The local-foods movement is part of the ongoing transformation of the American food system.
The word "locavore" was selected by the New Oxford American Dictionary as their 2007 word of the year. A locavore is defined as someone who shows a strong preference for locally grown, seasonally available foods that are produced and prepared without unnecessary chemicals or preservatives. Critics of the selection suggested that "eating local" might be just another passing fad. However, many of us involved in the sustainable agriculture movement see the growing popularity of local foods as the latest phase in a fundamental transformation of the American food system.
The transformation began with the natural foods movement, which was initiated by the "back to the earth" people who dropped out of mainstream America in the 1960s. They produced their own food, organized farmers’ markets, and formed the first cooperative food-buying clubs and natural-food stores. They chose natural foods primarily because they were concerned about the health and environmental
risks associated with the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that had facilitated the industrialization of American agriculture. They also distrusted the industrial food system in general.
The natural-food movement spread far beyond the "hippie" communities during the 1970s and 1980s. The popularity of natural foods grew with the environmental movement, as more people became aware of potential health, environmental, and social problems associated with industrial agriculture. After all, Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring, had focused on the ecological threats of agricultural pesticides.
Many of the early advocates of natural foods were vegetarians, and early market growth in organic foods was mainly for vegetables, fruits, grains, and soy products. In the fruit and vegetable industries, maltreatment and economic exploitation of farmworkers kept concerns for social justice high on the natural-foods agenda. Animal products—meat, milk, and cheese—began to break into organic markets in the
late 1980s, in response to widespread use of antibiotics and growth hormones and the inhumane treatment of animals in large-scale
confinement animal feeding operations.
In 2006, I was honored to keynote the 30th anniversary conference of the Provender Alliance, an organization of natural-foods distributors and retailers in the Pacific Northwest. Many at this conference were among the leaders of the natural-foods movement and had helped lay the foundation for the organic-food boom of the 1990s. The natural-foods movement gained respectability as sales of organic foods grew by more than 20 percent per year during the 1990s and well into the 2000s, doubling every three to four years.
My first direct experience with the fruit industry came in 2002 when I was asked to speak at the annual Tilth Producers Conference in Yakima, Washington. There, I met a couple of young independent filmmakers who were producing a documentary of the economic and social decay in the "Apple Capital of the World," Wenatchee, Washington. My keynote address focused on the inherent lack of sustainability of industrial agriculture and the emergence of a new, sustainable American farmer. The young filmmakers understood that the problems in the apple industry were symptoms of systemic problems in American agriculture as a whole.
The promise of profits had lured apple producers onto a technology treadmill of relentless specialization, standardization, and consolidation of control into larger and larger operations. Each new technology resulted in periodic overproduction, which forced smaller independent producers out of business. Fewer independent producers meant fewer apple-growing families, fewer local jobs, and fewer people shopping on Main Street and attending local schools and churches. These new technologies invariably involved pesticides, fertilizers, and other agrochemicals, raising local environmental and health concerns. The agriculture that created the "Apple Capital of the World" was not sustainable. Later, I was privileged to participate in the moving experience of viewing Broken Limbs: Apples, Agriculture, and the New American Farmer at a public showing in Wenatchee. The documentary later received two Emmy nominations.
Value to society
As I have told fruit growers in Yakima and Wenatchee (Washington); and Portland and Medford (Oregon), a sustainable agriculture must be capable of meeting the needs of the present without compromising opportunities of the future. It must be able to maintain its productivity and value to society—to consumers, producers, and communities—indefinitely into the future. To do so, it must be ecologically sound, socially responsible, and economically viable. All three are necessary for renewal and regeneration of the natural, social, and economic resource that ultimately must sustain its productivity. True natural and organic farms are sustainable in that they rely on solar energy to renew and regenerate the natural productivity of the soil, which in turn sustains the health of the communities farmers depend on for workers, customers, and neighbors.
The local-foods movement is but the latest phase of a sustainable-foods movement that is systematically transforming America’s food system. Independent certification of organic foods was an attempt to facilitate commercial transactions by defining standards for natural foods. National organic certification, however, made possible the "industrialization of organics." Large-scale, specialized organic operations found ways to meet the letter of organic laws while ignoring the ethical and social commitments of the movements.
The larger sustainable-food movement is an attempt to restore ecological, social, and economic integrity to the food system. Consequently, many in the organic-food movement have now turned to buying locally grown foods—from people they trust—as a means of insuring the integrity of their foods. Various market statistics suggest that one-fourth to one-third of American consumers have lost confidence in the current food system and are looking for something fundamentally different—and their numbers are growing.
Good fruit growers need to understand that the growing markets for sustainably produced foods are not limited to local consumers within 50, 100, or 200 miles of their orchards. The locavore movement is about a search for foods with integrity. Growers that share the ecological and social integrity of those in the sustainable-foods movement can and will find ways to connect with like-minded customers, and together they can create markets with economic integrity. That’s what sustainable agriculture is about. That’s what consumers really want.