FoodMarkets & Outlets

What It Means to and Why It Matters That We Buy Local

Buying local is quickly becoming a trend, and though some folks may not have noticed the slow change in supermarkets and the growing numbers of farmers’ markets, only occasionally visiting the US (where I was born) or the UK (where my wife was born) has really made it have an impact on us. Each time, we notice more. We are excited about the change. It’s great to go back a try local treats we don’t often get abroad, and it’s nice to have the information to opt into more responsible purchases.

Whether it’s mindless masses following a fashion or rise in consumer consciousness, staying local does matter on the grand scale. This morning I read an interesting, inspiring (and, for any permaculturalists, not altogether ground-breaking) article about “Replanting America”. According to a study from The University of California, Merced, it would be possible to locally produce 90% of the nation’s nutritional needs for a well-balanced diet, using only the existing farmland in America. It would just mean using that land to grow something besides corn, soy and other cash crops and growing food instead.

Farmers’ Market (Courtesy of Gemma Billings)
Farmers’ Market (Courtesy of Gemma Billings)

While I’ve seen lots and lots of these kinds of studies and claims over the years, the part of this one that struck me was that apparently scientists from earth and environmental disciplines aren’t that stoked on local food because it doesn’t actually make such a big difference in the scheme of emissions. The claim follows that transportation makes up only about a tenth of the total emissions from food production, with farms accounting for the rest. I know current farm practices are horrible, but I’m not sure such ideas are addressing the big picture.

So, then, why does buying local matter?

Shipping Containers (Courtesy of Hakan Dahlstrom)
Shipping Containers (Courtesy of Hakan Dahlstrom)

For me, and I’d guess many, permaculture became part of my life in the pursuit of reaching for more self-sustaining practices, for finding independence, and perhaps for sticking it to the defunct systems that has left me feeling a bit hollow inside. Most of us want to be able to take care of ourselves, and we want to do our part taking care of the planet. But, ultimately, some shopping at some point will need to occur. When it does, I’d like to do that thoughtfully as well.

According to the aforementioned study, “local” insinuates within 100 miles (160 kilometers). In the case of food, however, in my opinion, this insinuates much more. As pointed out in the article, supermarket foodstuff generally comes in boxed, bagged and processed forms, whereas local food, as found in our gardens and the farmers’ markets, looks more like actual food.

All of that processing means something, damages something, calls for chemicals and petrochemicals beyond just the transport.

Aside from the nuts and bolts of environmental impact, which we could further explore were we to get into small farming practices versus large scale production, buying local means something in other ways. It ties the community together, both in our reliance upon one another and our ability to provide all the needs we might collectively have. It is a mindset in which small businesses have vested interest in the places where they’re setting up shop, employing people, providing services, and building meaningful, reciprocal connections with consumers.

But, where do we buy “local” products?

Personal Touches (Courtesy of leyla.a)
Personal Touches (Courtesy of leyla.a)

It’s true that, with the establishment as it is now, many local products—not necessarily talking about food here—are not always from entirely from local sources. Imports and exports are an overwhelming and nearly unavoidable—save for those of us who simply disappear into our own havens of self-reliance—fact of modern life. Computers aren’t produced in Australia, chocolate and coffee don’t grow in Canada, and very few items of clothing are grown, milled and fabricated within 100 miles of anywhere.

Since food has been at the heart of this topic and a major aspect of how permaculture came to be, let’s first address it. Our tastes in food have gone wildly international, such that bananas are almost a staple but don’t grow in most of the world. In fact, except for those of us making a pointed effort to use locally grown food, the percentage of what we eat in “developed” society is nearing 100% not-from-around-here. In short, in farmers’ markets, local mills, butcher shops, and our own lawns, balconies, and farms, local food is still available and becoming more so, but it takes a concerted effort to use what’s in season and to opt for something that grows here—a hazelnut, maybe—over something that doesn’t—an almond, say.

As for other local products, while it isn’t always possible to buy a weed whacker or wheelbarrow manufactured nearby, we can be considerate in our purchasing. Even if not necessarily on an environmental level (but that could be argued as well), it does make a difference to buy from a small store as opposed to a commercial chain. It does make a difference to hit up the secondhand shops, to check places that refurbish equipment, or to hire local carpenters to build furniture (and ask that they use responsibly sourced wood and pay for the difference). We are acting on a desire for more stable and connected communities. We are also counting on the fact that lots of little efforts equate to large results.

Can we zone our shopping habits?

Danger Zone (Courtesy of Michael Gil)
Danger Zone (Courtesy of Michael Gil)

The further I get into the topic the more I see the opportunities for naysayers to have a field day with their what-ifs and what-abouts. Most of us—our lifestyles, at least—require some sort of transportation, which needs fuel, neither of which will likely come from our village or even state. Some of us need suits for work, eyeglasses, watches, new tires, and all sorts of other useful and likely imported tools of modern living. We can’t avoid them. But, buying local, I would say (to the naysayers), doesn’t necessarily prohibit life to that 100-mile radius.

Rather, I like to think along the lines of how we design a permaculture homestead, in which the parts we most often use (and attend to) are those which we put closest to us. We plant herbs, vegetables, salad fixings, and so on in zone one and two, so that we are not setting off on a twenty-minute hike every evening for some greens. Similarly, we can approach our food shopping this way. Rather than the-garden-far-off-in-the-back-corner-of-the-lawn mentality, we can change our mode of thinking, come to rely on what we can get nearby, such that we adjust our diets to be local and seasonal rather than demand those far off mangoes every morning, which require a much longer hike and a lot of energy to move and preserve.

Similarly, when it comes time to build a home or buy a car, something that happens much less frequently, we might be warranted in going further afield if what we need isn’t produced (or produced well) nearby. Maybe in those outer zones of forest and pasture, we find lumber to build a nice table that’ll last fifty years, and similarly, perhaps we have to get some of those larger items in life from sources that are beyond the paths of our garden or community. That’s okay. That doesn’t mean we don’t buy local. Simply put, we have taken our responsibility to the planet, our community, or ourselves seriously.

To me, “buying local” as movement equates to working against a destructive system in which dollars and our own desires trump everything. That’s what it means, at heart, to “buy local”, and that’s why it matters so much.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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