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Can the Local Food Movement Go Mainstream?

Words by Akhila Vijayaraghavan
Energy & Environment

The local food movement has has been gathering steam for the last few years. Time magazine put local food on its cover in 2007 and since then Walmart and Chipotle have both pledged to include more locally sourced food available to their customers. A few days ago a man in Burlington, Vt was arrested for starting a community garden but the local DA dropped charges later. There is no doubt the movement is growing, but the question is, how big can it get?

The Locavore Movement
The local food movement involves eating food grown within a 100 mile radius of where you live, with the goal of improving local economies and reducing food miles. Eating local also, for the most part means eating seasonally. Many proponents of the locavore movement have argued that they would rather eat conventionally grown local food than organic food from far away. The local food movement obviously has a lot of environmental benefits in terms of saving the carbon footprint of food or what I like to call 'foobon footprint'. It is also better for local economy and the food is definitely fresher and better tasting. All these are the obvious benefits of local food and several communities are now investing in developing community agriculture programs within city limits. The Case for Local Food
In order for local food to scale up or reach mainstream there are several measures that need to be put in place. Food buyers need to understand that there is an intricate connection between fuel and food prices. Agriculture is not just land and water intensive, it is also energy intensive. Both the energy and food industries are victims of an inefficient distribution system as well as heavy government regulations. Both industries are also supported by government subsidies that make it very difficult to break the status quo.

Several studies indicate that the food industry consumes around 10% of the energy in the US with only 20% of that used in actual production. The rest of it goes into  processing, home refrigeration and preparation, and of course, transportation. Supermarket food travels an average of 1000 miles to get to the store, with the increase in gas prices, local food definitely has a competitive advantage.

For all these reasons, BrightFarms a NYC based company contracts with supermarkets to build, own and operate onsite greenhouses on store rooftops. According to their business plan, there is no upfront cost for the retailer, they only have the obligation to purchase food grown hydroponically on store rooftops farms through long-term, fixed price contracts. BrightFarms has a policy of not announcing customers until its farms are delivering produce, but it has signed up eight supermarket chains as customers so far.

Innovative Business Models

The most exciting thing about this model in addition to almost zero-transport costs, lower water, fertilizer inputs is the fact that consumers can get fresh produce straight from the plant that happens to be growing just above where they are shopping; thus dramatically shortening the supply chain.

Innovative models of business like these is what is needed to break the destructive food cycle. In addition to this, careful study of how to fit locally grown food into the national 'grid' is also necessary.  Not only is this needed in America but it is also desperately needed in Third World where agricultural land and water scarcity is leading to extreme fluctuations in food prices. I cannot wait for the day when such rooftop gardens reach the towers in Mumbai or Bangkok, Shanghai or Singapore.

Photo Credit: Akhila Vijayaraghavan © All rights reserved.