Local food systems: sustainability or resilience?

What are the benefits of local-regional food?

Last week, I posted a John Ikerd talk on local food relationships as a means to restore national integrity(!). Today I’ll stick with quantifiable stuff.

A 2010 USDA report (“Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues”) examined the question of local food benefits and found more research needed. Here are their top-line conclusions:

As of early 2010, there were few studies on the impact of local food markets on economic development, health, or environmental quality.
• Empirical research has found that expanding local food systems in a community can increase employment and income in that community.
• Empirical evidence is insufficient to determine whether local food availability improves diet quality or food security.
• Life-cycle assessments — complete analyses of energy use at all stages of the food system including consumption and disposal — suggest that localization can but does not necessarily reduce energy use or greenhouse gas emissions.

We might quibble with these findings, but I am going to pay attention to the study’s questions, not answers.

When we look at local foods in terms of “economic development, health, and environmental quality,” what is our frame of reference? Clearly, this is a sustainability economy-equity-ecology lens.

The USDA deserves kudos for adopting this lens and taking local-regional food systems seriously. But of course any particular lens both reveals and obscures.

Here’s one example of quantifiable benefits that get lost.

A 2008 study (“Regional Farm Diversity Can Reduce Vulnerability of Food Production to Climate Change“) found that greater diversity in farm sizes, types, and intensities — the type of diversity developed through regional production systems — reduced the vulnerability of European wheat crops to projected climate impacts.

This study doesn’t fit the pattern of understanding local-regional food systems in terms of “economic development, health, and environmental quality.” It describes food system resilience, rather than sustainability. And as I wrote about food miles, the two can be quite different.

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