Farm to neighbor

Local Food Summit’s Michael Brownlee on why we need to eat local, and soon

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Champ maïs (Zea maïs)
Gilles San Martin/Wikimedia Commons

If we’re to believe author and local agriculture advocate Michael Brownlee, we need to localize our food system, as of about yesterday.

Brownlee runs Local Food Summit, a large, annual gathering of local farmers and food purveyors, as well as researchers, authors and others interested in local agriculture from across the globe. Brownlee says it’s the biggest, if not the only, annual summit on local food in the country, and the ideas that come out of the meetings of these unique minds are likely to serve as the foundation for what Brownlee sees as an urgent, necessary commitment to local food.

Brownlee has enough statistics to scare even the most skeptical person straight.

“For every degree Celsius of warming on the planet,” Brownlee says of recent research, “the most conservative estimates … would suggest that we would see a 30-40 percent decrease in food production by the end of the century. When you add in the other complications that global warming adds to that, then we think it’s not unreasonable to say we could lose half of our food supply by mid-century.”

The need to get communities to consume more local food, and to disrupt the industries and systems that prevent that, is imperative, Brownlee says, and it’s a problem every community in the country faces. So, starting June 18, Brownlee will gradually release the best discussions, lectures and interviews from last year’s summit on an online forum in an effort to shake people across the country out of their comfort zones.

If that sounds like a tall task, Brownlee agrees. But he also says we got ourselves into this problem rapidly, so maybe we can get our way out of it quickly too.

“Seventy years ago, 100 percent of our food supply was local and organic. In the short space of 70 years, we’ve gone from 100 percent local to something like 0.3 percent of our food supply in the U.S. being local. It’s a massive shift that’s taken place almost without people’s awareness,” he says.

Brownlee says if we can get to somewhere around 20 percent of food consumed from local sources, “that would be a wild success.”

“But there is no place that has gotten anywhere close to that,” Brownlee says. “The leader in this country is the state of Vermont, which is around 8 percent local, but they have been working on the concept in a very concrete way for 15 years.”

Boulder County, for as much as we herald our farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets and roadside stands, isn’t anywhere close to Vermont, and thus, isn’t anywhere close to being an agent of change, at least by example, in the food system.

“The best estimate for Colorado is that we’re somewhere around 1 percent. In Boulder County, there are some that argue that we’re at around 2 percent local food. I would be surprised if it was that high.

“Because local food sales are not tracked in any kind of rigorous way, we don’t have any really good measurements. What we have been able to do is things like looking at the Boulder County Farmers Markets, and looking at total sales compared to total food production in Boulder County. We figured all the Farmers Market sales in a year in a season would feed Boulder County for two days.”

Whenever we talk about eating local, or eating organic, or eating whatever the “right way” to eat supposedly is, the biggest obstacle is never people’s will — if people could eat from local farms exclusively, many would, at least 20 percent that Brownlee hopes to see. But, instead, the obstacle comes in the form of a dollar sign, and Brownlee says overcoming that large obstacle will require education and people who are willing to sacrifice now for lasting change.

“We have to think very differently about food,” he says. “In this country, we devote something like 6 or 8 percent of our income to food, and in most countries, for instance in Europe, it’s more like 20 percent. They place a much higher value on food than we do. We just want it cheap, but the cost have having cheap is very, very great including the health costs. … In this country and Europe and Australia, just about half of all deaths each year are a result of food-related diseases. That’s a direct impact of the industrial food system, but people are not aware of this kind of cost.”

Indeed, Brownlee says, a local carrot may cost more than a supermarket carrot from Mexico. But change will only come when many people pay for the real cost of that carrot upfront, instead of the price we pay for a carrot produced on an industrialized farm, which contributes to global warming and doesn’t provide the same nutritional benefits of a vegetable raised the right way.

“Yeah, local food production is expensive, and land is expensive, and that all results in high price compared to industrially produced food,” Brownlee says. “But industrially produced food is artificially low-priced because so much of the costs of production are externalized, including into global warming, so we’re all paying the price for these things, but we’re not paying the price at the grocery store. Industrial food production is largely subsidized by the federal government, while local food production is not eligible for any kind of subsidy.

“The cost of local food production turns out to be what the real cost of food production actually is.”

There is hope. The real connections and ideas that come out of the Local Food Summit, and which Brownlee is making available this summer, are at least something to build on. Already, Boulder County farmers and food purveyors are taking it upon themselves to continue the conversation, Brownlee says.

“This comes from the grassroots, this comes from the bottom up,” he says. “What’s happening in Boulder County now that we feel is really exciting is farmers are beginning to collaborate at a level we’ve never seen before. That’s very exciting. They’re taking time away from the field to sit down together and begin to assess what needs to happen here. There’s been a monthly gathering [run by Mad Agriculture at Altona Grange in Longmont] and as many as 200 people in the room at some of these gatherings.”

To access the Local Food Summit talks, visit thelocalfoodsummit.com. The talks will be posted sporadically throughout the summer until July 16, and are free to access for 24 hours after posting.