Does your hometown have a farmers’ market? It seems that every city, suburb and small town now has one – even those not in traditional agricultural areas. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having a place to obtain fresh, locally grown produce, handmade items, and other goods of all types supports a community’s economy, builds social connections and can be environmentally friendly. But as with other aspects of green living and business, a narrow focus on one factor alone, such as buying local, isn’t always the sustainable path.
The push for local agricultural production is a clear example of where what seems good on the surface can lead to negative consequences. All else being equal, it’s beneficial to get your tomatoes and lettuce from the small farm down the road since less gas is used to transport them to market and they may be organically grown. However, all else is usually not equal.
The arguments for the benefits of local production usually come down to reducing transportation impacts. It’s as if our society is fixated on gas prices and vehicle emissions since they’re closest to our everyday experience. Transportation impacts, though, are only one part of the environmental, economic and social puzzle.
Taken to the logical conclusion, full local production in most cases is not possible or even remotely sustainable. We may enjoy the taste of vegetables from our own or our neighbor’s garden, but none of us could feed ourselves that way.
In the case of agriculture, the most productive lands are frequently hundreds or thousands of miles from where people are concentrated. The American Midwest, for example, has some of the world’s most fertile farmland, which generates a bounty of food for people across the globe. A handful of people working on a typical modern farm in Iowa, Indiana and such states can feed tens of thousands of people. Will the nice lady in the straw hat growing raspberries on two acres outside Anchorage ever be able to achieve that?
This issue has profound implications for how we plan and develop cities in sustainable ways. You’ve undoubtedly seen stories touting the benefits of in-city farms, or futuristic multi-story hydroponic agricultural operations. Yet, mixing urban and rural land uses can actually create a worse situation for the environment. Using urban space for farms can lead to additional sprawl, forcing people to drive longer distances to work. Peas or people are going to have to move from one place to another; vegetables can travel at off-peak hours more readily than can workers.
In addition, it may be easier and more effective in certain cases to manage environmental impacts from producing goods if it’s done in a handful of centralized locations, instead of spread to multiple places near the final markets. Economies of scale can allow for greater investment in pollution controls than is possible in numerous smaller facilities.
This is not to say that local production can’t be positive. It can, and when it comes to all types of goods, including building products, if efficient resource extraction and processing is possible near the final market and it’s not displacing a higher-value use for that space, great. And if you’re marketing such goods, pointing out local availability is a positive message, just don’t make it your only contribution to green. Remember, regional sourcing is addressed in LEED, but it’s only one part.
So, this summer when the sun’s out, visit your local farmers’ market and enjoy some fresh apple cider, get the kids’ faces painted and listen to live music, but be thankful come dinnertime for the ranches in Texas or Montana that help keep your belly full year-round, and for the roofing products factory two states over that can produce shingles or tiles faster, more affordably and with less overall environmental impact than might be possible in your city.
Note: We know there are different sides and opinions to this topic and we'd like to hear yours, so have posted this article from our monthly "Environmentally Speaking" here to hear your comments.