Localising Food Systems – Naive Dream or Creative Optimism

As I publish this we are fast approaching the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021. Since the post-war environment of the 1950s activated the ‘green revolution’ in food systems, there has never been a more pivotal point in considering how we produce food in the future. The global food system is enormously complex. Our relationship to food is the closest we come to connection with the natural world; we literally consume it to survive. As biologists, nutritionists, health professionals have come to understand, we are absolutely what we eat.

When it comes to systems that have to change to create a regenerative future, food is ground zero, along with energy and the built environment. If we can transform food systems, we can make significant inroads into the interconnected challenges of human health, climate change, biodiversity loss, quality of water, soil fertility, land use and ownership. Not to mention hunger and equality.

In Part 8 of this series, we proposed that a sustainable economy is in large part a local economy . We noted that for the vast majority of the period of human habitation on earth we employed a successful provisioning strategy which included local food production and limited trade with neighbouring communities (this included not just villages but larger geographies too).

The next three articles take a look at the role of localising food economies as part of the future of food systems and regenerative economies. In this article we look at how the global food system got to how it currently *works*and the green shoots that have been emerging that could foreshadow a regenerative transformation.

A Quick Reminder: ‘How did we get here?

Let’s quickly remind ourselves of a couple of important principles that underpin how we got where we are, that we explored in earlier articles:-

Part 4 — as we think so we design the world around us — our existing global food system grew out of a mechanistic mindset which began to take root in the Renaissance period. In terms of land management and food production, this has meant ever increasing shifts in ownership and agency away from individuals to organisations over hundreds of years underpinned by a mechanistic way of thinking that has compartmentalisation, competition, power and dominion thinking at its heart. Note I am exploring this history from a European perspective and it’s a very brief summary of a process from sustainable livelihoods to a global market economy.

  • As city-states emerged across Europe in the middle ages resulting in large populations gathering within fixed places, the deep connection and relationship between humans and the land to provide sustenance was broken; we were no longer responsible for our own provisioning and instead became humans who would eventually be dependent on other populations and land masses for that provisioning
  • As we moved into cities, early standardisation of weights and measures were established along with the expansion of money and accounting which would lead to further standardisation several hundred years later as efficiency and standardisation became the holy grail of the global economy and trade to drive profit
  • in the middle ages in order to make the cottagers and commoners open field system more efficient, the influential and powerful instituted a systematic ‘land-grab’ on our own populations during common land enclosures in Europe between 14–18th centuries especially in the UK which…….
  • was ‘underwritten’ by the thinking of economists like Thomas Malthus in 1798 who argued that the rate of human population growth was inevitably set to outpace the rate of food production, and much later by the infamous ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ essay written by Garrett Hardin in 1968, which concluded that members of society sharing a common good over-use their share of the common to the detriment of everyone else
  • in taking away the right to land for common folk, we changed the basic function of our economy which was based on sustainable livelihoods to one filled with individuals who were now a ‘labour’ market, and who therefore had to find other means of work to buy food to feed themselves
  • as our populations grew, we exported our system of land ownership for the purposes of provisioning of our populations during the period of colonial expansion which allowed us to grab other countries’ land to produce food and extract ore and minerals which laid the foundations for a global food economy to emerge based on market principles. We also created ‘new’ markets around the world as we took control of other territories and embedded our value systems and culture.
  • at the heart of colonialism was the East India Company — a forerunner of global food trading organisations — who, for over 250 years was every bit as powerful as Coca Cola, Unilever, Mars or Cargill are today. Through forced annexations of territory and control of local cultures, the EIC funded exports of goods from South East Asia and India to European markets through local taxation which paid for the goods. It controlled commodity markets like tea, spices, silk through an intricately interconnected system of land ownership, hierarchical management, drug trafficking, and human slave labour.
  • the advancement of science and technology during the industrial revolution allowed the further ‘subjection of the surface of the planet to the needs of an industrial society’ as Hungarian economic anthropologist Polyani described it in 1944 .
  • in the mid 20th century post-war when food was scarce, the intensification of agricultural production increased pace to ensure sufficiency of food supply through new ways to plant and harvest, selective breeding of animals, and the ‘green’ agri-chem revolution which increased plant productivity
  • science and technology advances further changed the way the food was grown, harvested, processed and packaged, preserved and transported, inclding new methods of food preservation such as canning, freezing drying and fermentation
  • by the late 20th century a small amount of corporations control production and distribution of food on a worldwide basis and you can have blueberries on Christmas Day and avocado on toast for breakfast every day of the year if you so choose.

The state of play in the food system.

A few salient facts which are largely undisputed no matter what ideology you espouse. To dig deeper into each of these statements, please click on the links, as if I explain each one here this article will be a book in itself.

