Urban agriculture’s focused efforts on backyard gardening for hyper-local crops, including nutritious fruits and vegetables that are best served fresh can still play a powerful role in the larger food system. However, despite these advances, urban food can not feed everyone. There is not enough land. In fact, the world’s agriculture takes up about 35–40% of all of the Earth’s land, a staggering sum, especially compared to cities and suburbs, which occupy less than 1% of Earth’s land. Put another way: For every acre of cities and suburbs in the world, there are about 60 acres of farms. Thus, it is clear that even the most ambitious urban farming efforts can not replace the rest of the world’s agriculture.
We can ensure local food is good for the environment, especially if it reduces food waste along the supply chain. Also, organic or well-run conventional local farms can produce many benefits to soils, waterways, and wildlife. And, in some places, local grass-fed ranches are trying to sequester carbon in the soil, offsetting at least part of beef’s hefty greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, is implemented well, local food can have many environmental benefits.
People (the well-to-do) love the idea of eating food that is grown nearby, on surrounding farms. It helps increase the sense of authenticity and integrity in our food. Also, the food can often be fresher and tastier. Most people like that the supply chain is shorter, more transparent, and supports the local economy. However, we need to acknowledge the difficulties of creating this food integrity in low-income communities and insist on designing what is best for low-income residents and communities, not what is popular and desired by their nearby well-to-do urban neighbors.
In addition to urban agriculture, we could invest dollars, technology, and brains to solve other agricultural problems — like developing new methods for drip irrigation, better grazing systems that lock up soil carbon, and ways of recycling on-farm nutrients. We also need innovation and capital to help other parts of the food system, especially in tackling food waste, and getting people to shift their diets towards more sustainable directions.
Therefore, some guidelines for thinking about nutrition justice in the context of local food include growing food (mostly near you), working with the seasons and renewable resources, and shipping in the rest. An interconnected network of good farms — farms that provide nutritious food, with social and environmental benefits to their communities — is the kind of innovation we really need. And while the local food movement is making much of this possible, it is important to keep in mind the strategies for avoid catastrophic food shortages and understand the place of industrial agriculture.