Examining the potential local foodshed of Tompkins County

| | Comments (3)

by Christian Peters

Modern people in industrialized countries ask themselves a question that most people have not needed to ask over most of human history: “Where does my food come from?” The fact that the answer is not immediately obvious testifies to the completeness of our transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Food often travels great distances from the farm field through processing facilities, distribution channels, retail outlets, and ultimately to a person's plate. As a result, the journey of food remains a mystery to most of us.

To some extent, this transition has been a success. For most of the twentieth century, the principal goal of agricultural research was to increase economic efficiency of production, thus making food cheaper and more abundant. Trends in consumption and the percent of disposable income spent on food show that these efforts were effective. In the U.S., for example, the share of income spent on food dropped from 24% in 1929 to 11% in 1998 (USDA Economic Research Service, 2000). Food has become much more affordable, but this transition has aggravated health problems related to excessive consumption. In addition, the increased intensity of agriculture necessary to enable this increase in abundance has raised many issues about the environmental sustainability of the food system.

Among the many sustainability issues surrounding the food system, dependence on non- renewable energy sources and growing concern about climate change present a clear challenge. Energy consumption grew 20-fold between 1850 and 2000 (Holdren, 2008). However, limitations to increasing the supply of fossil fuels or regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may cause this trend to reverse in the twenty-first century. The possibility of society entering a period of “energy descent” within this century suggests that we learn more about the journey of food from farm to plate. Specifically, we need to understand which elements of our food system are most sensitive to changes in the availability of energy so that society may plan strategically. One course of action that has been proposed is to increase reliance on “local” sources of food. This paper will address two fundamental questions related to this strategy as it applies to Tompkins County: “How much food could Tompkins County provide for itself?” and “What is the capacity of other places in New York State?” Answers to these questions will begin to shed light on a larger issue — how much of our food should be produced locally?

How much could Tompkins County produce?

One way to examine the capacity of Tompkins County to localize food production is to estimate the number of people it could feed based on the potential productivity of its agricultural land. On one level, this is an elementary approach. It considers only the nutritional needs of the population and the capacity of the available soils and climate to produce food. The necessary human capital and physical infrastructure for creating a local food system are simply assumed to exist or to be possible to develop. Nonetheless, calculating the capacity of land to meet human nutritional needs is sufficiently complex to constitute a valuable first step.

Such an analysis has been conducted for New York State. It examined a wide range of possible diets and estimated both the land requirements of each diet and the number of people that could be fed from the agricultural land within the state (Peters et al., 2007). The methodology estimated food intake based on the nutritional needs of the New York State population, preferences for individual foods, and a range of assumptions about the amount of meat and fat in the diet. Land requirements for the human diet were calculated based on estimated food intake, adjustments for losses and inedible portions, New York State crop yields, and standard livestock feeding practices. The carrying capacity was estimated based on the land requirements of each diet and the amount of cropland and pasture available, with limitations placed on the amount of land that can be tilled.

Given the complexity of the methodology, let us assume that Tompkins County is just like New York State, only smaller. Thus, the number of people that the county could feed (PTompkins) can be estimated as a simple product of the total number that could be fed in the state (PNew York State) and the proportion of available agricultural land in Tompkins County (ATompkins) relative to that available in New York State (ANew York State):

PTompkins = PNew York State × (ATompkins/ANew York State)

For purposes of illustration, let's estimate capacity to feed the population a diet with 6 ounces of cooked meat and eggs daily and 30% calories from fat. This diet reflects the current American preference for meat and eggs as a protein source yet adheres to the recommended limit of no more than 30% of total calories from fat. The statewide analysis estimated that New York could theoretically feed 4.0 million people such a diet from its 5.0 million acres of harvested cropland, cropland pasture, and permanent pasture (Peters et al., 2005; Peters et al., 2007). According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, Tompkins County has 70,150 acres of land in harvested cropland, cropland pasture, and permanent pasture (USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2009). Based on the equation above, the agricultural land of Tompkins County could theoretically feed 56 thousand people — 56% of the estimated 2007 population for the county (101,055, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2009).

This estimate should be taken with several grains of salt. It is based principally on the capacity of the available land and does not account for many of the social or economic factors, such as food processing infrastructure, that might further limit the capacity for Tompkins County to supply its own food. Nonetheless, it provides a baseline estimate that could be adjusted to account for changes in crop yields, availability of land, and different diets. This baseline suggests that the agricultural land of the county has significant potential to meet the food needs of the county, but that the county could not be self-sufficient.

Where would neighboring counties get their food?

