Professor Commentary: The case for buying local

We live in an era of globalization. As transportation costs have fallen, economies are increasingly integrated, and capitalism searches for new profits, we have an amazing number of products from around the world available to us. We buy lots of cheap products at Wal-Mart produced in China, for example. Food is no exception; our diet has globalized as well.

Not long ago, fruit and vegetables during the winter were not easy to find, especially in remote or poor areas. But much of that has changed; we buy Peruvian asparagus and Guatemalan strawberries during January and Vietnamese coffee any time of the year. In many ways, it makes food-shopping convenient. As countries urbanize and open their borders to imports, however, more people consume less healthy foods, including foods with more fat and sugar.  Noodles with MSG and meat fed with cheap imported corn replace local fruits and vegetables. Globalization also has a way of displacing our impact on the environment. How were the strawberries grown? Were the farm workers in Peru protected from pesticides when they worked? Were they paid a living wage? It’s easy not to be bothered with such concerns, but a number of people have responded to these trends by working to create an alternative — buying locally produced food.

As author Michael Pollan (Botany of Desire, Omnivore’s Dilemma) and others have argued for years, eating locally is an act of land conservation and underwrites our landscape and community. It takes work to buy local products, but it has numerous economic and environmental benefits.

First, buying local means you are supporting your neighbors (or nearby residents). Those neighbors pay local taxes, hire other neighbors, and in most cases are happy to speak with you about the food they produce (relationship marketing). Of course supermarkets hire my neighbors and pay taxes too, but local producers are more likely to reinvest in the area.

Second, buying local tends to put less pressure on the environment, at least in terms of transportation. If you buy a steak locally, the steer was likely raised and slaughtered within Southeast Ohio. If you buy a steak at a supermarket, the animal may have traveled by train from Georgia to the Great Plains (where most feedlots are located), where it was fattened on feedstuffs (lots of corn), only to be slaughtered and shipped back east where it is sold. And there is a decent chance that the corn it was fed was grown using irrigation water from the Ogallala aquifer. Using fossil water to raise corn to feed cattle from Georgia? We can do better than that. Buying local also means buying produce in season when it’s at its freshest.

A word of caution is in order, however: Buying local does not necessarily mean organic or even sustainable. We face the environmental and health trade-offs of buying organic vegetables grown in California or Mexico, or buying non-organic vegetables grown in Vinton County. And of course, some foods are not local — chocolate, bananas, coffee and others. The best we can do is to purchase the organic and fair trade version of these products (from local vendors), hoping that responsible consumption puts less pressure on the environment and helps others earn a living wage.

Buying locally produced foods is not a panacea to all our social and environmental problems, but consuming responsibly and locally is something we all can do, and in order to have an alternative to industrial, globalized agriculture, we need to support that alternative.

Learn more about local food initiatives at The Ohio Foodshed (ohiofoodshed.org), Community Food Initiatives (communityfoodinitiatives.org), and (athensohio/30mile/).

Dr. Brad Jokisch is an associate professor in the Department of Geography. His areas of specialization include cultural and political ecology, agriculture, population, migration, and Latin America.

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