Lentis/Local Food as a Case of Disintermediation

Local Food is an increasingly popular movement in the United States that has resulted in the establishment of many farmers' markets. The movement is an example of disintermediation, the removal of intermediates between supplier and buyer in the producer-to-consumer heirarchy. Support groups for the local food movement use imagery and sensory language to persuade others, whereas opponents use more academic means to lodge arguments.

An ad including a buy local slogan


There is no single definition of local food. In a 2008 amendment to the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act, Congress defined local and regional food product to mean that the food was produced fewer than four hundred miles away from where it was marketed. This also includes food that is grown as the same state as where it is sold.[1] Other interpretations use only food miles, or the distance food has traveled. A common definition is based on the marketing arrangement, in that farmers sell directly to consumers at farmer's markets.[2]

Typical Participants and VenuesEdit

Consumers in the local food movement tend to be most concerned with health and food labels, rather than convenience of preparation. A prominent study finds that these consumers are likely to be white, middle-aged people who cook on a regular basis, and are the second most likely group to eat local. Moreover, these consumers are usually females who have a culinary passion and are members of a fitness club. Lastly, it was found that people who prefer to shop for local food are likely from the West Coast region of the United States.[3] The word that supporters of the local food movement have given themselves is "locavore," a term coined by Jessica Prentice of the San Francisco Bay area in 2005.[4]

The primary venues for local food are farmer's markets, community supported agriculture systems, and pick-your-own operations.[2] Smaller farms tend to participate more in farmer's markets, and farms that are adjacent to metropolitan areas typically generate more revenue. While livestock farmers participate more in these markets, produce farmers account for a larger share of profits.[2] Small, independently-owned supermarkets have carried local food for a number of years, while large chain supermarkets are just beginning to supply local food to a significant extent. Such supermarkets cite consumer desires for the freshness and taste of local food, as well as knowledge of the farmer and keeping business in the local area as main motivations.[5] In addition to being available at supermarkets, local food is now being served at many public schools.[2]

Local Food and DisintermediationEdit

The local food movement is an example of disintermediation, or removing some portion of a supply chain. In each model of the local food movement - farmer's markets, community supported agriculture systems, and pick-your-own markets - the supplier interacts directly with the consumer. This eliminates traditional intermediates, or "middle men", such as wholesalers and retailers. In instances where there is a retailer, the wholesaler and supplier are one and the same.

Outlined in red are the groups that are unnecessary in the farmer's market supply structure.

The local food movement is just one of many instances of disintermediation in recent decades. Other examples of disintermediation include websites like Amazon and Netflix that eliminate the need for a brick-and-mortar store for people to get goods, digital cameras that make film developers obsolete, and computer manufacturers like Dell that sell directly to consumers. Unlike these examples, the local food movement involves disintermediation by excluding technologies, rather than disintermediation made possible by them.

In contrast, many industries have experienced failed disintermediation efforts in the recent past. These include furniture, groceries, and pet supplies.[6] In each of these cases, efforts to move the market away from major retailers failed and the industry remains dominated by a select few companies.

Advantages of the Local Food MovementEdit

Supporters of the local food movement contend that it enhances the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.[7] Specifically, it ensures the economic and social sustainability of the local community.[8] Buying locally-grown produce and meat means that proceeds from the sale go to farmers in the area, leading to local economic growth. Similarly, the interaction between residents of the area serves as a shared experience that improves the social sense of community.

Local food proponents also argue that the movement has a positive environmental impact. By cutting out large-scale distribution, local food can have a lower carbon footprint due to the downsizing of transportation. In addition, smaller farms may use "cleaner" farming techniques, resulting in less carbon emission than mass production crops.[9] Specifically, smaller farms tend to practice organic farming to a greater extent and release less harmful chemicals into the topsoil.[10]

Disadvantages of the Local Food MovementEdit

In reality, it would be difficult to predict the impact of an exclusively-local food system. There is limited data for production of crops that haven't been grown in certain areas previously. Local food systems would increase the cost of food because of the constraints on efficiency that are available today with factory farms that produce in mass.[11] Similarly, and as a counterargument to the claim that local food is more environmentally friendly, a regression to local food systems would cause a loss of efficiency through specialization and economies of scale, which will in fact increase carbon emissions. In addition, local food may complicate the fight against obesity in the United States, as the movement is likely to make nutritious produce more expensive while making . Most importantly, reverting to a local food system would result in less overall food output, which in turn causes fewer exports.

The local food movement poses an ethical dilemma. Even if local food were to unequivocally improve the lives of Americans, the loss of overall output would mean less food exported as foreign aid to developing countries. This trade-off of national and global good shapes any moral discussion of the local food movement. A counterargument is posed by Felix Salmon, who contends that farmers in poor countries have traditionally on growing a small variety of stable crops, such as wheat, soy, rice, and corn. However, large-scale agriculture conglomerates now produce these crops in quantities and prices that individual farmers cannot compete with. They are also able to directly manufacture the crops into second-hand food products, which small-scale farmers cannot accomplish. Although this certainly does make more food, it also drives small farmers in developing nations out of the market. It follows that a move to small agriculture is therefore globally beneficial.[10]

Relevant Social Groups in Opposition and SupportEdit

Many social groups, such as the Local Food Support Network and the Local Food Coalition, promote their cause through a variety of methods. Such groups create volunteer opportunities, publish informational releases, and lobby for legislation that will enable more local food forums.[12] Opposition to the local food movement comes mainly from the academic world, with many critical articles being published by trusted economic and environmental experts. Frequent criticisms of the movement include the loss of production efficiency, resulting in lower food output, higher prices for fresh produce and meat, and increased carbon emissions.[11] The local food movement is also criticized by agricultural experts for being particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks.[10] Without a national or global crop distribution, the outbreak of a foodborne disease in one particular region would cause massive losses for residents in the area.