Of course, Tompkins County is not the only county in the state that would like to be fed. Thus, it is reasonable to consider a more complex analysis that accounts for the needs of surrounding population centers. Such an analysis has already been conducted for New York State. The research attempted to map potential local foodsheds, geographic areas that could theoretically provide the food needs of a population center (Peters et al., 2009). The study used geographic information systems and optimization models to determine how much food the major population centers of New York could supply from within the state if all agricultural land were used to feed people as “locally” as possible.

The foodshed model used the statewide analysis of the food requirements of the human diet as a foundation. Food production capacity was then estimated spatially based on the distribution of agricultural land and the productivity of the underlying soils. Food needs were also estimated over space based on the location and population of the state's urban centers. This data on potential food production capacity and estimated food needs were organized in an optimization model that sought to minimize “food miles.” In other words, it allocated the available food production potential in the shortest possible distance.

The analysis did not produce results specific to Tompkins County, but the summary results provide the basic story. According to the model, the larger cities of upstate New York (Ithaca included) could theoretically supply 84% of their food needs within an average distance of 32 miles from the city center (Peters et al., 2009). The smaller cities fared even better and could theoretically supply 98% of their needs within an average distance of just 16 miles. In contrast, the model allocated New York City (NYC) just 2% of its food needs even though it drew on land an average distance of 165 miles from city center. Since the greater NYC area contains the majority of the state's population, this is a serious deficiency.

Again, these results should be interpreted with caution. The analysis shows that with respect to food, the distribution of land to people is nearly in balance in upstate New York. However, this balance is upset once the population of NYC is included. This does not imply that NYC cannot or should not obtain some of its food from local sources. Rather it points out that there is simply not enough land to meet the food needs of all people in all cities of New York State. The geographic area of analysis would need to be much larger to see how “local” the NYC food supply could be.


These two attempts to examine the food production potential of Tompkins County should not be seen as immutable estimates. Rather, they provide a quick estimate of the capacity of the county to meet its food needs and a sketch of the thinking behind the calculations. The details of the analyses, while nuanced and important, are covered in depth in the original publications. The intent of this article is simply to initiate a larger discussion.

Acknowledging these limitations, the two examples suggest that while Tompkins County may have a significant land base relative to its population, it is not an island. Rather, it is part of the very populous Northeast U.S. region. In the context of planning for energy descent, Tompkins County lies in the “backyard” of the nation's largest city. Thus, local needs for the county's agricultural land will have to be balanced against the demands of this major metropolitan area. After all, New York City already relies on upstate New York for its water supply and many of the dairy products the city consumes.

Since all food cannot be local, we should think strategically about which foods would be most important to provide locally. This will vary from location to location and from one food to another. For example, NYC is a major seaport with access to the most energy efficient form of transport available (shipping over water), whereas many towns and villages in New York are accessible only by road. Similarly, grain is easy to store and can be transported by slow, energy efficient methods, while fluid milk is bulky and perishable. It needs to be moved quickly. Such issues will clearly influence which foods are most important to supply locally and which locations have the greatest need for access to locally produced foods. We will need to think in this broader context if we are to plan strategically about how to adapt our food systems to the challenge of energy descent.


Holdren, J.P. 2008. Science and technology for sustainable well-being. Science 319 (5862): 424-434.

Peters, C.J., Bills, N.L., Lembo, A.J., Wilkins, J.W., and Fick, G.W. 2009. Mapping potential foodsheds in New York State: A spatial model for evaluating the capacity to localize food production. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 24 (1): 72-84.

Peters, C.J., Wilkins, J.L., and Fick, G.W. 2005. Input and Output Data in Studying the Impact of Meat and Fat on the Land Resource Requirements of the Human Diet and Potential Carrying Capacity: The New York State Example [R05-1]. Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Peters, C.J., Wilkins, J.L., and Fick, G.W. 2007. Testing a complete-diet model for estimating the land resource requirements of food consumption and agricultural carrying capacity: The New York State example. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22(2):145-153.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2009. State and County QuickFacts for Tompkins County, New York. Available at Web site: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/36/36109.html (verified 1 March 2009).

USDA Economic Research Service. 2000. Major trends in U.S. food supply, 1909-99. FoodReview 23(1): 8-15.

USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2009. 2007 Census of Agriculture. Available at Web site: http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_2_County_Level/New_York/index.asp (verified 1 March 2009).

