These benefits are that local food keeps money circulating within the community and creates relationships between the farmer and customer. This makes local food more socially and financially sustainable for a community.

The Negatives


What we eat makes up approximately 50% of our water footprint (Gracelinks). Now consider that each state has a different climate and different endowments of natural resources. Each crop has specific water requirements based on the altitude, climate and soil quality of that particular region. It follows that most crops grown have different rates of success based on where they are grown. Steve Sexton illustrates this point in a 2011 article for Freakonomics: “In 2008, according to the USDA, Idaho averaged 383 hundredweight of potatoes per acre. Alabama, in contrast, averaged only 170 hundredweight per acre (Sexton 2011).” What the local food movement fails to recognize is that if Idaho gives up its comparative advantage in potatoes, and we grow potatoes everywhere, we will need more water input for the same amount of food. This is vastly inefficient.

Furthermore, although the local food movement places a large emphasis on decreased transportation of food, you still need water to grow food, and how do we get water to dry places? We transport it. California, the largest productive agricultural state and home to a $35 billion agricultural industry, is also amongst the driest states in the nation (EPA). Each summer California’s agricultural sector puts incredible pressure on the water supplies of the whole of the Southwest (Gracelinks).  Water use in California has been further exacerbated by drought in recent years and, as a result, more and more water has to be transported from the Colorado River to the farming sector of California.

The comparative advantage of different states in the production of certain crops combined with the knowledge that we transport and use large amounts of water in order to grow in dry states shows that the local food movement is not environmentally efficient. As consumers, we should consider that agriculture accounts for 80% of the entire nations water consumption (USDA) and this consumption is increased if you don’t utilize the comparative advantage of each state.

Herbicides, Pesticides and Fertilizers

As with water, if you’re not in an ideal climate, you need more fertilizer inputs to generate the same amount of crop outputs. This is an issue because most of agriculture’s emissions are due to non-CO2 greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide and methane emissions (Matthews 2008). Nitrous oxide emissions are 298 times more potent, as a greenhouse gas, than CO2 (World Preservation Foundation 2010). Nitrous oxide emissions arise from nitrogen fertilizer and certain techniques for soil and manure management.

Methane emissions are 25 times more potent than CO2 and are a result of the normal digestive processes of domestic livestock. Methane emissions are also released when the livestock’s manure is stored in lagoons or holding tanks; it becomes further concentrated as the waste decomposes (EPA). These statistics show that if we need to use more fertilizer in local production, in order to make up for deficiencies in local soil, we are doing more harm then if we transport our food.

However, due to the local food movement’s tie-in with sustainability, farmers do not often use herbicides or pesticides and instead accept lower crop yields (Lazor 2015). This may result in an increase in prices for local food.

Land Use

As we see with Sexton’s article in Freakonomics, you can grow more potatoes on the same amount of land if you’re in Idaho rather than Alabama (Sexton 2011). This means that you have to use more land to feed the same amount of people, which is not an efficient use of land.


For the Consumer

Consumers seeking the most environmentally sustainable option should buy organic food that is in season and cut out as much meat and dairy from their diet as possible. Consumers seeking environmental sustainability should do this because meat and dairy are the items that put the most stress on the environment. This stress includes items like deforestation, desertification, “excretion of polluting nutrients, overuse of freshwater, inefficient use of energy, diverting food for use as feed and emission of GHGs” (Janzen 2011).

For State Governments

In my opinion, state governments focus too much on local food and year-round growing season and not enough on the ideal crop for the area. Proof of this can be seen in that last year California’s government encouraged farmers to flood the land to grow rice, alfalfa and other thirsty crops while, at the same time, California’s leaders pledged another $687 million to drought relief (Economist 2014). It seems to me that California’s government should be putting a limit on certain “thirsty crops” and growing more drought resistant crops. California is not the only state at fault in this issue; the entire southwest is depleting water reserves fast. To me it seems logical that government subsidies on “thirsty crops” should be eliminated and production of these crops should be moved to states that can supply the water demanded.

As emissions continue to increase in coming years government would help environmental sustainability of agriculture if they imposed methane and nitrogen taxes. This would raise the price of meat (because of the amount of emissions this product produces) and, hopefully, lower consumer demand.

The Point

The local food movement is not environmentally sustainable for a number of reasons. The emissions saved on transportation are added back in the process of trying to grow crops in states where there is not enough water and soil has to be enriched. Even while transporting water into drought states and adding fertilizer to soil, land that is not suitable for certain crops still produces marginally lower yields per acre and thus increases the amount of land needed to feed people. However, local food does contribute to social and financial sustainability.



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Author: Samantha Cole-Johnson

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikipedia

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