Roots of Sustainability

Roots of Sustainability

An article on the popularity of eating locally grown foods.


6 - 12+


Geography, Human Geography, Biology, Conservation

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New discoveries and technological breakthroughs are made every year. Yet, as the information sector moves forward, many people in society are looking back to their roots in terms of the way they eat.

A “locavore” movement has emerged in the United States. The locavore movement supports eating foods grown locally and sustainably, rather than prepackaged foods shipped from other parts of the world.

Experts debate the merits and consequences of eating local, as well as the trend’s staying power.

Erin Barnett is the director of Local Harvest, a company that aims to help connect people to farms in their area. By eating local, she argues, people have a better, more personal understanding of the impact their food consumption has on the rest of the world.

“There is a way of connecting the dots, where eating locally is an act that ... tightens our awareness around our sense of place,” Barnett says.

Agriculture in the U.S.
The United States’ agricultural output is one of the highest in the world, says Timothy Beach, a professor of geography and geoscience at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas.

“There’s just no other place on Earth where the amount of input is so productive,” Beach says of American agriculture. “Nobody can cut off a food we need.”

However, the U.S. food system is not sustainable because of its dependency on fossil fuels, says Beach. Equipment used on “tremendously productive” farms is quickly depleting the Earth’s natural resources, particularly petroleum. Additionally, production of agricultural supplements such as fertilizer uses large amounts of energy.

The world has used close to half of the global petroleum supply, he says, and the second half will be depleted at an even faster rate because of growing population and economic development. There is “no way on Earth we are using [fossil fuels] sustainably,” he says.

Although many businesses are experimenting with wind, solar, and biofuel, Beach says there is no substitute for petroleum.

“There’s nothing that we see on the horizon that can replace it,” he says.

A Shift Toward Sustainability
Louise Keckler, a farmer, believes the push for sustainability should not come from politicians, but from farmers.

Keckler and her husband, Gregg, own Orchard Country Produce, a farm in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The farm provides food for community-supported agriculture (CSA), a network that brings fresh produce from local farms to consumers. As part of a CSA network, a customer regularly receives fruits or vegetables that are in season.

Eating fresh food from local farms that practice sustainable agriculture has multiple benefits. The nutritional value is evident, Beach says.

“It’s a healthy thing individually for Americans,” he says, citing the fact that overconsumption and obesity are on the rise in the U.S. and in Europe.

Barnett points out that eating local—for example, by participating in a CSA—contextualizes food. It helps educate people about the potential effects of global warming on food production. By understanding how climate and weather patterns affect what we eat, we realize the impact our choices have on the land around us, she says.

“That non-anonymity, the personal-ness and the intimacy that eating local can create in our lives, can only help us as we begin to face the climate changes,” Barnett says.

Fad, Trend, or Revolution?
There is some debate about whether eating local is a sustainable solution to an unsustainable system.

“If it’s a wedge of health and food education, then it’s obviously a good thing,” Beach says.

He is not sure if the locavore movement is a fad or a revolution. Whatever the case, he believes the U.S. could still feed the country without the large-input system currently in place.

“I think we could feed ourselves on fully sustainable agriculture,” he says.

“I would call it a trend versus a fad,” says Barnett. “I think that we are in the process of returning to a way of eating that is much more congruent with who our species is.”

Says Keckler: “I think that it’s becoming a way of life for a lot of people. It is more about people coming back to their roots.”

Keckler says the locavore movement is also a revelation for farmers: “You don’t have to have hundreds and hundreds of acres to make a living.”

Urban Sustainability

In fact, you don’t even need a farm. As the locavore trend becomes more popular, people are providing their own fresh, local produce.

“No matter how much space you have, you still have enough room to grow some food," said Kirk Wilbur, former product developer at Urban Sustainable, which provided Washington, D.C., residents with a place to buy seeds and farming equipment. That store closed in September 2012.

Gardening at home is a more affordable option for those who wish to eat locally grown foods, Wilbur said. For instance, the seeds and soil needed to grow tomato plants cost a fraction of the price of tomatoes in the grocery store.

Fast Fact

Find a CSA
Community-supported agriculture is a network that brings fresh produce from local farms to consumers. Find a CSA farm near you at

Fast Fact

Food Deserts
A food desert is an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.

Use the U.S. Department of Agricultures Food Desert Locator to see a map of food deserts in America.

Media Credits

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Caitlin Mac Neal
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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