Local-er Than Thou: Local foods are a rapidly growing market, but what does "local" mean—and does it matter?

April 19, 2016


Jennifer Martin-Romme
Zenith News

Cindy Hale, owner of Clover Valley Farms & Vinegary in Duluth, put out a call to action on March 28 on her Facebook page:

“Anyone who is a member at the Whole Foods Coop, please complete their survey about ‘what is local.’ They have proposed to change the definition of local from the current one (14 counties in western Great Lakes region) to the five states of MN, WI, IA, ND and SD. We obviously would beg to differ...


"It is true that we buy sugar and salt for the production of our farm products but we GROW most of the rest of the ingredients (yes we will occasionally buy herbs or fruit from other VERY LOCAL farms). When we ran out of Basil last fall, the production of our basil salts and basil infused vinegars stopped too. I COULD buy basil from afar but would you, my valued customers, feel the same about our products if I did?”

Yet Hale is confident in the Co-op’s commitment to buying local and remaining transparent about its purchasing decisions. “I don’t want to bash on them, because they’re a damn good business. The Co-op really got this whole conversation started about local foods.”

She’s mostly concerned about diluting the meaning of local. “As more and more businesses want in, the definition of ‘local’ is getting broader. Rather than doing anything to expand local producers, they all just want to expand the definition of local, which is bullshit, in my opinion...We’d be in the same category as a pork farmer from Iowa. That’s just crazy on its face.”

But the definition of “local” is already a swiftly moving target. The US Department of Agriculture doesn’t have any regulatory definition, and uses production within 400 miles for statistical purposes.

“We’re on our third definition of ‘local’ just since I started here,” says Sharon Murphy, General Manager of Whole Foods Co-op. The Co-op currently uses a standard set by the Institute for a Sustainable Future’s “Superior Compact,” which includes 18 counties in northeastern Minnesota, northwest Wisconsin, and southern Ontario.


Murphy says the Co-op is considering expanding what the store can report as “local” to include the four surrounding states, “because most local producers within the Superior Compact aren’t prepared to distribute to two stores.” Whole Foods just opened a second store in the Denfeld neighborhood.

If we adopt a five-state definition, or any other definition of ‘local,’ we would continue to give purchasing priority and promotion priority to producers/growers in the Superior Compact Area...Many local growers don’t want us to expand the ‘local’ definition because they think we won’t buy as much from them, when our goal is really just the opposite.”

Food cooperatives operate on an owner-member system, in which membership confers an element of democratic control. Whole Foods members can attend meetings that other businesses might close, and members can serve on and vote for the board of directors.

Murphy says responses to the current survey have defined “local food” as produced within as little as one mile away, up to as many as 2,000 miles—from Duluth, from the store, or even from the member’s home.

The word “produced” gets tricky, too. “We buy coffee from Alakef [a Duluth roasting company], and we market that as local. For a lot of people, that’s not their definition of local.” Similarly, pork, beef, and bison are raised within the Compact region, but the closest meat processor is south of the Twin Cities.

“I’d ask why are you counting counties? It’s not a useful metric for energy use or greenhouse gas emissions,” says H. Scott Matthews, a Civil Engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

In 2008, Matthews co-authored a study with Christopher Weber that debunked the concept of “food miles”—the practice of calculating a food’s “carbon footprint” based on the miles each ingredient traveled.

Food miles are one raison d'être of the local foods movement, but they don’t stand up to scrutiny. Transportation accounts for such a small fraction of agricultural emissions (11 percent) compared to production (83 percent) that counting miles is meaningless.

An oft-quoted example from the Matthews/Weber study is that a tomato grown in Spain and shipped to Northern Europe produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a tomato grown in a greenhouse in Northern Europe. “Generally, things like tomatoes have that feature. Plus, food is transported in bulk, so the footprint of each individual tomato is minuscule.”


Matthews and Weber concluded that “what you eat is more important than where it came from,” at least in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and that a vegan diet would actually produce the least.

In 2012, the University of Denmark expanded the measured timeframe to include food retail, preparation, and disposal, reducing the relevance of transportation even further. Due to lower emissions during production (fertilizer, pesticide, feed, storage, packaging, and processing), it produces fewer emissions to ship a ton of lamb meat from New Zealand to the UK than to raise a ton of lamb meat within the UK.

In short, whatever benefits there might be to local foods—and Matthews likes his farmers market, too—reducing greenhouse gas emissions just isn’t one of them. “A lot of locavores got mad at us. Fortunately, they’re hippies, so all they did was get mean, not violent. But it was like fifth grade again. ‘Why are you hitting me? I didn’t say anything bad about you!’”

A husband-and-wife team of policy analysts from the University of Toronto purposely courted the ire of the local foods movement in 2012, when Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu (a geographer and an economist, respectively) published The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet.

The book takes aim primarily at policies in which schools and hospitals commit themselves to buying local food, and at the tendency to romanticize farming to the point of seeking to disengage as completely as possible from the global food market—the same global food market that, the authors argue, has allowed more of the world to eat more abundantly and more safely now than at any other time in human history.


But Desrochers’ and Shimizu’s aim is careless and their ears are tin. They set out to “slaughter as many sacred cows in the food activists’ intellectual herd as we can”—and then they seemed mystified when people who value local foods felt attacked by them.

From the perspective of an economist with expertise in food supply chains, Robert King, a professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, assigns value to local foods because a sector of the market values that quality highly enough to spend their dollars on it—just as all consumers make value choices, often no easier to define than “local.”

“It’s very place-dependent, and local is in the eye of the beholder...Supermarkets and restaurants use the consumer’s values of having a connection with who produced their food and how it was produced.

“There are some food safety processes that are more efficient on a larger scale. That’s been a challenge in Minnesota with meat processing. Larger plants have a significant cost advantage to inspecting per animal and in utilizing the byproducts of the animal...The smaller plants are just as safe, and some consumers are willing to pay more to know who raised their meat.”

Otherwise King treats broad value judgments—like “Locally grown foods are more environmentally friendly,” or, “The global food market produces at the lowest cost”—with liberal examples of: “It depends.”

Even the claim that buying non-local hurts the local economy isn’t immutable. “In a local restaurant, even if they’re not sourcing food locally, your dollars aren’t completely leaving your community. Same with the supermarket. A lot of those dollars are going to people who work in that particular supermarket.


"The takeaway from everything we’ve been talking about is that all of this is much more complicated and much less black-and-white than we might think.”

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