John Ikerd: Top ten reasons to eat local

What is the local food story? As I wrote yesterday, I think we’re still working it out. Still rationalizing and comprehending an inherently attractive way of being-living-acting in the world.

For agricultural economist John Ikerd, the local food story is first and foremost about integrity. “When we develop those personal connections with each other, around food, then we begin to have personal relationships that are dependent upon integrity.”

I had an opportunity to hear Ikerd speak back in 2005, and secured his permission to publish his talk on the Salmon Nation website.

Here is a reprint:

In preparation for this conference here and as part of the Eat Local Challenge, I came up with my Top Ten list of reasons to eat local.

My ranking reflects the idea that I started with here tonight: that the problems of the food system are deeply rooted within the problems of society. And that we can begin to address these social and ethical problems by eating locally and helping build a local food system.

Number Ten: Some people start with this as the most important, but I put it at the bottom. Eating local eliminates the middleman. Now, eliminating the middleman doesn’t mean that local food will be cheaper. Large food companies minimize their costs by externalizing a lot of their costs onto society and the environment. If you buy from a local farmer who doesn’t do that, it may cost more, but you’re not asking some exploited worker to pay part of your food cost, and you’re not putting it on a charge card for future generations to pick up.

Another Reason: Transportation costs. You know, the average food travels about 1500 miles. But total transportation cost is only 4% of average food cost, so it’s not the economic savings that are important. It’s the fact that you aren’t using up nonrenewable energy in the form of fossil fuel and you’re not polluting the air or putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In other words, it’s the ecological savings, rather that the economic savings.

Number Eight: Eating local improves food quality. Local growers can focus on the varieties, and the harvest times, and things of that nature that maximize the flavor, the freshness, the nutrition, rather than having to concentrate on what they can harvest mechanically, what they can ship across the country, and what will stand up in the grocery store shelves for a week or two or however long it has to stay up there.

Okay, Number Seven: Eating local makes at-home eating worth the time and the effort. Chefs that are focusing on local food will tell you, you don’t have to do much: a minimal amount of seasoning, a minimal amount of cooking. And more important, people preparing their own food can eat at a lower cost than they could eat by buying convenience food. And I think perhaps even more important, preparing food at home, with the family, you bring the family together. I think that food preparation in the home has been labeled — excuse me — ‘women’s work’ and degraded for the explicit purpose of selling convenience in the supermarket. And if we just go back and reclaim the actual value of preparing foods, I think it can do a lot for us.

Number Six: Eating local provides meaningful food choices. You know, people brag about how you can go into the supermarket with this wide variety of foods of all shapes and colors and sizes from all over the world. But you know what, practically all of that is superficial differentiation of foods. It’s packaging, or whatever. Now, by eating local you can get something that’s truly different in terms of variety or quality.

Number Five: Eating local contributes to the local economy. The typical average farmer only gets 20 cents out of each dollar that’s spent in the supermarket. The rest of it goes to marketing. Then, the typical farmer only keeps about 10 to 15 cents of that, the rest goes to fertilizer, feed, and fuel. It’s stuff that goes out of the community again. When you buy it directly from the local farmer, the farmer gets 100% of it.

My Number Four reason: Eating local makes it possible for farmers to continue to farm good productive land. Because if you’re willing to pay the full cost of food, then that makes it possible for the farmer to stay on that piece of land. We’re losing a million acres of farmland a year. You may say, well, that’s not much, but an acre lost to development, covered up in concrete or streets or roads, is an acre lost forever.

Number Three: Reconnecting. We reconnect the farmers with the customers, and the customer, through the farmer, back to the land. The industrial food system depends on impersonal relationships — that’s the only way you can maximize the efficiency is to get people to make impersonal transactions with each other, so that you go to a lower and lower cost level. But by nature, those impersonal transactions end up disconnecting us from each other. That’s the cause of the rising incivility within our society today — crime rates, drug abuse, all of these things are related back to our growing disconnectedness. We’re still as dependent upon the land as we were when we were a society of hunters and gatherers, but our connections are so indirect and complex we don’t realize it. We need to reconnect with the land, and eating local is a critical place to start that reconnecting process.

My Number Two point: Eating local can help us restore integrity to the food system. When we develop those personal connections with each other, around food, then we begin to have personal relationships that are dependent upon integrity. What I mean by integrity is: honesty, fairness, compassion, responsibility, respect. If you’re dealing face-to-face with someone, those things have to be there. That’s what we’ve lost in our food system today. That’s what we need to restore.

My most important reason is: By restoring integrity to the food system, we can begin to restore sustainability to the whole of American society. Through the food that we buy, we begin to see the value of relationships. We see the importance of the earth, of our connection with the earth. We begin to see that the critical problems that we’re facing are a reflection of our disconnectedness. It’s a reflection of the loss of integrity within the system.

Each step that we take toward eating more locally is a step toward a new sustainable society. You say: how can we ever do it, with global corporations, political influence, and all of that. But folks, you know the current food system wasn’t built on a government decree or dictate or fiat or whatever, this system was created one by one.

One by one, as consumers — good consumers — each of us decided they were going to buy something different. We transformed what was a local, connected food system into an industrial, global, disconnected food system. And one by one, we can change this system into whatever we want it to be.

This new food system will be very different from the one we have today. If I had to make my guess as to what it will be, it will be a network of local food systems. We can create a global network of local food systems, but we have to build those local, community food systems one by one. One by one, we can transform the food system into what we want it to be and what we know it ultimately must be.

The new sustainable food system will depend more than anything else upon integrity of relationships. Integrity of relationships depends on the rightness of relationships. And the rightness of relationships is defined within the context of an order that’s higher than us. It’s a recognition that there’s something that transcends us. And that we are part of that bigger thing. And when we act with integrity, we act in harmony with that system.

I would say that eating local may seem like a little thing, but it’s a suggestion that we can begin to create relationships with integrity. And within those relationships, we’ll begin to discover a deeper sense of our responsibility: toward the earth, toward life, toward people. And we’ll begin to understand our responsibility toward something higher than ourselves. And in honesty, fairness, compassion, responsibility, and respect, as we connect, we will connect also not just with each other, but also with the spiritual, the moral. By eating local, by restoring integrity to the food system and to the society, we’ll again arrive at a state on earth that is genuinely human.

Thank you.

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