September 2009: Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food
Why the locally grown movement is an opportunity
Eating locally has gained popularity in the last few years. Indeed, Secretary Vilsack launched a YouTube video this month promoting the importance of local food, knowing where food comes from, and how it gets to consumers' plates. The widely accepted definition of a "locavore" is someone who strives to eat food produced within 100 miles.
The reasons given for this interest in eating locally are complex, including: environmentalism, sustainability, safety, variety (more heirloom varieties), a desire to support independent multi-cropping farmers (versus monoculture agribusiness) and the local economy, less processing/more nutritious, better freshness/flavor/ripeness (fewer preservatives, varieties not chosen for shelf life), and seasonality. But while it's easy to be seduced by the rhetoric and romance what's the reality?
Local is valuable...but small. Shoppers are willing to pay a huge premium for local' a May 2008 study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that shoppers will pay DOUBLE the price for a local product in a farmers' market versus the identical local product in a retail store. Locally grown food was worth about $4bn in 2002. That's less than 3% of the U.S. fresh produce market, assuming that number includes meat and dairy.
Food does travel in the US but food-miles alone are misleading. Food travels on average 1500 miles in the U.S. from farm to plate (up 25% since 1980) according to the WorldWatch Institute. However, the trip from the farm through the supply chain to the consumer actually makes up only 4% of the carbon footprint of produce. The other 96% is energy intensive inputs such as fertilizers, farm equipment, heating of hothouses, irrigation pumps, etc. Therefore, the most visible attribute of local (that is proximity) is the least important. Indeed, growers in locations better suited to certain agriculture or achieving economies of scale actually have a far lower carbon footprint than subscale, local growers. For example, a study in New Zealand found that lamb pasture-raised in New Zealand and shipped 11,000 miles to Britain contributes 1520 lb of CO2 per ton, compared with 6280 lb/ton for lamb raised in Britain and sold locally. It is 4 times more efficient.
Trying to produce locally is an inefficient use of precious resources. Locavorism runs counter to 250 years of economic theory: specifically David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage which states that everyone is better off when producers specialize and trade. Ironically, substituting local food for food grown by regions that specialize may actually increase the cost of fresh produce, and drive down consumption.
So what lessons can be learned for the packers and shippers who provide the vast majority of fresh produce in the United States, who simply can't be local to everyone?
- Embrace the consumer preferences that the local movement reveals, such as the desire for:
- Sustainable, environmentally conscious farming practices
- Variety and seasonality
- Support for independent farmers
- A connection to the farmer and transparency
- Use item-level traceability to connect with consumers on these preferences that they want to pay a premium for. Promote locale not local; highlight your food safety and sustainability practices, profile your independent farmers and their local community; consider emphasizing seasonality, variability and variety where possible.
- Consumers currently equate local to environmentally better so a thoughtful educational effort is required by the industry to explain carbon footprint more accurately.
More from the USDA
At a keynote speech to the United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack emphasized the importance in the current administration of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption in the U.S. He also made some very interesting points about traceability:
- Secretary Vilsack wants consumers to understand and appreciate fresh produce better. He doesn't mean Americans should start phoning up the grower he means they should reconnect with the system that grows their food.
- When talking about food labeling, in addition to pursuing more caloric and nutritional information, consumers should be able to find out where their produce comes from.
- And in reference to food safety, Secretary Vilsack wants to see communication and social network technology used to narrow the scope of recalls, get information to consumers, and get their confidence back more quickly.
What's New at PMA Fresh Summit 2009
The PMA this year in Anaheim, Calif. will have a focus on traceability. There will be a Traceability Learning Center with multiple vendor table-top displays, including HarvestMark. The learning center is in the East side of the hall, right near the HarvestMark booth 4524.
Come by booth 4524 (right by the Traceability Learning Center) where we'll be demonstrating some of the latest innovations in traceability including PTI for field-packed produce, incredible data visualization tools, and a traceable food cooking demo. Come and enjoy 100% traceable, gourmet creations.
We'll be there to answer your questions about traceability, share success stories of real deployments across North America, and get you started on the road to enhanced traceability. Come by on Sunday Oct 4th and pick Bruce Peterson's brain about traceability and how it factors into the bigger supply chain picture.
Readers of the Traceability Insider are also invited to join us on Sunday night at the House of Blues. Pick up an invitation at the booth, and come and experience our (in)famous HarvestMartini!