As an east coast transplant to San Francisco, one of the things I immediately fell in love with in the Bay Area were the farmers’ markets. Here, unlike back east, they are abundant and, even better, year-round. Like many others, I love the local food economy that supports farmers’ markets, for knowing where my food comes as well as enjoying superlative freshness and flavor. But, in addition to these qualitative benefits, the region’s food economy provides distinct measurable benefits as well.
In its recently published report, Locally Nourished, SPUR, a Bay Area urban planning civic organization, details three concrete ways the region benefits from having more of its food produced and sold within the region.
First, preservation of farms and ranches in the Bay Area serve as a buffer against sprawl. Cities and suburbs don’t expand into negative space. Rather, more often than not, they sprawl onto agricultural land. Policy that preserves farmland and ranch land—especially the 15 percent of the region’s farmland currently at risk of development—helps create a greenbelt that redirects development energy toward greater density in existing urban areas.
Within a greenbelt strategy, agricultural land is often an economical option. Preserves and parkland frequently have high initial costs for acquiring land, as well as the ongoing expense of staff time to maintain, manage, and patrol it. Agricultural land, on the other hand, can often be protected from development and managed for less money.
For example, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District saved money by including agricultural land as part of its greenbelt acquisition program. The district’s purchase of conservation easements on agriculture land—mostly rangeland—during the past 20 years had a median cost of $3,962 per acre compared to a median cost of $8,681 per acre for easements on open space land (both in 2012 dollars). In other words, for the same amount of money, the district could prevent sprawl on twice as much agricultural land as open space land.
As an example of reduced maintenance costs, the Santa Clara County Parks Department encourages managed cattle grazing as a cost-effective way to control invasive species and reduce the wildfire risk on rangeland properties. Grazing can sometimes replace mechanical, manual, chemical or other means of controlling weeds and brush in backcountry and remote areas of parklands that is estimated to cost the department between $200 and $800 per acre each year.
Beyond looking at just agricultural land, the second benefit of a regional food system is an economic one. The farms and ranches in the Bay Area provide jobs and the raw material (food) for a supply chain that includes distributors, processors, grocery stores, restaurants and compost facilities. In 2010, this broader set of food industries provided 405,000 jobs (or 12 percent) of the region’s 3.2 million private sector jobs, which is more than the information, finance, insurance and constructions sectors combined. Moreover, the Bay Area food system, boosted by restaurant and winemaking growth, has been adding jobs faster than the economy as a whole.
In addition to jobs, numerous studies have documented that when these businesses increase their local sourcing, the economy benefits from the “multiplier effect,” a greater circulation of the region’s wealth. An analysis of local retail in San Francisco found that locally owned restaurants had a 27 to 30 percent greater positive economic impact on the local economy than a chain-owned restaurant. A study conducted in Seattle, meanwhile, found that, in its most pronounced example, grocery stores and restaurants with a commitment to local purchasing had local multipliers twice as high as their conventional counterparts.
The third benefit of a regional food system is that by diverting food waste from landfills to composting facilities in the region, the Bay Area reduces its carbon footprint and creates a valuable product for local farms. While Bay Area municipalities such as San Francisco, San Jose, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District are pioneers in food waste diversion, there is still much more to be done. SPUR estimates that the Bay Area sends more than 970,000 tons of food waste to landfills each year. If all this food waste were sent to compost facilities instead, it would have the same impact as taking 163,000 cars off the road. In short, there is a clear environmental benefit to closing the regional food loop.
There is not, however, a clear environmental benefit to reducing food miles. Studies conducted in both the United States and in the UK indicate that the ecological footprint of food production is influenced far more by how the food is produced than where it is produced. Local food can have a smaller negative environmental impact than food from further away, yet the reverse is also true. While there are many reasons to support a local food system, until further research indicates otherwise, lowering our greenhouse gas emissions by reducing our food miles is not one of them.
The Bay Area has a well-deserved reputation for pioneering the celebration of local food. But we won’t be able to maximize the benefits of a regional food economy without additional policy. SPUR offers nine policy recommendations in its report, ranging from better land-use planning protections for agricultural land to expanding municipal composting programs.
As consumers, each of us can support a regional food economy by buying local. But just as importantly, we can do our part as citizens by calling on our elected officials to pass policy that preserves our agricultural land, supports the viability of local food businesses and reduces the amount of food we send to the landfill.