Media Used by Social GroupsEdit

Both groups that support the local food movement and those that oppose it use different types of media to push the local food vector in their direction. Phrases and words have legitimized the local food movement and helped to stabilize it as a movement. One such phrase is "food miles". Food miles are how many miles food has traveled from supplier to buyer. Both locavores and their opposition use the phrase to push for their argument. Some environmental groups are campaigning for food miles to be shown on labels so consumers are aware of how far they have traveled to market. However, some scientists argue that a reduction of food miles is not necessarily good for the environment. Researchers at Lincoln University used other factors in their equations to measure carbon dioxide per ton of food. Their findings have caused environmentalists to question the logic of food miles as a reason to eat local food.[13] Another study found that potatoes brought in from 100 miles away by truck and potatoes shipped by train from 1000 miles away had roughly the same greenhouse gas emissions.[14]

Local markets and locavores tend to use loaded sensory words in support of their cause. Consider the following quote: "Ever tasted the difference between a ripe, juicy strawberry picked yesterday and an oversized strawberry sprayed with chemicals, picked last week and trucked across the country?"[15] Words like "ripe" and "juicy" appeal to the senses, and paint a picture of this extravagant locally grown strawberry. In contrast, "sprayed with chemicals" and "trucked" are harsh and disturbing. These statements are carefully crafted to induce images in the reader's mind, and most readers would then choose the local strawberry. Many ads for farmer's markets include the words "fresh", "sustainable", or "environment" in some context. These words can persuade outsiders that local food is better for the environment and that the quality of local food is better. Locavores also tend to try to use the health implications of fruits and vegetables in their favor. However, the local food movement may actually raise the prices of fruits and vegetables because the cost of harvesting some produce in regions that do not naturally meet the growing conditions may be higher than a specialized region.[11]

The opposition to the local food movement also uses sensory words, such as "specialization" or "efficiency". Steve Sexton asserts that "economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade".[11] As mentioned above, it is more economical in some cases to grow certain foods in bulk in regions where they are specialized. Idaho produces 30 percent of the United State's russet potatoes because its climate and soil are the ideal growing conditions. Some opposition groups to locavorism would argue that to beat global hunger, we need to get more food out of less money and natural resources.[11]

Opportunities for Further ResearchEdit

Future collaborators for this chapter may explore the legislative barriers to the local food market, such as tax incentives and loopholes that allow large-scale retailers to maintain a competitive edge in the food industry. Similarly, they may explore the possibility of introducing a "carbon tax" on the transportation of food items across the country in an effort to promote farmers' markets. They might also delve into the chemistry of local food - does produce sold at local farmers' markets really contain less genetic modification? If so, do the additives, preservatives, and/or hormones pose any health risks to humans? Likewise, does "local" meat carry less risk of food-borne disease such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli (E. coli)?


  1. Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, H.R.2419, 110th Cong., 1 Sess. (2008).
  2. a b c d Martinez, Steve, et al. Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues, ERR 97, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2010
  3. Nie, C., & Zepeda, L. (2011). Lifestyle segmentation of U.S. food shoppers to examine organic and local food. Appetite, 28-37.
  4. Roosevelt, M. (2006). The Lure of the 100-Mile Diet. Time Magazine. Sunday June 11, 2006.
  5. Burros, M. (2008). Supermarket Chains Narrow Their Sights Time Magazine. August 6, 2008
  6. Intermediaries and Cybermediaries: A Continuing Role for Mediating Players in the Electronic Marketplace http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol1/issue3/sarkar.html] Sarkar, Butler and Steinfield, 1995
  7. Feenstra, G. (2002) Creating space for sustainable food systems: lessons from the field. Agriculture and Human Values. 19(2). 99-106.
  8. Dunne, Jonnie B.; Chambers, Kimberlee J., Giombolini, Katlyn J., Schlegel, Sheridan A. (March 2011). "What does ‘local’ mean in the grocery store? Multiplicity in food retailers' perspectives on sourcing and marketing local foods". Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (Cambridge University Press) 26 (1): 46–59. doi:10.1017/S1742170510000402
  9. Tierney, J. (2011).Fresh and Direct From the Garden an Ocean Away. The New York Times. August 29, 2011.
  10. a b c Salmon, Felix (2012). Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/02/26/how_locavores_could_save_the_world
  11. a b c d e Sexton, S. (2011). The Inefficiency of Local Food Freakanomics. November 14, 2011.
  12. Local Food Coalition (2010). Retrieved from http://www.localfoodcoalition.org
  13. McWilliams, J.E. (2007). Food That Travels Well. The New York Times. August 6, 2007.
  14. DeWeerdt, S. (2009). Is Local Food Better? World Watch Magazine, 22(3). May/June.
  15. Langley, A. (2011). 5 Ways to Add Local Food to Your Diet. The Fine Print. May 1, 2011.