Why Most Food Could Never Be “Local”

Produce shop in Basel Switzerland


Eating “Local Food” is an appealing ideal in theory, but it runs into several “reality issues.”  As much as people might want locally produced food, there are practical issues of land availability, land costs, grower economics, water availability, and climate which sharply restrict the range of foods that could ever be practically grown as local crops, particularly when you look at how the US population is distributed.

When you go to your local farmer’s market and see a wide range of offerings it is tempting to think that local production could be a significant contribution to our diet.  When you look at what is actually  involved in growing the food supply, a different story emerges.  I spent some time gathering crop acreage data from the extremely useful USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) web sites.  If you haven’t even looked at these sites and you are interested in agricultural issues you should definitely check them out.

How Much Land Is Involved In Growing Human Food in the US?

Pie chart of food crops by local suitability

I was interested to see how much land it takes to grow our human food crops.  Excluding the crops that are exclusively for animal feed (e.g. hay, alfalfa, silage crops…) and the ones that have a huge animal feed component (corn, soy..) I found that there are about 70 million acres of land in the US devoted to growing the crops we eat more or less directly (I factored out the ~30% of wheat for export).  Even if you are a vegetarian or Vegan, these crops all matter. I divided that area into groups by suitability for local production.  In the chart above you can see the relative growing area devoted to six categories of crops.  I will explain below why there are only about three million acres out of the 70 that are practical (or even close to practical) for local farmers to supply.

Crops With Too Low a Per-Acre Value to Grow Near Cities

Row crops that don't make sense to grow locally

The “Row Crops” listed above are our main source of carbohydrate calories, vegetable protein, and cooking oils.  These are important foods in any balanced diet, but these crops are not worth very much on a per-acre basis.  They are almost all grown in rain-fed areas where it is not practical to grow higher income crops like corn or soy.  Some are grown as rotational options in slightly higher value areas and even under irrigation in the PNW.  Still, these are not crops that make sense to grow on the relatively expensive land around cities.  A grower in those settings really needs to be growing something with more income potential per acre like a fruit or vegetable.  It doesn’t matter if the grower is large, small, conventional or Organic, it just isn’t sound business practice to devote scarce land and water in the proximity of a city to crops that have this low a per-acre value.  Also these crops need to be grown in large quantities in a given area to make their handling and storage at all efficient.  On top of that, you can’t get the necessary quality for these crops (especially barley, bread wheats or pasta wheat) just anywhere.  These are never going to be significant local foods and they actually haven’t been for centuries.

Crops That Are Climate Limited or Which Need Scale for Processing

Other categories of crops unsuited for local production

Many of the fruits and vegetables (left-hand list above) that add healthy diversity to our diets can only be grown in areas with relatively mild or even semi-tropical conditions.  For instance, avocados are “local” for me in San Diego, but they never will be for the vast majority of the country.  Some of these crops might be coaxed into a slight expansion of their current range, but they will never be part of most people’s local options.  The crops on the right-hand list above might grow in more areas, but to be practical they need to be available in large quantities in a single region to justify the capital expense for the processing facility.  In the case of Fall Potatoes (Russet types), the capital investment is for storage facilities and between that and the high yield potential, those will probably always come out of places like Idaho, Washington and Colorado’s San Luis Valley.  There are other types of potatoes that are already grown regionally, but it is the fall potatoes that keep that staple available all year.

What Crops Could Be Grown More Locally?

Crops that can, often with difficulty, be grown locally

On the right-hand column above is a list of fruit crops that could be shifted to some degree away from the West where the vast majority of it is grown today.  This would not be at all easy and I’ll describe what it would take below after we take a quick look at fresh vegetables.  Most of what makes any sense for local production are the vegetable crops in the left-hand column above.  Today, 54% of fresh vegetables are grown in the desert West because it has a longer growing season and lacks the summer rains that lead to disease and quality issues. Another 23% is grown in the Southeast because of their longer season.   For much of the country, it will always be necessary to source non-local vegetables for the winter if people want any fresh options.  Still, I was surprised at how much vegetable production does occur in other states.  The charts below look at this on an acreage basis and corrected for population.

Where US Fresh Vegetables are Grown

Fresh Vegetables vs Population

What Would It Take to Expand “Local” Even to Part of the 3 Million Acres of Possible Candidates?

