Against Localism In Food

The food system must shrink its footprint while remaining planetary in scope.

Raw & Rendered for Noema Magazine
Philip Maughan is a writer and researcher based between London and Berlin.

BERLIN — For the past few decades, fears over food security, food safety, the rights of farmers and the environment have fueled a growing consensus that we should all do more to “eat local.”

This development is also being driven by what political scientist Chad Lavin describes in his 2013 book “Eating Anxiety: The Perils of Food Politics,” as fears over multiple collapsing “precious borders” — “borders between the self and the other, borders between states, and borders between the human and the nonhuman.”

The pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine and certain climate-oriented policies have stunted global trade, revealed widespread failures within food production and catalyzed dangerous price spikes, leading to the popularity of localism as a solution. But following that impulse is misguided and could wind up being far worse for the planet on the whole.

Transport Is Not The Issue

In restaurants, UN initiatives, multilateral recommendations, corporate campaigns and, above all, food marketing, “local” and “sustainable” have become interchangeable terms. But they are not the same thing.

The decision to eat locally — that is, to embrace a “locavore” diet — would reduce greenhouse gas emissions only if transport accounted for a large share of the emissions generated by food. In the majority of cases, it does not.

Multiple studies put the proportion of emissions generated by transport at just 5-6% of food’s overall total. In the case of beef, it is just 0.5%. Poultry and pork, which generate very little methane, produce fewer emissions than coffee and chocolate. Nuts, meanwhile, can be grown on marginal land, sequestering carbon as they do so and making them carbon negative.

“The decision to eat locally would reduce greenhouse gas emissions only if transport accounted for a large share of the emissions generated by food.”

We can use country of origin labels to track “food miles,” but cannot track the means by which those miles were met. More than half of all food is shipped by sea (58.97%) in enormous container vessels that exploit economies of scale to produce radically fewer emissions per mile for every pound of food they ship. Air freight is the most emissions-intensive way to ship food, but accounts for just 0.16% of food transport globally — far less than road (30.97%) and rail (9.9%).

For thousands of years, a stamp or seal that certified the foreign provenance of food was not a warning but a boast. “By the fifth century BC, Celtic princes in the region of France now known as Burgundy were enjoying a glass or two of Greek wine,” notes food historian Rachel Laudan. “Local foods were the lot of the poor who could neither escape the tyranny of local climate and biology nor the monotonous, often precarious, diet it afforded.”

The anthropologist David Wengrow has traced the practice six millennia into the past, as producers sought to capitalize on olive or grape trees grown within a reputable terroir, or to feed the timeless desire for spices, herbs, seeds and fruit that were either unknown or could not be cultivated locally.

In the modern world, country of origin labels were imposed by states in the 19th century to single out products from a rapidly industrializing Germany, of great concern in Britain and France. Today they still enable chauvinism — and are often flat-out misleading. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture permits beef and pork reared overseas to carry a “Product of USA” label just so long as the meat has been processed or packaged in the U.S.

Scale Matters

The lion’s share of food emissions are generated by land conversion and soil disruption — that is, by the practice of farming itself. When we add to this the methane reactions that take place in cow stomachs and flooded rice paddies, the misapplication of fertilizers and direct emissions from agricultural machines, the damage caused by transport (even when cold storage, logistics and packaging are included) becomes a far smaller aspect of the large task of getting food on everyone’s plates.

Were we to replace global shipping, warehousing and distribution with shorter, individual journeys on local roads, emissions would skyrocket. Imagine every single food item you buy this week needed to be picked up from a different part of the city. Multiply this number by every household in your city and you begin to get the picture. The distributed impact on traffic, air quality and the landscape would be profound.

“The lion’s share of food emissions are generated by land conversion and soil disruption — that is, by the practice of farming itself.”

This cannot happen, however, because most people on Earth live in dense cities whose immediate surroundings are too small, cold, dry, or hot to grow the food they need. We all hope that alternative farming methods will prove far more land-efficient in the long term. Whether you lean towards agroecology and regenerative farming, or precision techniques that use satellites and drones or ferment single-cell proteins indoors, each must be studied for its capacity to produce affordable meals at scale while reducing ecological damage.

One approach that has been researched is organic farming, which struggles with eutrophication (fertilizer runoff into rivers and oceans) as nitrates and phosphates leak uncontrollably from animal manure. The lack of antibiotics, pesticides, and artificial fertilizers on organic farms may be desirable on some fronts, but they are responsible for organic’s lower yields, which means more land is required to produce the same amount of food.

