Ecological, Economic & Social Benefits of Local Food Systems
What then, is the role that localising food systems can play in delivering regenerative economies? How can a focus on food help to regenerative urban communities and their economies, and reconnect the city with the countryside? What part can local food systems play in delivering the green, open and inclusive future we want? What does it look like to do that?
(Caveat — It is not possible to capture the complexity of the food system in a single post like this. I hope in this piece to capture some of the potential for localising parts of our food system as part of a resilience strategy. Although many references are taken from the landscape I know (the UK) I believe they can be applied in many other places.)
An economy is a human designed system that meets human needs. In the case of a vibrant and resilient food economy that meets human needs we would probably all agree that such a system would:-
1. produce healthy and nutritious food in such a way as to not
- do any further harm to the ecology and environment, and ideally regenerate the parts of the food system (soil, waterways, oceans, animals, biodiversity, forests etc) that it has damaged
- do any harm or in any way detract from the ability of any other human to have access to healthy and nutritious food and social welfare anywhere in the world
2. provide healthy and nutritious food that encourages good human health
3. provide that healthy and nutritious food so that it is affordable for everyone and everyone has access to nutritious food
4. produce that food in such a way that the producers are all able to obtain a ‘fair’ livelihood within a ‘fair and just’ economic system
What part can localising food systems play?
1) HUMAN HEALTH & LOCAL FOOD SYSTEMS
Let’s look at three themes of the globalised food system that have both a direct and indirect impact on human health. It’s important to remember that the nature of the global food system is to produce volume for profit. Volume for profit has led to a focus on developing a food chain that values
- speed of growth — whether that’s in a cow, a tomato or an ear of corn
- longevity — so that a product lasts longer from harvest to shelf life because it often has to travel long distances before it reaches the consumer
- conformity — diversity of ingredients isn’t profitable at volume, only standardisation is
What impact do these three factors have on human health?
Antibiotic Resistance. Let’s take the average cow in the US meat farming system. It is ‘produced’ through the feed lot system, where your heifers are sent to fattening and finishing lots that are like barren deserts devoid of trees and grass in huge quantities. To keep them healthy requires vast quantities of antibiotics as the unnatural proximity and lack of ability to range has made them static (a bit like us at our desks and computers) has lead to regular issues with health. To fatten them fast often requires added growth hormones. Though endless scientific studies will tell you that there is no direct risk to human health of these additions into the system of a cow by the time it reaches your plate, the antibiotics reach our water systems through cow-poo and agricultural run off from these enormous farms. According to the Soil Association, intensively reared pigs and poultry account for 85–95% of UK farm antibiotic use.
Antibiotic resistance in human populations is a serious issue. Antibiotics are one of our most unsung scientific human triumphs. The way in which our food system squanders this product miracle through increasing use in industrial food systems, does nothing to increase the potential for human health.
Let’s consider the humble chicken with which we are certainly in love with as a food. From the time when I was small, chicken consumption in the UK has increased dramatically, particularly as it is considered to be less of a risk as a meat protein than red meat to develop cancer. It’s also incredibly easy to grow it fast through a combination of industrial systems, antibiotics, genetic engineering.
Unsaturated Fat Density/Lack of Nutrients.
The most common chicken in the food system is the Ross bird. It has been engineered specifically to answer our desire for chicken breast. It has very small legs because nobody really wants to buy them and enormous breasts. The downside is this means it can’t walk very well and suffers miserably in the average 56 days it lives before it finds its way into your chicken tikka masala.
Industrially reared chicken generally contains a much higher percentage of unsaturated fats, and significantly lower omega 3 fatty acids (around 50%) which happen to be good for our joints, brain and heart, not to mention being fed on a diet of grain often imported from soya and palm fields grown on the other side of the planet on deforested rainforest soil. Free-range chickens, unlike caged chickens, contain ⅓ less cholesterol, ¼ less saturated fat, ⅔ more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta-carotene.
Fresh = NutrientDense.
