Local Agriculture Reduces Environmental Impact
By Lester R. Brown
In combination with moving down the food chain to eat fewer livestock
products, reducing the food miles in our diets can dramatically reduce
energy use in the food economy.
In the United States, there has been a surge of interest in eating
fresh local foods, corresponding with mounting concerns about the
climate effects of consuming food from distant places and about the
obesity and other health problems associated with junk food diets. This
is reflected in the rise in urban gardening, school gardening, and
With the fast-growing local foods movement, diets are becoming more
locally shaped and more seasonal. In a typical supermarket in an
industrial country today it is often difficult to tell what season it
is because the store tries to make everything available on a year-round
basis. As oil prices rise, this will become less common. In essence, a
reduction in the use of oil to transport food over long
distances--whether by plane, truck, or ship--will also localize the food
This trend toward localization is reflected in the recent rise in the
number of farms in the United States, which may be the reversal of a
century-long trend of farm consolidation. Between the agricultural
census of 2002 and that of 2007, the number of farms in the United
States increased by 4 percent to roughly 2.2 million. The new farms
were mostly small, many of them operated by women, whose numbers in
farming jumped from 238,000 in 2002 to 306,000 in 2007, a rise of
nearly 30 percent.
Many of the new farms cater to local markets. Some produce fresh fruits
and vegetables exclusively for farmers' markets or for their own
roadside stands. Others produce specialized products, such as the goat
farms that produce milk, cheese, and meat or the farms that grow
flowers or wood for fireplaces. Others specialize in organic food. The
number of organic farms in the United States jumped from 12,000 in 2002
to 18,200 in 2007, increasing by half in five years.
Gardening was given a big boost in the spring of 2009 when U.S. First
Lady Michelle Obama worked with children from a local school to dig up
a piece of lawn by the White House to start a vegetable garden. There
was a precedent. Eleanor Roosevelt planted a White House victory garden
during World War II. Her initiative encouraged millions of victory
gardens that eventually grew 40 percent of the nation's fresh produce.
Although it was much easier to expand home gardening during World War
II, when the United States was largely a rural society, there is still
a huge gardening potential--given that the grass lawns surrounding U.S.
residences collectively cover some 18 million acres. Converting even a
small share of this to fresh vegetables and fruit trees could make an
important contribution to improving nutrition.
Many cities and small towns in the United States and England are
creating community gardens that can be used by those who would
otherwise not have access to land for gardening. Providing space for
community gardens is seen by many local governments as an essential
service, like providing playgrounds for children or tennis courts and
other sport facilities.
Many market outlets are opening up for local produce. Perhaps the best
known of these are the farmers' markets where local farmers bring their
produce for sale. In the United States, the number of these markets
increased from 1,755 in 1994 to more than 4,700 in mid-2009, nearly
tripling over 15 years. Farmers' markets reestablish personal ties
between producers and consumers that do not exist in the impersonal
confines of the supermarket. Many farmers' markets also now take food
stamps, giving low-income consumers access to fresh produce that they
might not otherwise be able to afford. With so many trends now boosting
interest in these markets, their numbers may grow even faster in the
In school gardens, children learn how food is produced, a skill often
lacking in urban settings, and they may get their first taste of
freshly picked peas or vine-ripened tomatoes. School gardens also
provide fresh produce for school lunches. California, a leader in this
area, has 6,000 school gardens.
Many schools and universities are now making a point of buying local
food because it is fresher, tastier, and more nutritious and it fits
into new campus greening programs. Some universities compost kitchen
and cafeteria food waste and make the compost available to the farmers
who supply them with fresh produce.
Supermarkets are increasingly contracting with local farmers during the
season when locally grown produce is available. Upscale restaurants
emphasize locally grown food on their menus. In some cases, year-round
food markets are evolving that market just locally produced foods,
including not only fruit and vegetables but also meat, milk, cheese,
eggs, and other farm products.
Food from more distant locations boosts carbon emissions while losing
flavor and nutrition. A survey of food consumed in Iowa showed
conventional produce traveled on average 1,500 miles, not including
food imported from other countries. In contrast, locally grown produce
traveled on average 56 miles--a huge difference in fuel investment. And
a study in Ontario, Canada, found that 58 imported foods traveled an
average of 2,800 miles. Simply put, consumers are worried about food
security in a long-distance food economy. This trend has led to a new
term: locavore, complementing the better known terms herbivore,
carnivore, and omnivore.
Concerns about the climate effects of consuming food transported from
distant locations has also led Tesco, the leading U.K. supermarket
chain, to label products with their carbon footprint--indicating the
greenhouse gas contribution of food items from the farm to supermarket
shelf. Sweden is a recent pioneer in labeling food with its carbon
footprint along with nutritional facts.
As agriculture localizes, livestock production will likely start to
shift away from mega-sized cattle, hog, and poultry feeding operations.
The shift from factory farm production of milk, meat, and eggs by
returning to mixed crop-livestock operations facilitates nutrient
recycling as local farmers return livestock manure to the land. The
combination of high prices of natural gas, which is used to make
nitrogen fertilizer, and of phosphate, as reserves are depleted,
suggests a much greater future emphasis on nutrient recycling--an area
where small farmers producing for local markets have a distinct
advantage over massive feeding operations.
As world food insecurity mounts, more and more people will be looking
to produce some of their own food in backyards, in front yards, on
rooftops, in community gardens, and elsewhere, further contributing to
the localization of agriculture.
Adapted from Chapter 9, "Feeding Eight Billion People Well," in Lester
R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at www.earthpolicy.org/index.php?/books/pb4
Additional data and information sources at www.earthpolicy.org
Edited by Carolyn Allen, Managing Editor of Solutions For Green