Perfecting one’s own small corner of the planet does not automatically improve the whole and can often lead to a net negative. Policymakers use the concept of “foodsheds” to map the zones within which food is sourced, traded, processed and consumed. But while watersheds may be a logical way to govern rivers (unlike the national boundaries that often cut across them), the only foodshed large enough to support a population heading for 10 billion by 2050 is the planet itself.

Were we to ban international trade and reduce foodsheds to continental scale, less than a third (3.3 billion people) could meet their basic dietary needs — nevermind optimum nutrition. Only 400 million people today would be able to maintain their existing dietary composition within a 100 square kilometer radius; just 10% could access maize and rice.

Anxieties around food can be damaging in other ways. A 2019 report by the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) rejected the widespread belief that domestic subsidies were necessary for food security, concluding that the damage wrought by agriculture exceeded the value of the food it produced. FOLU found no cases in which governments used financial instruments to support healthy, sustainable food, instead creating 12 trillion dollars in costs through negative impacts on the climate, human health and development.

The political reasons for this situation are complex, arising from historic fears of famine and the global transition from agricultural society to an industrial one, and yet the chemical calculus is not. Subsidies that support emissions-intensive commodities like meat, dairy and rice increase the rate of emissions. Subsidies that target adverse land use changes, as in the case of cattle, soy and palm oil result in higher emissions. Tariff barriers or protectionist policies that restrict production in more efficient parts of the world also result in higher emissions.

Agrarian Simulations

The drive toward “localization” — eating only seasonal, local foods (swapping where your food is from rather than what you eat) — relies on a fabricated perspective on rural environments. From the time we’re born, we are inundated with children’s books, advertising, documentaries and video games that build a simulated agrarianism around us — one that is not only a gross simplification of food production but may in fact be holding back change. As architect Rem Koolhaas’s decade-long “Countryside” investigation took pains to stress, rural areas today are dominated by “genetic experiment, industrial nostalgia, seasonal immigration, territorial buying sprees, massive subsidies, incidental habitation, tax incentives, political turmoil, digital informers, flex farming, and species homogenisation.” In other words, 97% of Earth’s land (as opposed to the 3% of dense urban space in which most people live) is now “more volatile than the most accelerated city.”

“This patchwork of romantic pastoralism has become a veil that frames sun-drenched wheat fields and cud-chewing cattle as a timeless standard rather than a major factor in our present crisis.”

This patchwork of romantic pastoralism has become a veil that frames sun-drenched wheat fields and cud-chewing cattle as a timeless standard rather than a major factor in our present crisis. This continues because we welcome it — and because it deflects attention from political strategies that we know are powerful drivers of rural renewal, pushing the barometer of solutions from the collective to an individual level.

For example, the 2020 OECD report “Rural Well-being: Geography of Opportunities” found that improving communications infrastructure, access to medical treatment, transport and education were all more effective boosters of economic potential in rural areas than the more ambiguous claim that consumer spending will flow outwards and foster long-term growth.

Wherever your own local may be, chances are there will be different kinds of farmers producing different kinds of food somewhere nearby — not only those who have a sizeable, wealthy market to shoulder the “real” cost of their goods, but those who rely on overseas trade to make a living. Why is one more worthy than another?

Products with geographical indications — think Cornish pasties or Worcester sauce, to use two examples from the UK — sell on average around half their stock domestically. The other half goes to the international market. Only a tiny fraction of those sales take place close to where they are produced, though they can bring a tourism boost (once those tourists have encountered the food first overseas).

There’s an important distinction to be made between farmers who benefit from rarefied local products — those who are successful land and business owners — and the often temporary, low-wage agricultural workers who make a living by picking, harvesting and packaging that food. Supporting your “local farmer” may empower the former but makes no guarantees toward the migrant laborers who do much of contemporary farm work.

The imbalance is an historic one. When crops fail, disease cuts down herds of livestock, or fisheries decline, it is rural workers who suffer most — not those in cities whose power, wealth, and connections enable them to overcome the conditions imposed by their immediate environment and call in imports from elsewhere.

