Why Local is Best
21st September 2023
Broadly there are two main approaches to producing food. Small scale local production for local consumption or large-scale industrialised farms tied into a multinational food production network. The industrialised model has become dominant.
Modern Industrialised Food Production
Technological developments — modern agricultural machinery, pesticides, industrial processing of foodstuffs, refrigeration and rapid transport — have led to the dominance of a particular mode of food production. Foodstuffs are produced in enormous bulk by industrialised farms, to be processed, transported — sometimes by air — and sold in supermarkets far away from where they are grown.
So, nowadays, large quantities of soft fruit such as strawberries or vegetables, like tomatoes or peppers, are grown in greenhouses in Spain, to be sent all across Europe. And around seventy percent of the agricultural land in Europe is given over to growing crops such as maize, not for human consumption, but to be transported to large-scale industrial farms where its is fed to animals such as cattle or chickens to produce meat which, again, may be transported over long distances, possibly to be processed, and then sold in supermarkets or supplied fast-food chains and restaurants.
The Destructive Industrial Model
Industrialised food production, because it is capital intensive, is concentrated in large multinational corporations whose principal concern is to generate profits for investors. Other concerns such as food quality or sustainability take second place. This system — dominated by marketing and investment returns — tends to produce food that is attractive and tempting but of poor quality. Doctors are, for instance, increasingly concerned about the health impacts of ultra-processed food or of using antibiotics on farm animals.
This system damages local economies as well. A small scale local producer — a market gardener for example — may put as much as 50-70p of every pound it receives, back into the local economy. A multinational, dominated by concerns of investors with no connection to the company’s customers, may only put 5p back into a local economy (and will avoid paying taxes as well). Moreover the farms it manages — or has contracts with — lose any connection to the local food market. Their production is dictated by needs of a large international system. They will not necessarily produce what they could grow best or what local consumers would most want.
The industrialised approach has no concern for the long-term. The heritage of localised foods or varieties of fruit that do not travel well tends to be lost. You may now be able to get mangoes in your local supermarket but this is with the loss of lots of traditional foods — gooseberries, greengages, mulberries and so on, not to mention dozens of apple varieties that people never now get to taste. Moreover, local producers, whose children may carry on the business in the future, have a real concern with the long-term sustainability of what they do. They worry about the health of the soil or the risks that pesticides may build up in the local environment.
Large-scale, industrial food production also has massive environmental impacts. It has a heavy impact in terms of emissions of greenhouse gases — fertiliser production is energy intensive, as is transportation. Both these result in carbon emissions which increase global-warming. But the climate impact is not the only damage caused by large-scale industrial food production. People are concerned that water companies are regularly polluting rivers with sewage. What most people do not realise is that modern agriculture is an even worse offender in this respect. Large-scale meat production in warehouse-like sheds produces vast quantities of slurry which has to be spread on fields. However, if it rains soon after then much of this slurry gets washed into local rivers with devastating consequences.
River pollution is one of the major problems caused by industrial food production in this country but such production methods do damage elsewhere as well. Fruit production in Spain is causing droughts. France also is experiencing problems as groundwater is getting dangerously depleted due to farmer pumping up water for irrigation. At the same time there is growing concern in France that pesticides are leaching into the ground and polluting drinking water.
Finally, and an aspect which is a particular concern to Plastic Free Swindon, transporting food over large distances leads to its being wrapped and packaged in plastic which, when it is disposed, does further environmental damage. Local food production with short supply chains does not need to rely on plastic packaging and, in this way as well, is more environmentally friendly.
It is probably not feasible to produce all food locally — each area has its characteristics which lend it to the production of a particular food. Or, simply put, hill farms can’t produce wheat. However the current food system is out of balance — dominated by industrial production. A shift towards more local food production, wherever possible, has the potential to bring enormous environmental and social benefits.
- The Local Futures website has great resources including documentaries, which cement the need for local food production.
- Our article Plastic, Oppression, and the Global Food System details how global food production has been abused.
- Organic wholefoods are another key way to reduce plastic production.