I feel good when I ride my bike to a nearby farmers market Sunday mornings, and load my knapsack with free-range chicken sausage, local corn and tomatoes, peaches, and other products. But does the local food movement really have any impact?
There are signs around the country that locavores are gaining clout.
A recent New York Times article said farmers in Ohio have agreed to sharply restrict the close confinement of hens, hogs, and veal calves in that state.
These changes were not hatched in a legislative committee room; they were demanded by the general public. This is grass roots, and consumers are at the root. The Times said, "The rising consumer preference for more 'natural’ and local products and concerns about pollution and antibiotic use in giant livestock operations” was a significant driver in the Ohio agreement.
We don’t know whether these changes will reduce agricultural pollution in those states. There is even debate whether a family farm is automatically greener than factory farms. The issue is complicated -- by questions about comparative energy use, for instance. The diet of a free range chicken raised in a mobile pen in a grassy pasture in Virginia may still be predominately corn and soybean grown perhaps thousands of miles away, while the feed of a typical broiler raised in the crowded confines of an Eastern Shore chicken house may have been raised on the same farm or nearby.
But to me, one thing is obvious. If sustained and expanded over years, our demand for high quality food produced in a humane and environmentally sustainable way will help raise the bar for agriculture.
The beauty of consumer advocacy is we don’t have to wait for government regulators to use it. Consumer power works regardless of whether the legislature has enough money to spend on enforcement. It doesn’t require Democrats or Republicans to hold office. People get that. A poll conducted by George Mason, Yale and American universities earlier this year found people concerned about the environment are eight times more likely to seek change by shopping for green products than by contacting an elected official.
Tell us if you’ve seen any examples of local food buying, or green shopping, having an impact.
By Tom Zolper, Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program)