The global food system faces numerous crisis which put at risk the future of a sustainable food supply system and for which the existing global industrial food system is, in part, responsible:-

  • decreasing soil fertility and soil loss, estimated to collapse in different parts of the world on different timescales but within the next 100 years or less
  • decreasing biodiversity, especially pollinators needed to grow crops
  • decreasing ocean health and depletion of fish foodstocks through over-fishing, dead zones caused by agricultural runoff, also caused by CO2 emissions heating the ocean
  • deforestation around the world whether for arable, grazing or to produce feed for intensively farmed animals
  • we waste at least one third of the food we produce — from farm to refrigerator which if distributed fairly could help solve hunger and malnutrition issues all over the globe

It’s also fair to say that the global food system is inequitable and unjust

  • a very small number of corporations control the world’s food supply (as we’ve said) from commodity crop sales, to seeds, agrochemicals and genetic research; 4 companies produce more than 58% of the world’s seeds; 4 global firms account for 97% of poultry genetics research and development; yet another 4 produce more than 60% of the agrochemicals farmers use.
  • price volatility in food markets exists whether or not food is in short supply which suggests price has nothing to do with availability and everything to do with profit opportunities
  • since the financial crisis of 2008, nation states, global food companies and billionaire individuals have been buying up agricultural land in the global south (and sometimes north) at increasing rates — although it is incredibly difficult to discern precisely why this is taking place in our fracture information ecology. Google ‘land ownership in Africa by China’ and you will get a myriad of conflicting opinions.
  • there is enough food produced if we measure in calories for everyone on the planet currently, it is just unfairly distributed and wasted
  • it is the single largest source of cruelty perpetrated by humans on other species (mainly farmed animals but also wild)
  • it is monetised by investors interested in the growth potential of the business of food, managed through share ownership and stock exchanges which allow wealthy individuals and groups to invest in the ‘large-scale production of food and reductions in prices, which create sustainability issues within the food system because the return on investment rather than food security or environmental sustainability becomes the predominant objective of investors and corporations’.
  • the fundamental design has shifted from sustainable regionalised economies to global dependence on international trade (of which more later) which benefits only a small percentage of people on the planet despite our apparent luxury of having access to any kind of food at any time, in fiscal wealth

What green shoots are emerging?

Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons framework is a really useful little tool for looking at how systems change. If you’re not familiar check out this quick video about it made by economist Kate Raworth. As an existing system starts to buckle and run its course, new horizons begins to appear.

Bill Sharpe’s 3 Horizons Framework

The most important horizon is one which is transformative and radically changes the existing system. In between these is a horizon of disruptive innovation where green shoots and experiments pop up. This new horizon of disruptive innovation can facilitate the emergence of transformative change or it can be captured and disabled by the dominant culture of the day — which we’ll call food-as-usual for the purposes of this piece.

In the last 20–30 years we’ve seen a few important green shoots emerge with the potential to shepherd in lasting change in the food system, some of which are still nascent, others of which have been captured or disabled. Some of these have the potential to help shape a local food system, others less so.

Some of these have roots in the emerging foodie movement that developed in the early 1980s as we began to travel more around the globe and discovered new and more exotic foods than our own, alongside the ever-expanding middle classes whose new-found affluence allowed a window for curiosity and learning to happen, and the arrival of value-led Millennials into the consumer market. As with all issues, it is difficult to get a handle on the precise influence of each group as there is information, misinformation and misdirection around each.

Food Cooperatives: box schemes, shops, community and market stalls, buying clubs, food hubs and co-op suppliers — food co-operatives come in many shapes and sizes but have mushroomed in the last decade. Cooperatives are not yet federated organisations but they facilitate a public-facing outlet for smaller scale farmers who don’t attract — or don’t want to attract — supermarket contracts because of their size. Although they may aggregate produce into small shops or box schemes in exactly the same way that a multiple retailer does, they are generally misson-led. They often act as an experiment to reate a mini market which helps to deliver regular incomes. In the next article we’ll look at a particular systemic project in Jersey, SCOOP.

The organic food movement continues to grow worldwide. In Europe demand has continued to rise and is forecast at a CAGR of 8.34% for 2020–2025. Organic land constitutes 8.5 % of the total utilised agricultural area of the EU-27, at around 13.8 million hectares. It is well measured and controlled through certification programmes administered by the Soil Association, for which there is a eqivalence agreement between the EU and USDA National Organic Food programme. In the UK the organic food market is estimated to be worth £2.5billion. It’s popularity is not solely driven by the non-synthetic production methods, but also by perceptions that it is better for health and kinder to farmed animals. The label also drives growth in other niches such as organic cotton in fashion, beverages and beauty products as key consumer groups like Millennials turn towards environmentally purposeful brand choices. Organic food is still largely perceived as an affluent choice in many countries worldwide, given that it is still unable to achieve price-parity with subsidised industrial food markets — but that is entirely dependent on the importance individual cultures or individuals themselves give to high nutritional healthy food.

