Consumers are infatuated with the local food movement, but a leading produce economist believes commercial fruit and vegetable shippers who ship food across the U.S. and the world must be ready to make the case for their produce in the court of public opinion.


While purchases of local food now are "fragmented and intermittent" and may make up only about 1% of U.S. food sales, Desmond O'Rourke, president of Belrose Inc., Pullan, Wash., said the movement is a significant trend that could shift suppliers' market share.


In a new report, "Lowdown on Buying Local," O'Rourke looks at the local food movement and its potential effect on producers, consumers, retailers and the environment.


O'Rourke said there is little strong data on how big the local food market is now or how big it will become. The movement tends to overlook the economic benefits in trade between regions, he said.


"Trade within the United States has allowed all states to specialize in what they do best," he said. "Global trade has been one of the great drivers of world economic growth for 60 years and has aided in the worldwide transmission of technology and innovation."


However, he said all signs point to the fact that large buyers will to increase their "buy local" emphasis in the near future and suggests shippers be prepared to put in place "self-defense" measures.


That will mean, in part, making the case for efficiencies and "green-friendly" attributes - even if suppliers are far away from consumer markets. For example, one study by New Zealand's Lincoln University compared the energy and emissions generated by fresh apples delivered to the United Kingdom from New Zealand and UK farms. The study found that in the case of fresh apples, the New Zealand grower had yields 3.6 times that of the UK grower. As a result, the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of the New Zealand growers were only one-third of the UK producer per metric ton of apples produced.


O'Rourke said in the report that suppliers should not count on any single attribute - including proximity to consumers - as an everlasting advantage.


As the local movement has challenged the organic movement, O'Rourke said some other concern may emerge to challenge the trend.


"Government intervention to define "local" more precisely could also inhibit retailer strategies," he said.


What's more, the competitive advantage for retailers to feature local produce will dissipate as the trend becomes more widespread.


"To stay ahead of the competition, retailers must constantly explore opportunities for potential future advantages," O'Rourke said.


For suppliers, characteristics such as price, taste, color, branding, promotion, ripeness, reputation and other factors will be important to maintain.


The free report is available at www.e-belrose.com.