The real driver for shifting more fruit and vegetable production out of places like California may turn out to be water limitation.  Unless the Sarah Palins of the world are right, California’s water woes are only likely to get worse with Climate Change.  It is just that many other parts of the country are less hospitable to fruit and vegetable crops.  That does not mean it is impossible, but it will tend to be more costly and it will take some good technology (if a grower is going to make any money doing this).  The common insistence that local food also be “Organic” is very counter-productive if people are serious about expanding local production.  For instance, people have been trying for decades to grow Organic apples in the East for receptive urban markets, but it is just too hard. Pests are real and where it rains there are diseases.  Organic has very weak pesticide options for disease control and a limited number of potent options for insect control.  It would be relatively easy to come up with a workable “tool box” of synthetic pesticide options for these new local farmers that are as safe or safer than the Organic options, but few people realize that.  The other thing that would help is “protected culture.”  These are ways of farming that are not full-blown greenhouses, but which include rain shields, growing tunnels, conches etc to help growers deal with the harsher climates.  This is most advanced today in the berry crops.

If you look at the numbers, it becomes obvious that we will always need to get an extremely important proportion of our food from non-local sources.  We might need to somewhat expand the part of our supply of certain fruits and vegetables that comes from more local sources in the future because of climate change.  We shouldn’t let philosophical constraints like Organic get in the way of doing that.

Market Image, Graphs and Tables by Steve Savage

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21 thoughts on “Why Most Food Could Never Be “Local””

  1. I think you raise some important questions that the local food movement must answer. However I have a slight problem with the slant of your article. You make it sound as if we have a choice whether to change to a local food diet. I honestly don’t feel we will have a choice. Thanks to Peak Oil and the end of cheap fossil fuels, food transported from one end of the country to another or grown with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides will be a great luxury only the very rich can afford. There is a lot of debate within the permaculture/biotensive agriculture movement whether the earth’s current land mass can support our existing population of 6 billion without industral agriculture – or if we need to look at (voluntary or involuntary) reduction of the population to 2 billion. As to your point about water: advocates of the Terraquaculture model used for centuries in China point to low rainfall, non-irrigated areas (without fertilizer or pesticides) produce twice as much food per acre as high-tech California agricultural systems growing the same staple crop. As to your point about pests: I think there is consensus in the Permaculture movement that the present pest problem in growing organic fruit relates to excessive hybridation and over-reliance on monoculture. This belief has led to the race to save and propagate heirloom species that were more pest resistant. I don’t really think micro climate or growing season are really an issue – the Permaculture movement has no problem with the notion of growing fruits and veggies in greenhouses.

  2. Stuart,
    Interesting points. Very high future energy costs will certainly change agriculture, but some of the options you discuss run into major demographic trends in the same time frame (e.g. who would do the labor in your China model and who would carry in the “night soil” (gross!) On heirloom species and the question of whether pest control difficulties in Organic. Trust me, pests can find crops no matter how small scale, heirloom or polyculture. I have often observed epidemic plant diseases on species in high mountain meadows in the Rockies. Unless you want to share your food with bugs and diseases, you need either pesticides or robust exclusion methods. The permaculture movement is on to something, but they also need to think about robotics because cheap, exploitable labor will go away long before oil

  3. There is a simpler demonstration of “Why Most Food Could Never Be ‘Local’ “:

    Imagine the people of Boston wanted to eat only locally-produced food. That food would have to come from within a radius of about 100 miles of Boston, because New York City is only 189 miles from Boston and their local “foodsheds” can’t overlap. The area of a circle 100 miles in diameter is 7850 square miles, or about 5 million acres. (And in the case of Boston, only about half that circle is on land, so say about 2.5 million acres in the local foodshed.)

    From the first chart you gave it looks like about 70 million acres are used to produce “crops grown primarily for human consumption”. That is about 0.25 acres of food production for every one of the 300 million inhabitants of the U.S. The Boston area (including Eastern Massachusetts, Southern New Hampshire, and Rhode Island–roughly the 100-mile foodshed) has a population of about 7.5 million, so at that rate it would need about 1.9 million acres for food production. (More would be needed if animals were grazed or grain were being raised to feed to them.)

    So to eat locally the people of Boston would need to

    * plow up every acre not occupied by a house inside their foodshed, and use only about a quarter of the land for everything else
    * grow food as efficiently in that local area as it is grown in the most favorable locations where it is produced now (presumably the reason we only need 0.25 acres of food-producing land per person in the U.S. is that the very most productive land is being used for every crop)
    * get to like the beans, turnips, potatoes, soft-wheat bread, oatmeal and the dried, salted or frozen fish and meat and they would have to eat over the winter. (No tofu please, we’re eating local!)

    Cities can only exist if their inhabitants don’t eat locally.

  4. I think you are completely missing the point. How can you take existing data of the current “broken” agricultural system and apply it to prove how a different system is impossible?

    You’re implying that ‘Local will never work so let’s just keep things as they are’ … which is way off-base.

    Instead of formulating weak arguments about how progressive change can’t happen, how about you focus your efforts on finding ideas that will help the status quo?!

