UC Merced professor Elliott Campbell and his research team have mapped the potential of America’s cities to source food locally. The results? An “unexpectedly large current potential” for productive farmland in and around urban and suburban areas. Campbell, a professor in the school of engineering, has published a study called “The Large Potential of Local Croplands to Meet Food Demand in the United States Opens a New Window.”

The results of Campbell’s study appear as the cover story in the most recent edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a journal published by the Ecological Society of America, a professional society which has a membership of about 10,000 scientists.

Elliott Campbell. Credit: UC Merced staff.

While the popularity of local food (including farm-to-table, farmers markets, food hubs, etc.) has rapidly increased, limited research has been done that adequately quantifies the benefits, impacts and potential of local foods.

The UC Merced newsroom reports:

Elliott Campbell’s research is making an important contribution to the national conversation on local food systems,” influential author and UC Berkeley Professor Michael Pollan said. “That conversation has been hobbled by too much wishful thinking and not enough hard data — exactly what Campbell is bringing to the table.”

Per the report, most areas of the country “could feed between 80 percent and 100 percent of their populations with food grown or raised within 50 miles. Campbell used data from a variety of sources, including a “farmland-mapping project funded by the National Science Foundation” and information about land productivity from the USDA.

Campbell received additional support for his work through the University of California’s Global Food Initiative, which seeks to harness the institution’s resources to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed the world’s growing population.

These results are very timely with respect to increasing interests by the public in community-supported agriculture, as well as improving efficiencies in the food-energy-water nexus,” said Bruce Hamilton, program director for NSF.

One of the surprises? The potential for local food production in major coastal cities. For example, the research indicated that the greater Los Angeles area “could feed as much as 50 percent within 100 miles.”

Another variable that the study assessed was how dietary choices can make a difference in an region’s ability to feed itself. One example was found in the survey of the San Diego area, which Campbell’s team estimated “can support 35 percent of the people based on the average U.S. diet, but as much as 51 percent of the population if people switched to plant-based diets.”

A takeway? Careful planning and policies are needed to protect productive land from suburbanization.

Campbell also had this to say about food sustainability:

One important aspect of food sustainability is recycling nutrients, water and energy. For example, if we used compost from cities to fertilize our farms, we would be less reliant on fossil-fuel-based fertilizers,” Campbell said. “But cities must be close to farms so we can ship compost economically and environmentally. Our maps provide the foundation for discovering how recycling could work.”

A must read.


Related Links:

Land-grant institutions move to support urban farmers

Urban farming is booming. What does it really yield?

Urban ag in Los Angeles has the potential to grow

New study: urban ag more prevalent than thought