Forget local - its all about bio-regions

The Lempert Report
January 04, 2016

Local has been the biggest trend for supermarkets over the past 30 years, but most parts of the world just can’t do it.

There is little doubt that local has been the biggest trend for supermarkets over the past 30 years. Local, to most shoppers, translates to fresh, sustainable, helping the community, better taste and better nutrition. But when you look at the facts, most parts of the world just can’t do “local” - their soil, climate and water availability are not suited to grow a wide array of crops. 

The trend is clear. Over 85% of consumers polled by the NGA SupermarketGuru Consumer Panel Survey reported that they chose a grocery store based in part whether it stocked food from local (or regional) producers. The USDA reports that 54 out of 55 U.S. states or territories requested funding for local food system projects through the Specialty Crop Block Grant program. As a result of building the infrastructure to support these needs,  much confusion still surrounds what “local” is and is not. A new definition is needed – one that defines local in terms of “bio-regions” in which nature has defined the best growing areas for crops and livestocks based on quality, sustainability and economics based on the soils and climate conditions. Gone are the arbitrary mile radius descriptions as they are replaced with identification of certain regions with detailed explanations of the bio-region.

Food writer Mark Bittman who is also now the chief innovation officer at Purple Carrot, a start-up vegan meal kit offering, shared his frustrations in a column he penned in Fast Company. And I quote: “ultimately, we want to challenge the distribution networks that dominate how plant-based ingredients are sourced. Probably something like 95% of the fruits and vegetables that are sold fresh rather than processed (I’m not talking about corn and soybeans) in the United States come through huge urban distribution centers. These may or may not be domestic (more than half of America’s fruits and vegetables come from abroad) and may or may not be organic.

What I do know, he goes on to say, from the customers I’ve spoken to directly, is that they’re expecting a certain level of what we might call curation around our ingredients. Some assume our ingredients are organic. Some assume they’re local; depending on how you define "local," this is kind of a silly expectation, since we’re shipping many of our boxes hundreds of miles.

Bittman prefers to use the term Agro-ecological to describe a system that produces responsibly, sustainably, ethically produced food. But he is challenged. While he needs reliable sourcing for a commercial enterprise that serves thousands of customers, he says it is currently futile: It simply isn’t available in the quantities we need in normal supply chains.