    Also, what on earth is your rationale for leaving out all of the CORN acreage?! Yes, we currently grow a lot of it, and much of it is for animal feed, but for pete’s sake that does not make it OFF LIMITS to other crops?! What if there is a policy change in federal government that makes it less attractive for farmers to grow as much corn as possible? Then some of that acreage can be transitioned to crops that are in higher demand… LIKE LOCAL PRODUCE….

  5. David, You make excellent points and you are right, the productivity would be much lower if crops are not grown where they do the best. The area around Boston isn’t very good for many crops for instance.

    I think you do a lot of hard working, risk-taking farmers a disservice to imply that the entire system is “broken”. There are issues to address and I’ve blogged previously about the kind of changes that really make sense for ag. (https://eatdrinkbetter.com/2010/01/08/a-virtual-tour-of-tomorrows-super-sustainable-farm-part-1/ )

    If you got to the end of the post you will see that I talked about some things we could do to increase local production of some crops. I’m just saying that local cannot possibly be the entire story no matter how hard some people wish.

    I left out the feed crops because I wanted to make the point that even if we all became vegetarians, we would need huge areas and actually we would need a great deal more land for vegetable protein crops.

    If you look at where corn and soybeans are grown, it is not mostly close to urban areas, so it wouldn’t be a place to grow local produce unless millions of people want to move into rural Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois…I don’t see them lining up to do that

  6. Thanks for replying, Steve. I think another big problem is that in the “Local Food Movement” there is not really a definition of “Local.” I agree that it is not practical to get 100% of our foodstuffs locally, changing diets to eat only what’s local, and only worrying about food miles. In fact I just bought a book (but have not read it yet) called Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and how we can Truly Eat Responsibly.

    You state that “we will always need to get an extremely important proportion of our food from non-local sources,” but we should still try to reduce that proportion in favor of local alternatives.

    My background is in Food Science so I can easily fall to the more conservative side of Local Food ideals. My interest, however, is in challenging the Food Industry to actually make an effort towards sustainability (which would include encouraging local food systems.)

  7. Tara,
    Local is not automatically more sustainable. Depending on the type of shipping, to energy and greenhouse gases involved in “food miles” can be quite small. Growing crops in the regions where they grow best means using less total land area for farming. Some areas don’t have sustainable water supplies for agriculture. Sustainability is best measured by metrics that measure specific desirable outcomes. When you apply those you get many surprises that don’t fit preconceptions about what is best

  8. The folks I read who endorse local agriculture are pretty honest that they are not promoting a 100% local diet. Could you cite sources that are promoting a 100% local diet?

  9. Steve,
    Your numbers can’t hide the fact that you have next to zero vision in what is possible. I am a chef that works with “local” food as much as possible, and I will tell you that we haven’t even touched what is possible.

    To think that even 90 percent of the food we eat could be produced locally is absurd. NO ONE at my end of the game even thinks that. And Honestly, there are some crops that it doesn’t matter if it is local, such as say, Millet, because it is dry and lasts a very long time. I think the issue those involved in the movement are trying to push is getting back to real food,the way it was intended, and people who obsess about labels such as “organic” or “naturally rasied” or “local” are more in it for the $. I also think your article totally missed the point of why “local” has even become what it is.

    My question to you is, why focus on the “we can’t do it” ??? You would have been better served in the time you wrote that article to go and plant a garden. McDonalds wants us to think we can’t do it too, else why would we need them?

    P.S. I live in PA and I know a farm that grows Organic apples, and they are awesome, defiantly the best apples I have ever had.

  10. Ben,
    Did you read the part about protected culture? I do have vision for what is possible, I’m just realistic. By the way I have a garden, lots of fruit tress and also my own vineyard.

  11. Your opening statement is Eating “Local Food” is an appealing ideal in theory, but it runs into several “reality issues.” That sounds to me like you are defining eating local food as 100% local.

    Your reply to Tara is I’m just saying that local cannot possibly be the entire story no matter how hard some people wish. Again, this sounds to me that you are defining local eating as 100%. What people are wishing local to be the entire story?

  12. L. Hernandez,
    OK, what percent “local” do you think is feasible? For the entire diet I’d say 5% would be ambitious. It could be a bigger percentage of vegetables. Now for those of us in California it can be reasonably high for everything except the low value row crops, but then that depends on what you call “local.” I live 400 miles from the Salinas valley where so much of the vegetable supply is grown. Is that local?

    To me it makes sense to grow crops where they do the best because that means you supply food with less total farmed area and you are getting the most yield out of your inputs of water, fertilizer and fuel. If it is practical to grow something locally and thus deliver it fresher that is great. To me the perfect example would be fully vine ripened tomatoes. There has been that sort of market in the Midwest for a very long time.