The ‘natural’ food movement . Natural means different things in different geographies. In the US it is largely unprocessed foods to which nothing has been done. A potato is a potato and not chips. In other geographies it can be a face cream based on plant products that if you look carefully, may still contain a wide variety of substances you probably shouldn’t put on your face. Unlike organic there is no reliable system of certification and understanding of what it means either in terms of production process, human health or provenance.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren: photographer unknown

The permaculture movement — founded by Bill Mollison and developed by David Holmgren. Generally understood as a land management system, permaculture has a philosophy that extends into all facets of life which can be difficult for people to comprehend when they first encounter it. It has spread widely as a grassroots movement — as was intended by its founders who studiously avoided academic and scientific certification — but perhaps for those reasons has struggled to gain access to educational systems which demand traditional scientific studies and approaches. It has also ‘attracted’ or been given, a number of cultural myths that associate it only with barefoot living, spirituality, gaia theory, creating rock spirals for meditation, or anti-GMO activism and more particularly that as a food production approach it is not commercially viable.

Farmers markets — which in the UK began to take shape in the late 1990s with Bath Farmers market one of the first, where enterprising small holders bring their own produce into local market towns for consumers looking for variety, difference and to support local producers. Variations of farmers markets have appeared around the world wherever there is a growing food culture, Millennial presence in the demographic and growing middle class.

Bendy carrots: Marcus Spiske on Unsplash

Ugly foods — have been gaining wider acceptance in some supermarket chains, notably in France’s Intermarche in 2014 and since trialled in other multiples across Europe as a tactical intervention to deal with food waste but with an additional benefit of lifting up and challenging the key pillar of standardisation.

Ecovillages, Intentional Communities, Co-Living Villages and Ecovillage Restoration Camps — whilst it may seem unusual to put these all together as a group and list them as a green shoot in food systems change, these kind of communities almost always have sustainable food production as a key pillar in their design. They have acted as small scale experiments where people could learn more about permaculture, soil health, sustainable livelihood and living whilst also working on themselves and a variety of other projects

Urban Farms: have brought a synthesised experience of farms food back into the city for children and families to experience as a basic way of reconnecting what’s on their plate to where it comes from.

ReGen eco-villages would power and feed self-reliant families. Photograph: © EFFEKT Arkitekter ApS

Urban Food Projects: my home town London is an amazing centre for food innovation. With the support of the mayor of London through Urban Food Routes and Seeds of Change, both finance and advice has been provided to a swathe of food entrepreneurs. Growing Underground produces food from a former bomb shelter 33 feet underneath London’s streets. Urban farming projects are proliferating around the world, particularly in the US, Japan and the Netherlands, ranging from aquaponics — urban fish and plant farms — to vertical farming.

Regenerative Agriculture — an emerging umbrella term for holisitic, no-till, crop rotation, mixed crop/livestock agriculture approaches to soil health and integrated processes. I name it last in this non-exhaustive list because the turbulence of covid19 has helped to create a tipping point for a regenerative approach which has taken off and, if done well, has the potential to transform the food system’s impact on soil at the very least, in a systemic way.

One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts: Will Harris at WhiteOak Pastures — a story of change from industrial to regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture derives principles from living systems theory and also from ancient indigenous wisdom. Many First Nations peoples in the US, Maori and Aboringinal people and tribes all around the world could describe a way of living in harmony with the rythms of nature which describe this way of growing food — and it is important to mention that source and respect its wisdom.

Specialist institutes which have emerged in the past 3 decades like Rodale and Savory have led education and change programmes all over the world for quite some time. The story of what is currently emerging in regenerative agriculture models in the USA was recorded in the acclaimed (and critiqued) 2020’s Kiss The Ground movie.

The growing interest in indigenous wisdom keepers knowledge about food systems also extends to an urgent curiosity to understand a very different relationship to the land, nature, animals and other humans than our own that, despite many attemps at cultural genocide, has survived in waiting for a time when it may be needed and recognised once more.

In the past 18 months multiple global food corporations have got behind regenerative agriculture as a strategy to step beyond sustainability, including Walmart, Danone, Unilever, and outdoor brand Patagonia. They will keep coming. That doesn’t necessarily localise food production but it’s a start because if they try to include local smaller farmers and don’t go for scale alone, it may help to strengthen the local supply chain who have been early adopters of change. Many farmers however, like Will Harris, who have successfully transformed their economic model alongside their farm, may choose to remain outside the global food system.

Our future challenge is to recognise and integrate that knowledge with respect and without cultural appropriation whilst also integrating earlier senses of self-provisioning in sustainable communities that existed pre enclosure and pre-industrialisatio with the technology and cultural landscape of the 21st century.

In the next 3–4 pieces we’ll look at a very specific local project in Jersey, in the third reimagine the food system on living systems principles, and in the fourth look at the relationship between regenerative agriculture and localising food systems.

The Economy of Place is a series of articles by Jenny Andersson that are edited parts of her unpublished book Renewal. There are 20 parts to this paper which will be published here in due course. If you would like early notification of future releases, please register at Really Regenerative — Economy of Place.

Many people have helped me shape these narratives. I stand always on the shoulders of giants in regenerative economics and business like Carol Sanford and Kate Raworth, regenerative leaders who understand place such as Pamela Mang, Ben Haggard, Daniel Christian Wahl, but also many anthropologists, ecologists like Joanna Macy, developmental psychologists, bioregionalists, regenerative finance specialists and many others. I know so much less than they. If I ever publish the whole book I will reference you all but my gratitude is not less because I can’t mention you all here