The rural affairs journalist and former farmer Sarah Mock has argued that small, local farms have never been successful at producing food either equitably or ecologically, and that in idealizing them we cover up a long history of failure. “To this day, a sacred status is preserved for farmers,” she writes. “In 2021, it would be ludicrous to believe that the child of a software engineer had that work ‘in their blood,’ but we believe it of farm kids.”

“Perfecting one’s own small corner of the planet does not automatically improve the whole.”

She highlights how Adam Calo’s “yeoman myth,” a narrative he says is based on “individual land ownership, single proprietor farming, neoliberal logics of change, and whiteness” has been adopted by governments, nonprofits and the private sector. Mock writes that this narrative is a powerful mythology rooted in the American dream, making small farming “less a viable business plan than a social pacifier.”

In 2019, for example, 84% of earnings on very small farms (which make up around half of the farms in the U.S.) came from off-farm sources like investments, pensions or an outside salary (on large farms just 7% came from outside). Mock also notes how Thomas Jefferson, himself the owner of a 5,000 acre farm, saw “local farms” as a way to quell tensions rather than a tool to feed a growing population.

A Better Response To Disease

Despite the effectiveness of hazard protocols, testing, inspection, sterilization, pasteurization and regulation, high-profile outbreaks regularly strike fear into consumers. While some continue to suspect carcinogenic or other toxic residues lingering on their food, until the 20th century they were basically guaranteed. In 19th-century Britain, food was regularly adulterated with materials like sawdust and chalk, riddled with insects and lice. Salmonella, typhoid, and cholera were regular specters at a feast (for a startled account of working class food and medicine of the time, read Marx).

The stomach troubles that afflict travelers as they move from parts of the world where food safety standards are enforced to those where they are lax makes a strong case for regulation. A number of everyday veggies, fruit, and legumes — for instance, potatoes, kidney beans, rhubarb — are poisonous without the correct treatment.

Some have noted the efforts of residents in Shanghai to forage local vegetables during harsh lockdowns in the city this year — though we should also note the plea from botanists after people were reported to be falling sick. High-risk foods include raw or undercooked animal products, fresh produce, particularly raw fruits and vegetables, as well as unpasteurized fruit juices and raw sprouts.

Various tracing technologies have been proposed, from blockchain to engineered spores, which will allow authorities to follow a disease outbreak back to its point of origin. But the more effective switch might be political. Rather than consumers shifting their buying patterns toward better regulated foodsheds, a situation that would see wealthy nations turn inwards with environmentally disastrous consequences, they must instead turn outwards and export high-quality food, hygiene protocols, animal vaccines, technology licenses and knowledge from academia and industry, recognizing that the food system is necessarily planetary in scope instead of privatizing innovations that should benefit us all.

Matter And Symbol

The Financial Times recently reported that Denmark will be the first country to develop a state-mandated carbon label for food. It’s a welcome shift quite at odds with the U.S.’s recent addition of a biologically meaningless “bioengineered” sticker, to which water use, land volume and shipping method might also be added.

Given the unique climate, regulatory conditions, and population density at different sites around the globe, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a survey of academic literature on the subject found that “strategically diversifying the food supply via trade rather than by limiting it to local production” was a better approach to food security and lowering emissions.

“The cuisines we create and consume can be a means to define ourselves, our community and nation — but they can also be a means to transcend those things.”

It can be personally difficult to align trade with something as vital as food. Food is always both matter and symbol. Cooking and eating are basic human rituals that overlay the metabolic burn essential to all life. Clearly, an intelligent balance must be struck between diversifying trade and creating domestic systems capable of plugging shortfalls. But those systems should not be the field-based monocultures that have long dominated farming.

For a limited number of items, in the right context, local will be the smart option. Where it’s possible to make the call, this is no bad thing. But localism, an ideology linked to a romantic view of farming that constricts our imagination and prevents new visions of food production from emerging, prevents us from making this choice.

Appeals to localism are as complicated as appeals to nature — a realm of both sunflowers and anthrax, aspirin and mercury. Food is a core element in identity formation, and when our beliefs about it are challenged by science, economics or simply different tastes, we can feel wounded. The cuisines we create and consume can be a means to define ourselves, our community and nation — but they can also be a means to transcend those things.

Instead of directing people to eat only what is traditional, local and seasonal, we should encourage a widening of the collective palette — both culinary and cultural. Embracing other, newer types of food, produced in as yet unrecognizable ways, will be just as essential to transforming the food system as it was in building the one we have.