Additional Resources

U.S. Food consumption data: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FoodConsumption/

Census of Agriculture Query Tool http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Desktop_Application/index.asp

Local Foodshed Mapping Tool http://www.cals.cornell.edu/cals/css/extension/foodshed-mapping.cfm




Joel Gagnon said:

Well, this article is a nice start. I would have liked to see a couple of more calculations based on different assumptions about diet. What would our ability to feed ourselves look like if meat consumption were reduced to a couple of ounces, or vegetarianism were to become the norm?
As was mentioned here, those foods that provide the bulk of the calories in the diet (grains, dry beans, oils) are readily stored and can be shipped fairly economically. It is the perishable items that will be harder to provide. The incentive to produce fruits and vegetables more locally as energy costs rise will be large and drive both the proliferation of new small farms and the renaissance of back yard and community gardens. It will be fairly easy to eat well in our growing season; the greater challenge will be food preservation for the winter. Root cellars are low-tech and easily added. Canning and freezing require more energy (human as well as electric) and are not as robust in the face of energy supply uncertainty, but the quality of diet we have grown accustomed to depends on our ability to develop and sustain them.

Krys Cail said:

I find the assumptions that these variables be held rigid:
--diet people are allotted
--land that will be farmed
--agricultural production methods that will be used
to be a really problematic aspect of this research. I understand that the scientific method requires that some variables be held constant in order to measure others.... but, I think that imagining a world in which some entity (Cornell?) determined what diet, agricultural production methods, and lands would be allowed is scary. That is a very totalitarian state. Why should we be measuring things based on that kind of assumption?

In searching for ways to accommodate energy descent, I think it is vitally important that we NOT abstract solutions that, for instance, consider cutting whole cities off of their food supply.

The best answers to our problems will not come from models that assume that there is nothing we can do to alter our diets, our use of land for food production, or the methods that we choose to produce food. Simple solutions are not likely to be good solutions, and they are certain to not be democratic solutions. What are the possibilities for encouraging changes in way of life that make our "carbon foodprint" more sustainable? If we had the same approach to energy use-- assume same production methods, same patterns of usage, and same potential sources of supply-- a sustainable future would be deemed impossible..... quantifying that is of fairly little value.

Here are the important things:

--how can we bring more agricultural land into production in NY's rural and urban places?
--how can we transition to more labor-intensive ag production methods that accomplish higher per-acre yields with less fossil fuel?
--how can we change our society's norms of food distribution, consumption and waste so that less land and energy are used in meeting our needs?

Not a project for a Crops and Soil Sciences PhD necessarily.... but, as our recent financial crisis has shown us, when we let highly-specialized quants wow us with their complex and mathematically-precise conclusions about the wrong questions..... we sometimes get very far from basic human needs being satisfied in an equitable manner.

Jon Bosak said:

The following set of comments was submitted by TCLocal contributor Karl North during TCLocal's editorial review of this article. The group decided to attach the comments to the article itself rather than delay its publication.

Jon Bosak

TCLocal Editor

Comments on TCRP foodshed paper

by Karl North

This paper is a welcome step forward to help define the population/agri-resource-base relationship for the county, and a necessary foundation for a preliminary vision of food production for the county, which I have committed to write. I have three suggestions on how to improve the foodshed analysis or add to it to make it more useful in that function.

First, I wonder if the data would permit an estimate of the land base that would provide near 100% food self-sufficiency to the county population, using the radius in miles from city center measure that you have employed. The radius is a good unit of measure for my purposes because a key issue is distance to move not only food but also important food production inputs. I'm thinking of the great 19th century biochemist, Justus von Liebig, caricatured as the father of chemical agriculture, but really a holist who said that rather than import guano from Chile to feed the ailing soils of Britain, those soils should receive the humanure of the cities like London whose populations eat the food produced on those soils.

Second, instead of today's diet with its average amounts of animal protein (6 oz/day of meat and eggs - where is dairy?) and 30% fat, would it be more useful for our purposes to use a diet that still sustains people in good health but requires less animal protein and fat, and is therefore more appropriate to an energy descent situation where maximizing human carrying capacity is a central problem?

Third, directly related to the question of diet is how it is produced, for that is a determinant in estimating the land base required. You say little about this important set of variables. To imagine the potential variation in land acreage and types of land required to produce the same amount of food in different production systems, an easy example is grass-fed vs. concentrate-fed animal protein production.

I suspect that answers to these types of question will depend partly on an iterative process, where people doing research on the different issues of relocalization - foodshed carrying capacity, production systems, processing, residential patterns, transportation, etc. - will need to learn from each other and apply that knowledge to their own work. Hopefully this process will eventually lead to a whole ball of wax that holds together as a vision of relocalization.

Finally, I want to use an example from the foodshed paper and couple of other examples that I hear lot in the alternative agriculture movement, to raise a general question about the language we use to promote alternatives to the reigning paradigm, in this case alternatives to industrial agriculture. This seems to be a widespread and perennial problem. Speaking for myself, all my politically aware life I have had to struggle to eradicate from my prose, speech and thought endless relics of the indoctrinated language that rationalizes the status quo. George Lakoff said it well, that if we submit to the language that the opposition uses to frame the debate, we risk losing the debate. So the question of language is not trivial. I hope no one takes the following as personal criticism, but rather as an inducement to pay critical attention to the language we use.

