Re: How far is local?

>In discussions of the relative merits of local vs. long-distance food supply
>(here and elsewhere), the term "local" is usually left somewhat vague. How
>far is "local"?

The issue of how big is 'local' has come up frequently at CaRDI (the
Community and Rural Development Institute at Cornell) as a group of us have
been putting together an edited collection "Sustaining Rural
Landscapes--the Critical Link Between Environment and Community."   Not
only have we batted around ideas of how big is 'local' but also  how wide
are landscapes and how many are in a community!

The Ithaca, NY Farmers Market has a 30 mile radius criteria for
vendors--which is meaningful around here in terms of Finger Lakes
topography (Cayuga Lake is 40+ miles long), how far we are from other
similar-sized cities, and how far away people may be living while
maintaining a business and personal support system in Ithaca (actually for
the latter I would estimate a 20 mile radius).  My guess is that Ithaca
area CSA's  draw from a smaller radius, but a CSA operating probably 30
miles from Syracuse, NY draws from that urban market, and people from the
larger NYC and Washington DC metropolitan areas will travel further still.
Ie: what I am suggesting is that as the purpose of involvement in the CSA
leans more towards providing urban dwellers with emotional, physical and
spiritual benefits of connection with the great out-of-doors, and less to
being the most efficient means of supplying household food, the size of
'local' increases.

But in the context of sustainable agriculture systems, I have noted that
'local' really seems to mean 'regional' and that, for the Northeast,
'regional' seems to mean from our bioregion rather than 'importing' food
from the California or from Florida, South America, etc. County, state and
other political boundaries don't seem to be seen as meaningful in these
conversations and conceptualizations.  Ecological boundaries are used in
their stead.

I have been thinking about the use of  'local' as an indicator/proxy for at
least three different enviro-social variables: (1) the vitality of rural
socio-economic systems (ie---keep local farms producing and keep rural
communities strong); (2) a mechanism for protection of open space
(ie--economically-viable farms  are an antidote to real estate sprawl and
thus protect open space and natural habitat; and (3) 'local' as a proxy for
measures of energy inputs to agriculture, which are an environmental  cost
of the food system.  (Life Cycle Assessment--LCL--is a related and
relatively newer term covering some of the same territory as energy

'Local' seems to be becoming a very popular criteria for the ecolabeling of
agricultural products.  Its seems to be intended as an indirect measure of
one or more of the values listed above, but I  think that people have
become more conscious of the first two variables (ie: 'local'=>community
and 'local'=>open space protection).  One of the reasons we may have been
hearing less about 'local' as a proxy for reduced energy inputs--and here I
am speculating--may be that 'alternative' producers and their
environmental/academic supporters are keeping an ear to the ground vis a
vis securing a broader market share that might include export to 'more
distant' locales.  Also perhaps because much of the pioneering work in
ecolabeling has been done by groups working with tropical commodities
exported to the US.  And also because the data and analysis re: energy
costs of transportation and storage (as well as the energy costs of other
aspects of the food system) need updating and re-popularizing.   Some
renewed enthusiasm, and perhaps another 'energy crisis', should again bring
energy analysis to the fore as a popular sustainability issue.  The reality
of the scarcity of fossil fuels has certainly not gone away!

When evaluated from the perspective of energy analysis, it may be possible
to calculate the optimal size of 'local'--but at that point I think we will
appreciate having  reasons for supporting less crisp boundaries and local
customizations of the definition of 'local' to meet the tastes of different
communities and landscapes.

I'm curious to hear what others in our vaguely-defined sustainable ag
movement are thinking on this subject,

Lois Levitan

Dr. Lois Levitan
Department of Fruit and Vegetable Science
162 Plant Sciences
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853

Phone:     (607) 255-3033
FAX:         (607) 255-0599
e-mail:     LCL3@Cornell.Edu