Is Local enough? Some Arguments for Regional Food Systems

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From Choice  Magazine

The focus on local food systems has been quite strong over the last decade, and the phenomenon has appropriately been given a lot of attention by consumers, researchers, and food supply chain participants. As a complement to the other papers in this issue, we devote our attention here to the concept of regional food systems. While many food system advocates use—and think of—the concepts as synonymous, we argue that such a merger obscures critical distinctions and fails to provide a meaningful framework upon which to build a more economically viable and environmentally sustainable food system. We suggest that a regional food system includes “local” but operates in a larger, more comprehensive scale. Many of our arguments and assumptions have not been tested yet, but offer fruitful opportunities for analysis, ways to work together, and a useful research agenda.

We undertake this exploration in the context of regionalism (Wallis 2002), the framework for economic, policy, and program development that responds to regional differences and needs, and encourages regional approaches and solutions (Hance, Ruhf, and Hunt 2006). Regions can be described in many ways; their boundaries are fluid, not rigid. A region may be defined by political or administrative boundaries—for example, counties, or the Appalachian Regional Commission; watersheds or bioregions—for example, Chesapeake Bay watershed; or culture—Cape Cod, the Big Apple. Regions may be composed of subregions. They overlap. They “nest” in larger regions. For example, the Berkshires and Cape Cod are regions of Massachusetts, which is part of New England which is part of the Northeast Region. By contrast, local most often is defined as a radius of 50–100 miles or regions within a state. For example, the US Department of Agriculture uses a 400-mile radius for certain Federal rural development loan programs. Local can also carry various connotations for consumers that are not always valid, such as direct-marketed, sustainable,
and fresh.

Regionalism is particularly relevant to food systems. Unlike in the manufacturing and services sectors, which
are less dependent on the natural capital and resource bases of particular regions, agri-food systems are
characterized by “the geographic fixity of primary factors in production, including suitable farmland, regional
climate conditions, natural resource base, and proximity to primary upstream industry” (Canning and Tsigas,
2000). As we argue below, topography, water availability, land and other inputs, farm scale, crop options, and
market proximity are operable at the regional level.

An ideal regional food system describes a system in which as much food as possible to meet the population’s
food needs is produced, processed, distributed, and purchased at multiple levels and scales within the
region, resulting in maximum resilience, minimum importation, and significant economic and social return to
all stakeholders in the region. This is known as “self-reliance”—as opposed to “self-sufficiency” wherein
everything eaten is supplied within the target area.

We see that local is a necessary but not sufficient component of a regional food system. Regional is larger
geographically and in terms of functions—volume/supply, food needs, variety, supply chains, markets, land
use, and policy. A regional food system includes multiple “locals” within a state, and those that cross state
boundaries. Regional food systems operate in relation to other regions as well as to the national and global
food systems.

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