There’s no question that what and how we eat has an impact on our own health and the health of our environment. Many of us already know about ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ diets, but recently the idea of ‘local’ food has also gained prominence amongst conscious consumers.
Take, for example, the rise of the “100-mile diet” in America. Making quick gains in popularity, it is just as its name implies: a diet with a focus on ensuring everything you eat is sourced from within 100 miles of your table.1 Effective and admirable as it is, this is simply a convenient but relatively arbitrary boundary to make local eating accessible; eating locally is something that can be done to degrees. But what are the benefits of doing so?
As FIELDS realizes, (which is why we stock local produce whenever we can), the positive effects of eating locally are numerous, and range from the relatively obvious to the more subtle and complex.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of eating locally is the comparative lack of damage to the environment. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has reported that the average fresh food item on an American dinner table travels 1,500 miles to get there.2 Eating food produced in your own part of the world or country obviously requires a lot less transport to get to you and so has a far lower carbon footprint.
Eating locally can also, at times, provide food that is healthier and better in terms of flavor. Small local farms tend to be “less aggressive than large factory farms about dousing their wares with chemicals”, even when they are not fully certified organic. They’re also more likely to focus on issues such as freshness and taste rather than packing, shipping and shelf-life.3
Environmental and food safety aren’t the whole story when it comes to the benefit of eating locally, however. Doing so also promotes food security. According to the Food Summit of 1996, food security can be defined as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”.4 Needless to say, it’s very important. But it’s also something that we mostly take for granted. In urban environments, we tend to have such effortless access to food that the idea of it being insecure seems absurd. But this is far from the truth. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, for example, would only be able to sustain itself for three days if cut off from all outside food sources.5
It is also a potential problem in Chinese urban centers like Shanghai; as more and more urban Chinese migrate towards the country’s burgeoning cities, the body of workers directly involved in agriculture is decreasing, leaving many to worry who will be providing food for China’s growing population.6
If we want to bolster the security of our food supply, eating locally is one potentially effective way to do so. Eating produce that is from your own locality helps break the dependence on external food supplies that make food security so precarious. Even small individual instances, from maintaining your own small vegetable garden to buying from a nearby independent farm, help make the local food movement grow and become stronger.
In China, there are signs of progress on this front. Authorities have noticed the rapid growth of family farms owned and run by enterprising, entrepreneurial farmers that are open to adopting new technology and methods.7 There are still a number of obstacles to overcome before these new kinds of farms can begin to make the differences that they are capable of making. These challenges include low profits for farmers, lack of standardized land transfer practices, and lack of financial assistance from banks.8 But if they continue to flourish in close proximity to cities, they will go a long way towards fortifying the security of the food supply of China’s cities.
Creating more chances for food to be sourced locally can also improve the situation in areas increasingly known as “food deserts”. These are those parts of cities in which there is a high residential population but where there is little or no access to affordable, healthy food. Given the frequent health benefits and convenience of locally sourced food, more initiatives to create local sources of healthy food would go a great distance toward solving the problem of endemic unhealthy eating in the world’s suburbs and inner cities.9
It is because of these various benefits that FIELDS sources products locally whenever possible. Not only are the farms that we partner with local, they also operate according to the strictest health and safety standards. Flourishing on the outskirts of Shanghai, these farms enjoy the benefits of being local while also placing a great deal of emphasis on chemical free production. By operating with such independent local organizations, it is our hope that we can contribute to the rise of locally sourced, healthy food and a more secure food future for Shanghai.