Localized food production should be a strategy, not a goal, says UCSB professor

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Local food

The current approach to locally produced food in the United States may not cut greenhouse gas emissions or improve nutrition, a UC Santa Barbara professor has suggested.

Writing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology​, professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara David Cleveland said that the global, centralized agrifood system is highly productive but creates a disconnect between production and consumption, with associated social and environmental impacts. But local production may not be enough to tackle these problems, Cleveland claims.

He cites the example of Santa Barbara County, which has a highly productive agricultural sector, incorporating organic practices, farmers markets, and Community Supported Agriculture networks, and suggests that there is a need to approach localization with end goals in mind, such as improved local nutrition, or decreased greenhouse gas emissions.

In terms of the value of agricultural food production, Santa Barbara County ranks in the top 1 percent of counties in the United States, with 80 percent of that value coming from locally grown fruits and vegetables. However, 99 percent of food produced in the county is exported, while 95 percent of food consumed in the county is imported.

"Most of what's grown here is shipped out,"​ Cleveland said. "And most of what's eaten here is shipped in. That just seems crazy."

In addition, many individuals in the county suffer from food insecurity and poor nutrition.

"Localization per se is not going to change people's access to food​," Cleveland said. "So that's why groups like the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County and the Public Health Department provide food assistance and education outreach to try to get people access to food. Just having the local food there isn't going to change people's ability to buy it, or their ability to cook it, or prepare it. Again, it's the food trap. Just replacing imported fruits and vegetables with ones grown in the county, that's not going to do it."

Although localization is increasingly suggested as a way to tackle issues like malnutrition and greenhouse gas emissions, Cleveland says that local production should be seen as a starting point.

He said: "We have to not let local become the goal. I think that's the take-home lesson of this study. Local has to be a strategy for getting to the real, bigger goals we have."

Source: Environmental Science and Technology

2011, 45 (10), pp 4555–4562

“Effect of Localizing Fruit and Vegetable Consumption on Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Nutrition, Santa Barbara County”

Authors: David A. Cleveland, Corie N. Radka, Nora M. Mller, Tyler D. Watson, Nicole J. Rekstein, Hannah Van M. Wright, and Sydney E. Hollingshead.

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