The Role of Rural: In the Local Foods Movement

Rural areas play an important role in urban food systems and urban economies. Recently, I’ve seen two stories on local foods that follow a fairly narrow definition of “local”. Both stories are cool pieces with some good info and ideas, and they give us an opportunity to think about rural/urban linkages and regionalism.

KENS5 out of San Antonio posted a USA TODAY graphic on what constitutes “local” foods. The graphic, which was developed from USDA and various farmers market sources, asks How Local is Local?

Takepart’s Willy Blackmore asks Can Urban Agriculture Feed the World’s Growing Cities? He cites Federico Martelozzo and co-authors’ research published in Environmental Research Letters. The research team found that in many parts of the world, less than 10% of the available urban land area would be needed to produce enough vegetables to meet current demand. In the U.S., we could even produce the enough to meet vegetable consumption guidelines on less than 10% of the available urban land. Even less land is needed as vertical production techniques, including hydroponic production, are adopted.

Martelozzo et al find that urban agriculture cannot solve food insecurity or even provide sufficient vegetables in many countries due to space constraints, and this limitation is most severe in poorer countries with greater population densities. They recommend that urban agriculture be practiced in smaller cities, which have the majority of available urban land.

Blackmore and the study authors state explicitly what the USA Today infographic implies: Urban ag “is local by nature”. And I’ll add that urban ag is awesome! For urban areas to produce their own agricultural products is a good thing. At the same time, the surrounding rural countryside is local as well. Rural areas are an extension of the urban market and value chain.

What is The Role of Rural? Simply put, rural areas have typically served urban markets. Regional scientists since August Losch and Johann Heinrich Von Thunen have generally held that rural areas are low-cost production areas for various products. Von Thunen (whom, incidentally, some say was a farmer) showed that competition among farmers for land resulted in farmers with higher valued crops and higher transportation costs bidding higher prices for land closer to a city, while grain farmers who received lower prices and also had lower transportation costs purchased land further from the city. Hofstra University has a clear graphic and concise description of Von Thunen’s theory here.

Von Thunen’s theory is directly applicable to local foods, which you probably noticed immediately if you clicked the Hofstra link. An urban market might be able to source garden products (flowers, some vegetables, etc.) very close to the city—even within it. But livestock for the urban population are probably produced further away. Of course, all this theory doesn’t even begin to address issues of how we consumers like to have a lot of choices, how some sub-regions or even individual businesses within a 150- or 400-mile radius are likely to specialize in efficient production of a given product, etc.

Look for The Role Of Rural tag on future posts considering how rural areas play a role in manufacturing, energy, and other industries and issues.

About Rebekka Dudensing

Dr. Rebekka Dudensing is an Associate Professor and Extension Economist - Community Economic Development with Texas AgriLife Extension and Research in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M. Her research interests include the evaluation of economic development opportunities, taxation and public/private goods issues, entrepreneurship, and regional economic cooperation.
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