One of the main health benefit of locally grown food is that it’s fresher than the supermarket system. Fruit and vegetables begin to lose their nutrients within 24 hours of being picked, so fresher produce is more nutritious. In addition, locally grown food is picked at its peak ripeness, when it’s most dense with nutrients.
Most fruit and vegetables in the supermarket system are harvested before they are fully ripe so they can arrive on store shelves without rotting. Air, artificial lights and temperature changes during transport also lower a food’s nutritional value. By comparison, local food is likely to be healthier because it’s only transported short distances and isn’t exposed to chemicals, gasses or preservatives used for long-distance transport.
Biodiversity in the Food Chain
The drive to standardise to increase profitability has also led to an enormous drop in biodiversity in the food chain. When we think of biodiversity loss we often think in terms of plants, insect species, animal species rather than food. Superficially we have more choice on our supermarket shelves than ever before. In many countries around the world we have access all year round to foods that could never be grown in our locality — like avocados, pineapple, guavas, bananas. And yet behind that array of choice lies invisible biodiversity loss. Carrots are one size and one colour. Tomatoes are too — although heritage tomatoes are making a comeback in many small local farms. Food biodiversity can
- provide a varied palette of diverse ingredients uniquely adapted to local conditions which require less in the way of inputs and so are an opportunity for local economies, wider diets and better human health
takes advantage of differences in food species nutritional content — for example ensuring a stable environment for a particular fish in Bangladesh which have high levels of vitamin B12, calcium, iron and vitamin A than imported cultivated fish or the gac fruit in south east Asia which has higher levels of beta-carotene — which the body converts to vitamin A — is an important contributor to health.
- takes advantage of nutritional impact within species — orange-fleshed bananas, for example, contain much higher levels of beta-carotene than typical white bananas — one To’o or Asupina banana can provide enough vitamin A for a child for a whole day
- can make local foods available in sufficient quantities year round, which are accessible, affordable, and acceptable for people to eat it.Sometimes it takes a communication effort to make that happen but it can form part of a resilient local food strategy.
Although it does not have an impact on health directly, we should also not under-estimate the impact of lack of biodiversity in the food chain on the taste of food. The 3 factors above that drive the volume food market, also contribute to the experience of eating cheaper food. To produce the volume of tomatoes required for consumption at retail or for use in processed foods, genetic engineering has produced tomatoes that grow faster by absorbing more water, have stronger skins that don’t split so easily. The end result is tomatoes that taste like cardboard. When accessible healthier food tastes like cardboard, we are much more susceptible to the attraction of salty, fatty foods with stronger tastes. Conversely it’s also true that a lifetime of (being encouraged to) eat salty, high-fat foods by food brands weakens the ability of taste buds to respond well to foods like vegetables and fruits.
2) DECARBONISING THE FOOD SYSTEM
One of the goals of re-designing any system on earth must be to decarbonise. To eliminate fossil fuels from the equation. It is urgent for high income countries and high profit industries to decarbonise first. If governments and local authorities can fund the expansion of local food systems as part of the overall provisioning, environmental and human health strategies for the future, there is an opportunity to reduce some of the significant impact of transport and refrigeration energy costs compared to the global supermarket system. If those food systems are based on community enterprise and ownership, organic or regenerative methods, we might further reduce some of the fertiliser and pesticide input that has been causing damage to our soils and ecosystems — locally at least.
The emergent green shoots of the past few years highlighted in our first post include initiatives like farmers markets which could have a much more significant impact on food consumption if they were supported to federate or organise at a scale that could have more reach, were given available infrastructure like buildings in which they could hold their markets in inclement weather, were subsidised through tax breaks for measured decarbonisation or supported to become collectively mobile to be able to make good food more accessible — providing of course these mobile centres are based on renewables.
3) ADDRESSING WASTE
It is generally recognised that global food systems are highly wasteful on many different fronts, including energy, water, and food itself. Each year it is estimated by the FAO that more than 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted every year.
