Issue 45: Building Resilient Food Systems

By: Graham Jeffries

Most of the food we eat has traveled a great distance to reach our plates. Some tallies estimate that the average distance food has traveled to reach Maine is ~1,900 miles. Alternative food economies have emerged in response to concerns about the environmental cost of transporting our food, the disconnection between people and their food, and perceived decline in food quality associated with industrial agriculture. The number of farmer’s markets in the US has grown from 1,755 to 8,687 between 1994 and 2017. Farm-to-school programs and food policy councils have appeared across the country. While there is no consensus on the definition of local and regional, both are commonly understood to imply that food is sourced from a limited geographic range, for example local may mean with 100 miles of production, within state, or within county. Regional food systems usually cover larger geographies, the Northeast or New England for example.

Local food systems are an important part of the solution for addressing the shortcomings of our globalized, long-distance foodways. Localizing supply chains (including all stages from farm to plate) appears to be an intuitive way to reduce the environmental impact of transporting our food. However, a growing body of research literature demonstrates that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation can be substantially higher in local food systems than in national and global supply chain. That’s because the GHG cost of each mile traveled depends on the details of the transportation. Local food deliveries, whether from farm to point of sale, tend to happen in small amounts and with less fuel-efficient vehicles. Many small trucks delivering a small amount of product results in a higher GHG cost per ton-mile than one large truck making a delivery. The distance that food travels, a “food mile”, ignores these logistical nuances. Recent research with supply chain mapping and life cycle analysis has painted a clearer picture of the tradeoffs between local, regional, and global food systems.

Regional food systems may be the sweet spot between local and global food systems. With a larger pool of farms to draw from, regional food processing and distribution can make use of equipment and machinery that is more efficient than small scale. The result is a food system with a better GHG footprint than local scale (per food weight), yet also provides quality food, connects people to regional food traditions and seasonality, and cycles money back into our regional economies. To create a resilient food system we need a diversity of scale-in my view the discussion shouldn’t be about local vs. global or local vs. regional. The personal connections made by knowing your farmer and knowing your food have a value that cannot be substituted across anonymous global supply chains. At the same time, it is sensible to grow crops where the conditions are most suitable and then ship them around the world. (It would require a hefty investment in greenhouses to grow coffee in Maine). The ideal food system may be one of many scales.

Rockland and Midcoast communities have important roles to play as builders and stewards of our local and regional food economies. Successes in the past year are evidence: a successful summer farmer’s market at Harbor Park, growth of participation in the Maine Harvest Bucks program, and the approval of a food sovereignty resolution by Rockland City Council. I’m encouraged to see our local and region food systems being re-formed across all levels, from enthusiasm for gardening at home and in community plots to legislative action in the statehouse.


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