A funny thing happened on the way to the local food movement. Just as small segments of the population have taken up the local foods cheer, family farms and the infrastructure that supports them continue to dwindle daily. Even as we’ve begun to realize what our addiction to convenience in the form of processed, packaged foods and cheap meat is costing us, we are in danger of losing even more sources of real food.
Hopefully we have not gone too far toward mass consolidation to dig ourselves out, because many people think that local foods are a path out of many of both our economic and environmental woes. They certainly provide a way to eat better (as in healthier and tastier), reduce one’s impact on the environment, and support local, resilient economies.
Consider this: In 2005, the year that the term “Locavore” was first uttered by Jessica Prentice we were continuing the loss of farmland that began in the 30s and accelerated in the 70s and 80s. Between 2005 and 2006, the U.S. lost 8,900 farms (a little more than one farm per hour) The American Farmland Trust estimates that we lose one acre of agricultural land per minute to development.
With the farmland goes infrastructure like feed stores, slaughterhouses, tractor dealers and the jobs go with them. Between 2001 and 2005, 200 federally inspected meat processing plants disappeared. Most were very small plants. Today, four corporations slaughter 80 percent of the cattle in the United States.
But even as we continue to lose farmland and infrastructure, like slaughterhouses, there’s a nascent movement toward re-localizing. It’s driven by the small but real demand for local foods and also, in response to that demand, by the new USDA.
As the Ethicurean reported recently, the USDA has published a study on the impact of local food dollars called “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues.” Though direct-to-consumer sales from farmers markets, farm stands, and U-pick were only 0.4 percent of the total food economy, the numbers are growing. Local foods are growing at a rage of 10 percent per year outpacing the rest of the food economy’s growth rate of five percent.
As with other local foods, there’s a growing demand for small-scale, local meat production. The people driving the demand want to know where their food comes from and they don’t want to contribute to the devastating ecological impacts of CAFOS (confined animal feeding operations).
The USDA is supporting this movement in a variety of ways. One of the more creative is its funding and support of mobile slaughterhouses. These facilities are just coming online in several areas around the U.S. and allow smaller farmers access to USDA inspected facilities. If we are to re-localize meat production away from the four giant corporations, the small farmers will need processing facilities appropriate to their scale of production and feasibly near enough to local markets.
This move is necessary because, as the Washington Post article above points out, the barriers for small, ecological farmers in getting their product to market are incredibly high. Big slaughterhouses require appointments far in advance, are spread out and consolidated across the country, and may not want to deal with small herds. The USDA is helping small meat producers stay on their land farming by supporting the development of more mobile slaughterhouses. They provide funding, USDA inspectors, and a help line for small producers.
Though this is a tiny segment that only affects a few farmers and consumers, it is a creative strategy for reducing animal agriculture’s impact on the environment and perhaps even saving rural economies from extinction.
Environmentally, smaller scale animal operations produce fewer impacts. According to a report by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the animal waste from factory farms is produced in such large quantities, it is impossible to deal with in a responsible way and use as fertilizer, which is a role that animal agriculture has always played in row crop farming. Not to mention, the manure excreted by animals in factory farms often has a range of toxins including antibiotic-resistant residue and endocrine disrupting chemicals. These and other pollutants can get into water and airways, negatively affecting nearby communities. However, the waste created on smaller, more environmentally sustainable farms raising both crops and animals, can be dealt with effectively and used to fertilize crops.
Recent studies are starting to point to local foods as a way to jump start sagging economies. According to The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), a typical farmer gets paid 10 cents of each retail food dollar, but farmers who sell direct to consumer get more money to invest in their farm and support their family. Strengthening rural communities is the key to a healthy and diversified economy. While dollars spent with large corporations almost immediately leave the community, dollars spent on local food products circulate within the community eight to 15 times, drastically improving the value of your purchase.
A local food economy study conducted by Sustainable Seattle found that locally directed spending by consumers more than doubles the number of dollars circulating among businesses in the community. Put quantitatively, the study found that a shift of 20 percent of food dollars into locally directed spending would result in a nearly half billion dollar annual income increase in King County alone and twice that in the Central Puget Sound region.
If re-localizing food production really is a way to work toward a more economically and environmentally sustainable future, than mobile slaughterhouses can be part of a larger rebuilding of the infrastructure of community-based agriculture.
This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.
Image: Hans S