Friday, February 29, 2008

What Is Local?

Saying you're going to "eat local" is all well and good, but what counts as local? In a large, semi-arid state with few population centers, I have to figure out how widely to cast my net. No matter where you live, this matter of arriving at an appropriate definition is crucial and must vary from place to place, depending on the productivity of local land and the activity of the local economy.

My community food coop, for instance, defines their "local" product label to mean that the food is produced within 300 miles. That seems a bit far to me-- perhaps more "regional" than "local"-- but not absolutely absurd given the landscape I live in, and the fact that it's around 100-200 miles between cities here. There is at least one direction (east) in which I can drive 300 miles and still be in the same state.

View Larger Map

On the other hand, in the Northeast, where I come from originally, 300 miles would be a ridiculously long distance to consider local. Is Boston-to-Philadelphia "local"? Yet it is only a few miles farther than Bozeman-to-Miles City.


Here's a great post from the Wedge Natural Foods Coop in Minneapolis, struggling with the same issue. Writer Barth Anderson considers and rejects a number of problematic definitions of "local" eating, including the "100-mile diet," simply in-state, and within a day's round-trip drive, before settling on a very broad criterion: "any local food company or local grower located in Minnesota or a state bordering ours" (so that would be Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin-- and what about Manitoba and Ontario?). Note also that "local food company or local grower" includes foods that are processed locally out of ingredients that may not be local-- another problem requiring a decision.

Then Anderson goes on to remark that, for him, "Cargill is local," a troubling complication. What if you live near a Coca-Cola bottling plant? Does that count? The fact is, "local," however it is defined, only goes so far as a food ethic.

The Farm-to-Dartmouth project also notes how difficult it is to define local, but here's what they came up with for their purposes:

For many people, local food is more easily defined by what it is not than what it is. Local food, by this classification, is not mass-produced food shipped from distant regions at the expense of taste and nutrition. Often equated with greater nutritional, social, and ecological benefits, local food is simply that which is produced by farmers living in a region geographically intimate enough to be called a community. For the sake of this project, the definition of local is that approximately 80% of the food is produced in the 69 towns of the Greater Upper Valley using ingredients produced in that same area, and the remaining 20% is produced in the bi-state region of Vermont and New Hampshire.


The Wikipedia page on the local food movement raises more problems:

Where local food is determined by the distance it has traveled, the wholesale distribution system can confuse the calculations. Fresh food that is grown very near to where it will be purchased, may still travel hundreds of miles out of the area through the industrial system before arriving back at a local store. [...]

Often, products are grown in one area and processed in another, which may cause complications in the purchasing of local foods. In the international wine industry, much "bulk wine" is shipped to other regions or continents, to be blended with wine from other locales. It may even be marketed quite misleadingly as a product of the bottling country.

Finally, this final section of a report from the Hartman Group, a market research group that looks at underlying motives and trends in consumer behavior, should serve as a warning that big corporations are already seeking to play on our desire to “buy local.”

In the industry, there is a belief that you can only be local if you are a small and authentic brand. This isn't necessarily true; big brands can use the notion of local to their advantage as well. There are a lot of ways for a big brand to be local by having limited edition and/or seasonal products. A nutrition bar, for example, could have a nut in it that is grown in a certain area that gives it better taste perceptions.

It is important for manufacturers, marketers and retailers to understand that quality markers, such as use of local ingredients and narratives of local production and origin, are factors that resonate most strongly with consumers when it comes to determining what is authentically local.

As local continues to evolve in sophistication as a marketing concept, the ultimate success of the "buy local" message (e.g., selling more products, increased revenues, higher profit margins, improved quality image, repeat purchases, etc.) and its sustainability over time depends on any number of cultural, societal and lifestyle factors, all covered by this overarching principle: you can’t fake authenticity.

Taste perceptions”???

More and better definitions:

Gary Paul Nabhan, whose tremendous 2001 book Coming Home to Eat detailed his own local-eating experiment (within 200 miles of his home in Flagstaff, AZ), writes in his blog post "Deepening Our Sense of What Is Local and Regional Food" that-- now that "eat local" is becoming a popular concept and catchphrase-- "It is time that we deepen our sense of what we mean by local and regional, offer others better reasons as to why these concerns matter, and steadfastly resist any pressure to endorse simplistic formulas such as a 100-mile diet or an in-state diet."

His own list of what it means to promote local eating includes:

1. Local means from a farm, ranch or fishing boat that is locally-owned and operated, using the management skills and the labor of local community members. [...]

2. A regional food is one that has been tied to the traditions of a particular landscape or seascape and its cultures for decades if not for centuries. [...] Yes it may be produced five miles from your home and thereby reduce food miles, but its seeds are not saved and adapted to local or regional conditions, they are bought from afar every year.

3. The miles a food travels (“food miles”) must be placed in the size and volume of the mode of transport, its source of fuel, and its frequency of travel. Using biodiesel in a larger truck may be more efficient, and leave less of a carbon footprint than using leaded gas in an old clunker.[...]

4. On-farm energy and water use matter. [...]

5. Other on-farm inputs matter just as much. Where are the sources of hay for livestock, compost for garden crops or nitrogen for field crops? They should be locally if not regionally-sourced. [...]

6. Fair-trade with other cultures, localities and regions is fair game. Circumvent the globalized economy for the items you truly need from other regions by establishing fair-trade exchanges. [...]

7. Invest in the foods unique to your region that cannot or should not be grown anywhere else.

Sure, some of the above are a tall order to fill. But remembering that we're choosing local foods for reasons beyond simply saving fuel is important. Nabhan's list provides a number of reasons why Cargill, no matter where you live, is not local.

So, the question remains, of course: how should I define "local"? And should I define it at all, or simply follow my instincts towards the best available choices?

I am open to suggestions.

No comments: