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Unlike a Globalized Food System, Local Food Won’t Destroy the Environment

Unlike a Globalized Food System, Local Food Won’t Destroy the Environment

If you’re seeking some good news during these troubled times, look at the ecologically sound ways of producing food that have percolated up from the grassroots in recent years. Small farmers, environmentalists, academic researchers and food and farming activists have given us agroecology, holistic resource management, permaculture, regenerative agricultureand other methods that can alleviate or perhaps even eliminate the global food system’s worst impacts: biodiversity loss, energy depletion, toxic pollution, food insecurity and massive carbon emissions.

These inspiring testaments to human ingenuity and goodwill have two things in common: They involve smaller-scale farms adapted to local conditions, and they depend more on human attention and care than on energy and technology. In other words, they are the opposite of industrial monocultures — huge farms that grow just one crop.

But to significantly reduce the many negative impacts of the food system, these small-scale initiatives need to spread all over the world. Unfortunately, this has not happened, because the transformation of farming requires shifting not just how food is produced, but also how it is marketed and distributed. The food system is inextricably linked to an economic system that, for decades, has been fundamentally biased against the kinds of changes we need.

Put simply, economic policies almost everywhere have systematically promoted ever-larger scale and monocultural production. Those policies include:

  • Massive subsidies for globally traded commodities. Most farm subsidies in the US, for example, go to just five commodities — corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice — that are the centerpieces of global food trade. At the same time, government programs — like the US Market Access Program — provide hundreds of millions of dollars to expand international markets for agriculture products.

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The battle for the future of farming: what you need to know

It is widely agreed that today’s global agriculture system is a social and environmental failure. Business as usual is no longer an option: biodiversity loss and nitrogen pollution are exceeding planetary limits, and catastrophic risks of climate change demand immediate action.

Most concede that there is an urgent need to radically transform our food systems. But the proposed innovations for more sustainable food systems are drastically different. Which we choose will have long-lasting effects on human society and the planet.

Suggested innovations in food systems can be broadly understood as either seeking to conform with – or to transform – the status quo.

The future of farming is ours to decide. Raggedstone/Shutterstock.com

A technological future

Some want to keep the agriculture industry as close to existing practices as possible. This is true of the increasing number of corporate and financial actors who seek to solve the food crisis by developing new technologies. These technologies are envisaged as being part of what is being called the “fourth industrial revolution” (4IR). The “answer” here is thought to lie in a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between physical, digital and biological domains.

For example, the World Economic Forum is currently supporting agricultural transitions in 21 countries through its “New Vision for Agriculture” initiative. This initiative supports “innovation ecosystems” to re-engineer food systems based on “12 transforming technologies”. In this imagined future, next generation biotechnologies will re-engineer plants and animals. Precision farming will optimise use of water and pesticides. Global food systems will rely on smart robots, blockchain and the internet of things to manufacture synthetic foods for personalised nutrition.

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Ten ways to avoid shopping for food in supermarkets

The problem with monopolies is their power to abuse much of what is under their dominion. The results are: unfair contracts for suppliers, poor work practices in countries with substandard regulations (one distressing example are slave ships), inhumane conditions for animals in factory farms, and a system geared to producing cheap, high-fat, high-sugar foods, generating an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Another casualty is biodiversity: modern food systems are dominated by five animal species and twelve crops according to Biodiversity International. “The supermarket chains play the role of gatekeeper, deciding how food is produced and what fills the shelves,” says Oxfam’s Marita Wiggerthale.

Everything is scaled up – including waste. Eight of Britain’s leading supermarkets create more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year, according to an investigation by The Guardian in January, this year. To add insult to injury, supermarkets spend millions on marketing to misinform the public about where and how their food is produced. Fake farm names make imported food appear British, while ‘country of origin’ labelling claims British status for products which originated from abroad but were processed and packed in the UK.

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Population growth and food: A systems perspective

In this age of the Anthropocene, it is necessary to look inward as well as outwards to find systemic solutions. People may or may not be “a plague on earth” as David Attenborough has stated, but we are without doubt the dominant force on this planet. Some introspection is needed if we are to use our power ethically.

As Organisational Outreach Officer for Population Matters, my task is to contact ethically-oriented organisations (from faith organisations to environmental NGOs) and suggest ways in which the issue of population growth could be covered on their website and integrated into their ethos. Many organisations I approach agree that population size contributes to climate change, conflict and malnutrition, but they frequently respond by saying that the issue lies outside of their remit. Population Matters’ patron Jonathon Porritt talks about the reasons why organisations avoid referencing population growth in this 14-minute video, debunking a few myths along the way.

To be truly systemic, one has to include all aspects of the problem. So what is ‘systemic’ or ‘systems thinking’? In simple terms, it is an approach for analysing complex issues by viewing them holistically, as purposeful systems containing interdependent variables, stakeholders and perspectives. This allows an awareness of one’s own bias and limitations. Systems practitioners use simplified diagrams to uncover key issues and when this is done comprehensively they are able to see the interwoven social, economic, political and environmental dimensions.

The issue under investigation here is the global food system, the purpose of which is to feed humans (and to a certain extent livestock) over a sustained period of time. It is embedded in and dependent on ‘macro’ systems as shown in the diagram below.

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Relocalising the food chain: Why it matters and how to do it

It’s hard to escape the growing interest in local food over the past few decades. Whether it’s restaurants boasting fresh, local produce on their menus, the rise in farmers’ markets and farm shops or the growth of box schemes such as Riverford, it’s clear that people value food that comes with a story. Even supermarkets have noticed, as Morrisons credits soaring demand for regional produce for its healthy profits last year. In order to understand the movement better, and to see where it might be headed, it is worth exploring the motivations behind it.

For there is more to ‘local’ than meets the eye. After all, nobody gets excited about eating bacon from the local intensive pig unit or white sliced bread from the in-store bakery at the supermarket. Instead the term is shorthand for a vision of food characterized by small-scale farming and growing, heritage breeds, artisan processing, family businesses and traditional skills.

It is also about self-reliance and ‘taking back control’, in the sense of using what grows locally with a minimum of inputs and rejecting globalization. It is about a sense of connection, which we have traded in for the convenience of the modern food industry, but with mixed feelings, as the Food Standards Authority’s report Good Food for All notes.

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The Flavour of Good Farming

The Flavour of Good Farming

Earlier this month, I was at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, where I was thrilled to be immersed in lively discussion about the power of sustainable food production systems to change the world for the better. Real farming holds the promise to restore lost biodiversity to the rural landscape, preserve critically endangered breeds, sequester carbon, reduce exposure of plants and animals to antimicrobials, pesticides and antibiotics, and secure the future health and vitality of the soil.

But there was one important element missing, and for a conference all about better food production, it was particularly striking. Flavour was absent from the discussion.

The sustainable food movement’s relationship with gastronomic considerations is problematic. No one would deny that ecologically and morally reprehensible farming systems can be optimised to provide hyper-palatable, nutritionally-bereft foods whose only appeal – other than its cheapness – is to the brain’s natural proclivity for the compelling combination of salt, sugar and fat. At the other end of the economic spectrum, haute gastronomic culture, with its £1000 bottles of wine, smacks uncomfortably of elitism.

But hiding within this emotional tangle is an opportunity to re-valorise farming that is ecologically scrupulous, biodiversity-enhancing and demanding of exemplary animal welfare through a conversation about great flavour. Critically, this is a strategy to extend the attraction of these farming systems and their potential social impact far beyond the realm of already-converted eco-warriors. If we care about increasing the reach of sustainable farming, it is our moral duty to address, and ultimately bridge, this rift between the sustainable food movement and the importance of flavour.

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Honeybees: A holistic perspective on a superorganism

It is a great privilege to call myself a beekeeper. Having bees in my life, constantly reminds me to notice the sheer wonder of the world around me and often leaves me with a visceral sense of my place within this world. Honeybees have seen a dramatic rise in public awareness and beekeeping has exponentially increased in popularity, however the mindset of industrial farming is still alarmingly prevalent in beekeeping practice, and how it is discussed and taught to the next generation of beekeepers.

I trained as a beekeeper about 10 years ago, and when I started I had already completed training as an organic grower. As I studied beekeeping, I was alarmed at the similarities between the methods I was being taught and the mindset of industrial farming. I was unsettled by some of the practices that seemed to be very common. Routine use of miticide within the hive, routine disturbance of the nest space, routine suppression of reproduction and routine sugar feeding, all seemed at odds with what I had learnt as an organic grower. A defining moment was a visit to a teaching apiary to inspect the bees. We opened the hives and carefully checked through the brood nest, the area where the young bees are developing, if we found any developing queens we would kill them. Our presence obviously disturbed the bees who defended their nest space, in hive after hive that we opened, by attacking us. The bees were clearly communicating the threat they felt and I was struck by the violence of this process which was charged with conflict – even putting on the beekeeper’s suit had the feel of preparing for battle. There was a clear cognitive dissonance between this experience and my imagined harmony between beekeeper and bees.

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From grower to grocer: Building community food systems

From grower to grocer: Building community food systems

Across the UK the food sovereignty movement is growing. A budding plethora of networks are challenging the current corporate control of the food system and sowing the seeds of structured community food chains and holistic food economies.

What roles do these small food chains and alternative distribution networks play within the UK food sovereignty movement? And what further collaborations between the ground, the grower and the grocer are there to be cultivated and nourished?

Setting up shop       

In 2001, a number of organisations came together to generate The People’s Food Sovereignty Statement which in part, calls for the development of “local food economies based on local production and processing, and the development of local food outlets.” Within this framework The New Leaf Co-op, a whole-food store and workers co-operative in Edinburgh, of which I am a founding member, is one example of a growing network of small businesses that are seeking ways to connect spade and spoon.

The New Leaf Co-op

Consumer and worker food co-ops, markets and online food distribution hubs are cropping up around the UK. Their aim is to satisfy an increasing demand, from both producers and communities of eaters, to make accessible fairly grown, fairly traded and fairly priced local produce.

Under a food sovereignty framework, these small-scale grassroot outlets prioritise working with equally small-scale growers and producers (both locally and further afield), independent wholesalers and co-operative food networks.

Getting to market

The food sovereignty movement advocates for democratic control of an agroecological food system by the communities who grow, produce, trade and eat food. Small-scale food economies cannot compete with agribusiness, supermarket conglomerates and the industrialised food system – nor does it aim to. Often unable – and in many cases unwilling – to meet the terms, conditions and pricing demands of supermarkets, co-op, hubs and online distribution networks provide a much more accessible and fairer way for small producers to sell their goods.

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Antifragile Food Systems

Antifragile Food Systems

‘The alpha person at a gathering of “high status” persons is usually the waiter.’

In the film, No Escape, Owen Wilson and Lake Bell’s characters play a stereotypical USAnian couple, Jack and Annie Dwyer, cast abroad like fishes out of water. He is a corporate engineer in charge of putting a water plant into a fictional Southeast Asian country. She is the dutiful wife, bringing along to the temporary assignment two young children and their favorite kitchen appliances.

When civil war suddenly erupts before they have even gotten past jet-lag and they find themselves in an urban killing field, hunted by machete-wielding guerillas who are really angry about the way Jack’s corporation has stolen and monetized their water rights, they must run for their lives, which they do for the next hour or more of screen time.

That’s the plot, but the film is less about why the couple got into their predicament or why this small country has decided to murder all its foreign tourists than how Jack and Annie and their children absorb the changed circumstances, adapt to their precarious situation, and do what it takes to survive. Theater audiences are rooting for them, despite their complete lack of preparation.

In Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb distinguishes antifragile from words like robust or resilient by saying that when something is antifragile, it benefits when things go bad. Taleb is a recovering Wall Street quant trader. He understands hedges and shorts, and indeed, wrote the textbook on dynamic hedging in 1997. His subsequent books, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001) and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) redefined at how traders look at risk and how people should think about risk in life choices.

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City Region Food Systems – Part IIIA – Scale and Production Strategy

City Region Food Systems – Part IIIA – Scale and Production Strategy

This is the first of a two-part blog looking at scale and production strategy.  In this piece I analyze critiques of smaller scale and alternative production strategies from several angles.  In the second I will discuss problems inherent in the argument that small scale can feed the U.S. population and consider a middle path of scale and production diversity. As in the previous posts (Part IPart II) – I invite your comments, suggestions, and criticisms.

My analysis of this derives from my thinking over the last twenty years as well as engagement in a broad range of food system localization efforts. Early in the noughts I gave a conference plenary talk and made the following statement:

“I’d like to live in a food system in which I know where a significant percentage of my food comes from, not necessarily all of it … I’d like to know that the production, processing, distribution, and waste were done in an environmentally sensitive manner. I’d like to know that the democratic principles upon which this nation (U.S.) was founded are made stronger and not weakened through consolidation and monopolization. I’d like to know that the farmers who grow our food are honored as heroes and not marginalized as commodity producers. I would like to know that every person and consumer working in the food system has the opportunity to reach their potential and is not limited by less than living-wage jobs, poor nutrition, and substandard education. I would like a food system in which food is a right and working honestly is a responsibility.”


Photo: Fibonacci Blue on Flickr

That still resonates with me and is the starting point for much of my thinking.  It is also at odds with the notion that the only way to ‘feed the world’ is by large scale, conventional, commodity-driven agriculture.  It is also at odds with the notion that we can continue consuming an average U.S. diet that is so at odds with eating patterns that are both healthier for people and the environment. 

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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