The New American Food Economy
The 2007 Word of the Year was
“Locavore,” according to the Oxford University Press. “The past year saw the
popularization of a trend in using locally grown ingredients, taking advantage
of seasonally available foodstuffs that can be bought and prepared without the
need for extra preservatives” (http://blog.oup.com/2007/11/locavore/). However,
the locavore movement is not just about eating seasonally; it is the latest phase
in a transition from an industrial to a sustainable food economy. The local foods
movement began in the
Most people probably associate natural foods with “organic foods,” which has experienced a 20% per year annual growth rate during the 1990s and early 2000s and now totals nearly $20 billion per year in retail sales. If all natural produced foods were included – such as pesticide free, hormone & antibiotic free, grass-fed, free-range, GMO-free, and un-pasteurized – the sales figure would probably be at least 50% higher. Interest of the retail giants, such as Wal Mart and Kroger, in organic and natural foods validate the emergence of a new American food economy.
The locavore or “local foods” movement is but the latest sign of a growing skepticism regarding the fundamental integrity of the American food system. As the markets for natural and organic foods grew, they became attractive to mainstream, industrial food producers, processors, and retailers, who were able to meet the USDA organic certification requirements without adopting the organic philosophy. The philosophy of organics is one of sustainability, of permanence – a permanent agriculture for a permanent society. It recognizes the inherent organic connections among healthy soils, healthy foods, healthy communities, and a healthy human society. The local foods movement reflects an effort to restore the ecological, social, and economic integrity of organic and natural foods by reconnecting food consumers with local farms and farmers. They are developing trusting, caring relationships of integrity as they create new community-based food economies.
The locavore movement has replaced the organic movement as the most dynamic aspect of the food economy. The number of farmers markets increased 2.5 fold between 1994 and 2006, currently numbering 4,385, by USDA estimates. Farmers markets now account for an estimated $1 billion of local food sales. However, the local food economy certainly is not limited to farmers markets, as total sales of local foods are expected to top $5 billion in 2007. A significant portion of local foods is organic or natural foods, so the $5 billion is not a net addition to organic or sustainably produced foods. With the total value of food consumed at home at $500 billion, organic and locally grown foods still probably account for no more than 5%-6% of the total retail food market. The share of the away-from-home food market is even smaller.
More significant, however, producers
of local foods tend to be those on smaller farms. A 1998 survey of the Organic
Farming Research Foundation indicated that nearly 90 percent of
The 85% of all
The locavore movement obviously is being driven by a desire for high quality foods. More people are choosing to buy locally because fresh, local foods simply taste better. The industrial food system gains much of its economic efficiency by producing foods that can be harvested mechanically, packed, shipped long distances, while retaining a long shelf-life in the supermarket. For industrial foods, quality clearly means appearance, but consumers increasingly are opting for the freshness and flavor of local foods.
Concerns for food safety is another obvious driver of the local food movement, as it is made up primarily of those who drove the earlier natural and organic food movements. Most local foods are marketed as natural, pesticide free, hormone & antibiotic free, or GMO free, even if they are not certified as organic. Most people who buy locally expect local foods to be free of the potentially harmful chemical and biological residues found in most industrial foods, even if their primary motivation for buying is freshness and flavor.
Most consumers who begin buying local foods for reasons of quality and safety also become interested other aspects of the food system. They eventually begin to understand the other health, environmental, social, and political consequences of their food choices. Best-selling books, such as Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, have helped to raise the consciousness of many American consumers. These books describe how the industrialized food system has resulted in foods that are deficient in virtually everything, except calories, deceptive in every aspect from advertising to artificial flavors, and degrade virtually everything and everybody involved in the system.
Increasing food awareness inevitably brings increasing skepticism. Revelations of the potentially harmful effects of agrichemicals and food additives, damaging effects of modern food processing and preservation, and outbreaks of food borne illnesses and diseases have shaken consumer conference in the ability of either the food corporations or government to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of our food supply. The “industrialization of organics” by large agribusiness corporations has destroyed confidence in the willingness of government to even be a responsible partner in the sustainable food movement. Locavores are turning to people they know and trust, including local farmers, to ensure the integrity of their foods.
Recent scientific studies seem to confirm the suspicion of many consumers that threats of industrial foods are as much about what has been taken out of as what has been added to our foods. Nutritional research is beginning to reveal that industrial foods are lacking in nutrient density, meaning they lack essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients necessary for a healthy diet. Such deficiencies are logically linked to diet related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Comparisons of nutrient density between conventional foods and organic foods, and pre-industrial foods of the 1950s, link nutrient deficiencies to the changes in farming practices that supported specialization, standardization, and consolidation – industrialization – of American agriculture.
The next major phase of the sustainable food movement could well be a food ethics movement. The ethical foods movement began with concern for humane treatment of animals, with calls to free chickens from the crowded cages and hogs from the cramped crates of large-scale confinement feeding operations. Other ethical concerns have related to the economic exploitation of farm workers, many of whom are migrants with limited access to legal protection. With the recent growing diversion of food grains into fuel production, these movements may join forces with those concerned with the ethics of burning food in automobiles rather than using it to feed an increasingly hungry world. The food corporations are not humans and thus lack the capacity for compassion and respect that the new food economy may ultimately demand.
Concern about national food
security will be another major driver of the new local food economy. Economic
globalization has left
To understand the new food economy, it must be viewed within the context of a nation of people who are searching for ways to reconnect with each other and to reconnect with the earth as a means of restoring a sense of integrity, security, and sustainability to their lives and to the world in which they live. Those farmers who see the locavore movement as nothing more than another niche market will find only another economic disappointment. Those farmers who are willing to become a part of the local foods movement, to truly reconnect with their customers, with other farmers, and with the earth, will find a new food economy full of economic opportunity.
 Prepared for publication in “Sustaining People through Agriculture” series, Small Farm Today, January-February, 2008.
Farming Research Foundation.1999. Third Biennial National Organic Farmer’s