Over the last few years, we have witnessed a steady rise in demand for locally sourced food. Markets are carrying more local options, restaurants are growing their own food, even cocktails have “craft, local ingredients” stirred in them. What’s driving this trend? It seems that our palates have been changing, together with our priorities. Our gaze is shifting inwards toward our own health, and outwards toward a much larger picture: the health of our planet. It’s also likely that the longer cities remain in quarantine, with mobility curtailed, the more important the health of local communities could be to the people who live in them.
by Bea Miñana, Associate Consultant at Agritecture
Our focus has been changing in part because the past few years have begun to show glimpses of weak links in our food supply chain. The increasing frequency of foodborne illness outbreaks shed light on how important the source of our food actually is. As a result, local food slowly became king—consumers were shown that the farther food travels, the more likely it is to be exposed to health and safety risks. Growing awareness and activism around environmental protection also made us begin to second guess our regular purchases. Consumers are learning that food from across the world comes at a cost beyond the extra dollars paid for imported goods. The emissions that result from transporting food long distances are immense, and have been heating up the planet while we have been dining on international cuisines. With 11% of agricultural emissions attributed to transportation alone, sourcing local cuts this down significantly, and many are realizing that food choices actually bear weight.
While these health and environmental benefits have spotlighted local food, studies have shown that it also has economically robust advantages. According to an article by Sustain Ontario, the community economics of buying local proves that “the more a dollar circulates in a defined region, and the faster it circulates, the more income, wealth and jobs it creates.” In fact, local food has a multiplier of 1.4x to 2.6x, enhancing the vibrancy of communities at a significant rate. The most prosperous communities gain and sustain their wealth because they have the highest percentage of jobs in locally-owned businesses. This doesn’t mean that they are entirely disconnected from the global trade economy; it means that they only import things that they can’t supply themselves. When production is localized, more jobs need to be done, and seasonal unemployment is diminished—an issue that has become extremely relevant in current times.
All of these benefits have driven the rising interest in local food over the last few years, but ultimately, COVID-19 has made the weaknesses of our globalized food supply chain difficult to ignore. As cities shut down and businesses are left without their usual customers, the fragility of our food supply chain has come to a head, making local food more of a necessity than a luxury. The number of hands it takes to pass along food from a farm in New Zealand to a plate in the United States is inordinate, and leaves a lot of room for error and risk that we can no longer afford. The length of current supply chains, not to mention the complexity of the entire food system, is resulting in both shortages and surpluses that call the ‘efficiencies’ we once relied on into serious question.