  13. Thank you for insight into the real numbers. We have been looking at goods beyond produce/perishables and have found that small businesses have a hard time competing with the large CPG companies and need the national audience. We are proud of http://www.AbesMarket.com as a platform for the little guy who makes fantastic natural-organic products (personal care, toys, home, food) to share their story and inspiration. Please send us your thoughts.

  14. As often is the case with humans, I think folks get too caught up in labling & definitions. The gist of the ‘local food’ movement seems to be (to me) that

    1. Fresh food tastes better, and sometimes (depending on growing method/ soil/ etc.) can have higher nutritional content.
    2. Community-supported agriculture can be good for growers, by ‘cutting out the middleman’ and selling directly to consumers.
    3. There is often improved biodiversity/ available varieties of a given food, compared to situations where uniform maturity/ sturdiness during transport/etc. drives (large-scale/ distant) production.
    4. There tends to be less waste (packaging) and pollution (shipping), and sometimes (depending on the grower) less pesticide with potential effects on waterways etc.
    5. Food security is impacted by individuals or communities being 100% dependent on distant suppliers; biodiversity of food crops (positively impacted by small-scale growers/ backyard gardeners) reduces risk of events like the Irish potato famine, where one blight/ pest/ etc. can knock out huge swaths of the food supply.

    The more food I grow myself, the less I need to buy; that’s ‘local food’, but not ’cause I’m a locavore. I buy honey & eggs from local keepers/ farmers I know personally, since I know they treat their critters well; that’s something I can’t check on, with distant producers. In the traditionally poor area where I work, no grocery store exists… it’s just not profitable. So most kids I work with can’t identify a pear, or celery: they eat only Ramens & Little Debbies, from the Circle-K… A community garden or ‘edible schoolyard’ there would be the only realistic ways that this neighborhood could have consistent access to healthy whole foods (hopefully c.g. will be up & running this spring — woohoo!)…

    There are lots of reasons to eat local food *as much as possible*… what’s the problem with maximizing local resources, and going from there? Obviously different regions have different levels of locavorability… so? Let’s make the most of what we’ve each got, and be happy with that… I don’t think anyone (even you, Steve!) is saying that local food has to be ‘all or nothing.’ But I think it could definitely be MORE than it is now! (To our common benefit.)

  15. Evz,
    There is nothing wrong with eating local to the extent that is practical, but this is not the way that the “Local Food Movement” presents itself. It has a strong tendency towards self-righteousness and towards needing to denigrate the farmers who don’t meet their definition of sufficiently local. There are potentially good aspect and there is definitely a good deal of pretension.

  16. I enjoyed your post. If I may, I would like to suggest my farm web site.

    Sumas Mountain Farms is the only producer of 100% certified-organic, lifetime grass-fed & finished beef in the Lower Mainland of BC (Canada). We also offer chicken, eggs, pepperoni, jerky, salami, sausage, farmer sausage, and more.

    Because our beef is 100% grass-fed & finished, the quality of the meat is exceptional, and the flavor is unsurpassed. Plus, it is more nutrient-dense and packed with healthful Omega-3’s than conventional beef, which is healthier for you, your family, and the planet.

    Please visit http://www.sumasmountainfarms.ca/ for more information! We have plenty of recipes for you to try.


  17. İ do it the easy way. Every weekend İ make a trip to the open market 3 km distant – the other days it moves to other villages.

    İ buy what tastes and looks best – where the veggie guy gets it is his problem.

  18. I think you’re off on a lot of your points. I live in Maine — not usually considered an easy place to grow vegetables, given our wintry climate — and our local farmers are able to grow lots of potatoes, root vegetables, corn, apples, and everything else I could want to eat. If it’s not available in the wintertime, harvest it in the fall and put it in your root cellar. Our local organic co-op carries lots of organic whole wheat flour grown here in Maine. What’s the problem? Published researcher Eliot Coleman grows an incredible variety of greens and vegetables all year long here in Maine in unheated hoophouses. If you’re creative and inventive, you can eat locally all year ’round, unless perhaps you live in the far north.

  19. Have you factored in how shifting away from animal agriculture might affect these statistics? We currently feed over half of all the grains we grow in the US to livestock (in fact, some estimates say the amount of grain we feed to livestock in the US alone could feed three quarters of a million people).

    At any rate, there’s always greenhouses for the places that have low levels of arable land ;)

  20. The best way I’ve found to “eat locally” is to grow your own crops. This may not be as efficient as some corporate farming ventures, but it ensures that your food hasn’t gone a mile on the back of fossil fuels and give you the freedom to eat whatever you want to grow (especially if you have a greenhouse/greenhouse setting).

    It’s obviously impractical to eat only local food, especially considering how humans were so mobile in the beginning and probably ran into different areas with different vegetation often, but it’s not impossible to greatly reduce your impact.

    I live in California, so I guess I’m spoiled with the local production factor.

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