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Going Local: The Changing Features of an Essential Practice

Written by Jesse Richardson on February 27, 2012 with 2 Comments

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Local Food In the U.S., a typical carrot has to travel  1,838 miles before reaching a dinner plate. That’s like everyone in Los Angeles, California getting their greens from Chicago, Illinois, or everyone in D.C. having to wait for the freight to arrive from Salt Lake City, Utah.

Excuse the English, but that ain’t no local food.

Local food has got some strict rules. After all, local is a concept that’s been around for generations, long before the farmers of today. There’s got to be a clear understanding of local, right?

Interestingly enough, not really.

So, what is local?

But, then, what constitutes local? When one looks for a solid definition of “local”, they’ll often find definitions or discussions that offer conceptual expressions, but not much on the specifics on distance, practice, and other factors like supplier of seeds. While this is more common in general, especially with the public’s idea of local, that’s not to say no definition carries a set of specifics.

Take the definition adopted by the U.S. Congress in the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (2008 Farm Act) for instance. It argues that “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” must be within 400 miles of the origin or in-state. Here, Congress describes exactly what local is: regional, and with a precise distance. Though this definition lends some clarity to the concept, this is just one organization’s take on the matter.

The Idea of Local

In its broadest sense, “local” mainly carries a geographic connotation, like that seen in the farm bill, along with undercurrents of sustainability and relative ease of access for growers and retailers. On top of that though, some see local as representing a practice that enriches the locality in which the farm is located, taking action to protect the soil, water, and air of the area. Local should minimize of costs and needs of transportation, uses of chemicals, and benefit the community.

Over time, just like with most concepts, the connotation behind local changed, though, especially between different groups of people in different regions. As discussed in Farming Magazine, there seems to be an every-changing definitions of local. They note that “From the very beginning, local has meant different things to different people. The geographic scope of what’s local has varied and shifted over time and location. ”

When commercial agriculture began in the United States, some 200 years ago, local food supplied the bulk of people’s demands, with transportation severely limiting the availability for most consumers. As train lines expanded, river routes explored and optimized, and the personal autmobile was introduced, the commodities farmers grew were able to reach people is distant places. Today, with the innovations in transportation, it’s not strange to be eating carrots from 2000 miles away.

Considering the benefits of transportation helps us see why it’s not odd that Congress adopted a definition with a range of 400 miles – a distance that would be far from local to our ancestors.

A Future of Changing Definitions?

So what does the future of local look like? As we’ve seen, the define has largely changed as technology progressed, and understandably at that. What the future has for local is a different story. The lines behind the “local” and “domestic”, in trade connotations, may become more and more blurred, or perhaps there will be a defining point for the phrase. Until then, we’ll just keep grappling with the idea of local.

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  1. A great way to understand “local” is by submersing yourself within your local food network. World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming (WWOOF) is a great way to travel to somewhere new, or to explore your own backyard. You will be able to connect with organic farmers and to work alongside of them, and to eat what you tend to. It’s a great way to remind ourselves of the process involved in food production, cultivation and maintenance. You have the opportunity to be outside, tending to the earth and reconnecting with essential parts of our humanity. When you sit to eat, you will be nourished in whole way, holistically.
    I have worked with farmers across Canada as a way of exploring my backyard and I am amazed to experience the vast crops available to Canadians and the mass quantity of knowledge available at our fingertips. It’s a root cause and I encourage everyone to explore their inner farmer.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zb7oeyL2aoQ&feature=channel_video_title

    • Very interesting reading, I hope that Organic Soul is being read by millions. It’s the right infomration at the right time and the people need it. Thanks for the article Jesse and the comment, Lucia.

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