The introduction to the foodshed paper includes a statement to the effect that the research that created industrial agriculture successfully raised the "efficiency of production". Such statements rationalize what is really a criminally unsustainable system by playing on the ambiguity in the word "efficiency". As all of us in this group know, as it dramatically increased the labor efficiency of food production, modern agriculture just as dramatically reduced its energy efficiency. Moreover, most of the other purported "efficiencies" that increased productivity in modern agriculture entailed the introduction of inefficiencies and other damaging consequences in the industrialized agroecosystem (e.g., think hybridization), which are either kicking in now, or will do so in due course, and will in the end bring about its demise. My general point is, to be politically effective we need to expose the language of the opposition for what it is, not repeat it. Then we need to create and use a language appropriate to a new paradigm.

Two other words that advocates of sustainable agriculture use a lot, but which are examples of terminology that does not serve us well, are "externalities" and "organic". "Externalities" is a phrase mainstream economists use to rationalize a system that is full of costs that they must hide to produce the junk science that serves the interests of their paymasters. As any student of ecology knows, in the real world there are no externalities; we can shift costs to future generations (intergenerational tyranny), but we can't send them to Mars. Here again we should tirelessly reveal the mendacity of "externalities" and replace it with language that expresses a more accurate understanding of how the world works.

"Organic" is a special case. I have no problem with the term as a reference to a historic social movement, or to an unstable, politically derived set of legal standards enshrined in the USDA. But too often I hear scientists and others use the term as if it were part of a disciplinary vocabulary: that is, as if it were a scientific concept that has powerful explanatory power. In years of exposure to the literature I have never come across anything that justifies the use of "organic" as worthy of scientific status. It developed as a make-do catch-all in the alternative farming movement at a time when the agricultural science community was providing no intellectual guidance, to put it mildly.

We do have a term, "sustainability", that has great power as an explanatory concept when its meaning is rooted in its origin in the science of ecology and its understanding of carrying capacity. Unfortunately this use of the term has been making very slow headway in many quarters. Perhaps when used in the sense described above it is too subversive for even many of its proclaimed advocates, who take refuge in the comforting ambiguity of "organic". Or training in ecological science is still so peripheral to agricultural education that few people see the instructive power of such a conception of sustainability.

Well, I should stop here, as this is turning into one of my favorite rants. But one last lick: as you all know, Albert Einstein (a publicly avowed socialist, by the way) said, famously, "the same level of thinking that caused our problems cannot be used to solve them". It follows that we cannot use the same language either, for language follows, binds, and shapes thoughts. We need to use a new language whose rigor exposes and replaces the convenient ambiguities of old ways of framing issues of importance, and frames questions in ways that teach a whole new way of thinking.

Planning for Energy Descent

Some time in the next 30 years, life will start to become very different from what it is now. By mid-century we will use much less energy; we will live every aspect of our life much closer to home; and we will be much poorer in material terms, because energy and wealth are basically the same thing in an industrial society.

Energy descent — a radical reduction in our use of energy — is certain, but it’s not clear yet which of several factors will cause it to begin. Perhaps we will decide to do the right thing about climate change and reduce our CO2 emissions 80 or 90 percent, which would require changes almost that large in our actual consumption of energy. And there are other ways we might experience a radical reduction in our use of energy; for example, economic collapse, or an expanded war in the middle east. But the factor that makes energy descent a sure thing and sets the theme for this century is "peak oil" — the leveling off of global oil production and then its eventual and inexorable decline.

The timing of the peak is debatable, with forecasts ranging from 2005 (that is, already here) to 2030. But most credible estimates agree with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which concluded in a recent study that "world oil production is at or near its peak," and with the director of research at OPEC, who said recently that "we are at, or near, the production peak of world oil, if not on the downward slope."

After the peak, the growing gap between falling world oil production and ever-increasing global demand will send prices skyward, with economic results that can only be imagined but will certainly include greatly restricted mobility due to the high cost of fuel and much higher prices for most goods, including food. The result will be less disposable income, a life lived closer to home, and a greater reliance on the goods and services that can be provided locally. Since the supply of oil and other fossil fuels is finite, this outcome is guaranteed. The only question is, Shall we plan for what we can see coming, or just let it happen to us?

A group of area citizens, TCLocal, has begun planning now. TCLocal contributors are committed to researching various aspects of energy descent in Tompkins County and writing up a preliminary plan for each aspect based on purely local challenges and resources. This is one such plan.

Who we are

How to contribute


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Simon St.Laurent published on March 28, 2009 10:57 AM.

Food Processing in Tompkins County was the previous entry in this blog.

Can New York State Feed Itself? is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 4.35-en