Numerous U.S. Metropolitan Regions Could Grow the Food They Need Locally

A few various U.S. metro regions could grow all the food they need locally, new research determining the degree to which the food supply could be localized in terms of population, geography, and diet says.

The modeling research, led by Christian Peters at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, has been published today, September 14th, in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Growing Food Locally

The study estimates if 378 metropolitan zones could meet their food needs from local agricultural land located within 250 kilometers (155 miles). Local capacity was determined based on seven different diets, as well as the current typical American diet.

The research suggests that metro centers located in the Northwest and interior of the nation have the best potential for localization. Also, large amounts of the population along the Eastern Seaboard and the southwest part of the U.S. would have the least potential for localization. in addition, extra land existed under all diet estimates, raising questions in regards to the best use of land for meeting health, environmental, and economic goals.

“Not everyone lives near enough agricultural land to have an entirely local or even regional food supply. Most cities along the Eastern Seaboard and in the southwest corner of the U.S. could not meet their food needs locally, even if every available acre of agricultural land was used for local food production. Yet, many cities in the rest of the country are surrounded by ample land to support local and regional food systems,” said Peters, senior author and associate professor at the Friedman School, whose studies focus on sustainability science.

Meat Consumption and Vegetarianism

Peters and his fellow colleagues also modeled the seven diets to determine whether dietary adjustments could change things in the potential to grow enough food for a metro area. The diets ranged from the current regular American diet to vegan.

Color-coded urban centers where food can be grown. [Image Credit: Tufts University]
Reducing animal products in the diet enhanced the potential to grow all food locally, but not completely. Diets with less than half the current meat intake supported similar levels of localization potential, whether vegetarian or omnivore. Meat consumption for the basic American diet was estimated at almost five ounces per day.

“There would be different ways to do it. Imagine if we cut back to fewer than two and a half ounces per day by serving smaller portions of meat and replacing some meat-centric entrees with plant-based alternatives, like lentils, beans, and nuts. More diverse sources of protein could open new possibilities for local food. Nutrition research tells us that there could be some health benefits, too,” said corresponding author Julie Kurtz, who was a master’s degree student at the Friedman School at the time of the research.

Local Food

Considering all the diet scenarios, the model showed that the United States has extra land for meeting domestic food needs. In today’s American agricultural system, some farmland is used for biofuels and export crops, but researchers said that if metro centers focused on eating locally-grown food, numerous agricultural regions would face new questions regarding the local land-use priorities.

“It would be important to make sure policies for supporting local or regional food production benefit conservation and create opportunities for farmers to adopt more sustainable practices. Policies should also recognize the capacity of the natural resources in a given locale or region — and consider the supply chain, including capacity for food processing and storage,” Peters said.

The economic ability for food production was outside the scope of the analysis. Moreover, the study is based on current conditions and doesn’t consider the way future climate change may impact future agricultural potential.

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