Econ-Utopia: Food for Thought: How Buying Local Food Contributes to Sustainability

By Heidi Garrett-Peltier, CPE Staff Economist

In 1810, 84 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. Today, it’s down to two percent. Thanks to dramatic increases in productivity resulting from advances in technology and the mechanization of agriculture, we can produce a great deal more food with far fewer people than we could 200 years ago. But does this progress come at a cost?

Large-scale corporate farms are able to out-compete small-scale (often family-owned) farms and drive them out of business. Economies of scale (the competitive edge gained by being bigger) enable large corporate farms to produce more cheaply than smaller farms. These large farms are able to invest in expensive machinery and buy their inputs (fertilizer, seed, etc.) more cheaply than small farms, which in turn makes it difficult for small farms to compete. One might think that corporate farming is better for the consumer — large farms, producing more efficiently, can offer products at lower prices. In addition, the vast network of global agriculture allows consumers access to many varieties of foods throughout the year that can not be produced locally.

The advantage of lower prices, however, may be offset by other, more detrimental effects. In the case of corporate farming, those effects include environmental degradation, decreased plant and animal diversity, poorer nutritional value, and money leaking out of the local economy and into the pockets of: absentee owners.’

* Local food increases environmental sustainability:
Environmental degradation results not only from the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but also from the packaging, transportation and distribution of food. On average, each food item consumed in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles before reaching our tables. Packing and delivery alone account for an estimated 80-90% of fossil fuels used in global food production. Jim Hendrickson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimates that 9.14 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S. is accounted for by the production, processing and transportation of food. Local food consumes fewer fossil fuels and contributes to lower carbon dioxide emissions than does food that has to travel a great distance. Large-scale farms can also contribute to decreased plant and animal diversity — both through clearing land and destroying native flora and fauna, and by replacing native varieties with genetically modified varieties of crops. Reduced variety means less ability for crops and animals to withstand the strains of disease.

* Local food increases economic sustainability:
In additional to threatening environmental sustainability, corporate farming threatens economic sustainability. Corporate farming changes the dynamic of ownership: small-scale farmers, rather than working for themselves and being the owner of their labor, become employees or suppliers of agri-business, thus vulnerable to wage and price cuts, inferior working conditions, and other forms of exploitation. Small scale farmers are often forced to “buy high and sell low” — since large scale agri-businesses are sole suppliers of feed and grain to farmers and sole purchasers of farmers’ production, they are able to manipulate prices and exploit farmers. Furthermore, as consumers purchase products from large-scale farms, their money goes into the pockets of “absentee owners” rather than to local farmers and the local economy. Buying local food helps local farmers survive and helps to support the local economy in general by keeping more money circulating in the community. According to the New Economics Foundation, $1 in consumption of local food results in $2.50 for your community. In comparison, $1 spent in a supermarket results in only $1.40 for the community.

* Local food is more nutritious and flavorful:
Corporate farming is driven by the goals of maximizing yields and profits, not nutrition and taste. Local foods, which are purchased almost immediately after harvest, can be much more flavorful and preserve more of their nutrients than foods which are picked before maturity in order to be distributed thousands of miles away. Furthermore, since small-scale farmers often eat what they grow and drink the water from their wells, they are more likely to protect their soil and water than are large-scale farms which pollute waterways and erode soil as they seek to increase profits.

Consumption may not be the key to changing the world, but consumption of local food can begin to undo the harm created by agri-business. Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, wherein you buy a share of a local farm’s output and get a weekly distribution of in-season crops), buy produce from a farm stand or farmer’s market, and opt for local food over well-traveled food — you’ll contribute to the economic and environmental health of your community and eat better food in doing so.

Sources and resources:

To read about local food campaigns, the benefits of eating local foods, and how to become a local food advocate, visit: (a project of EcoTrust)

For reports on the environmental impacts of food production, read:

Deumling, Diana, Mathis Wackernagel, and Chad Monfreda, “Eating Up The Earth: How Sustainable Food Systems Shrink Our Ecological Footprint,” July 2003. [pdf]

Adding Values to Our Food System: An Economic Analysis of Sustainable Community Food Systems,” Prepared by Integrity Systems Cooperative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, 1997.

B. Ward and J. Lewis (2002). “Plugging the Leaks: Making the most of every pound that enters your local economy.” New Economics Foundation, p.20.

J. Hendrickson (1997). “Energy Use in the U. S. Food System: A Summary of Existing Research and Analysis.” Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

© 2006 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.