Food is wasted at every step of the supply chain. Whether at the agricultural level in farms, during distribution of the food, at stores, and in our own homes. According to the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Food Waste Index Report 2021, about 17% of global food production may go wasted, 61% of this waste coming from households, 26% from food service and 13% from retail — yet we also know that much is wasted on farm because of lack of storage space, labour shortages, weather, pests, and uncertain market demand.
Food waste has a huge impact on local waste management systems, it increases food insecurity and as we know is also a significant contributor to the climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. In the UK we have local authority targets to collect and recycle all food waste from 2023 but this is dealing with a symptom of food waste rather than the root cause.
Currently we are addressing food waste locally at a symptomatic rather than systemic level in most places. Voluntary, charitable and social enterprises are popping up all over the place to address food waste — from national educational programmes to help consumers waste less in the home, to local/national collection and redistribution schemes of retail and restaurant food waste, to entrepreneurial use of ugly foods which are unwanted by the standardised national supermarkets. We are creating ‘good solutions’ in response to a ‘flawed’ system.
To truly deal with food waste requires action on many fronts. Boosting local food systems where produce can be bought at levels needed for daily food consumption rather than packaged in volumes that automatically mean waste, might be a small acupuncture point. Of course that also requires behaviour change in terms of food shopping patterns which are driven by 24/7 lifestyle, pressure of time for shopping and preparing food. We have however seen a significant change in food shopping and food production in the home during lockdown — with many more people having to cook at home rather than consume in hospitality venues. Conversely that’s also had an impact on local economies which have a high proportion of hospitality driving employment. It is early days to extrapolate what these changes in a crisis might mean to the value of local food systems.
4) FAIR PRICE FAIR CARE
The income of agricultural workers worldwide is recognised to be poor and frequently below the poverty threshold. Whether you are a smallholder family harvesting cocoa beans in Cote d’Ivoire, an imported seasonal worker on a European fruit and vegetable farm, or a member of a local indigenous tribe forced off land to make way for soya/palm plantations or cattle ranching, the chances are that your poverty is reflected somewhere in the ‘cheaper’ price of the chocolate bar, bunch of grapes or steak fed on soy from far flung places on the plates of industrialised nations. Of course in many cases those smallholders and economies are dependent on that meagre income and the answer to whether or not we should move that production back to localised bioregions is a complex one.
Nevertheless a local food economy which offers the opportunity for people to create sustainable livelihoods from food production whilst also generating a thriving local employment economy — especially where food system innovation is combined with regenerative agriculture practices and a learning community — offers a better opportunity to deliver on both fair price and fair care for the people who farm and the land they steward in our own localities.
This means we need to look at how we value those people at the lowest level of the food supply chain — the people who produce, pick and harvest our food. Just in the same way as we have been able to recognise other key workers in our systems — like the NHS in the UK — valuing the role of being in agriculture needs some elevation in society. Levels of innovation and technology being applied to agriculture — if done without ecological impact — are beginning to attract many more young people into this field. Styn Claessens of Kipster Chickens in the Netherlands is a good example. A young, passionate farmer, he is the model for the new generation of farmers who care about animal welfare and the environment. Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in the US is an example of an industrial farmer who has successfully changed his model to regenerative agriculture and in doing so created an new local food economy in which his business is more profitable than it was previously.
There is little doubt that food that is higher in nutrition and better for us, tends to be more expensive — in most countries in Europe. The international and national system of subsidies for agriculture is still designed to prioritise volume over quality. Without significant subsidies, or access to large enough markets, many organic farmers are unable to balance the reduction of cost in inputs, with lower productivity and higher staff costs to provide produce to the market at lower cost than industrially produced food.
It’s not quite as simple however as being about subsidies. Pricing can also be about content, especially when it comes to processed foods. Two loaves of wholemeal bread — one organic and one not — can contain vastly different quantities of wholemeal flour. Two tins of tomato sauce can vary between being 75% tomato and 30%. The content affects the price and of course, the level of nutrition. What’s the difference between one can of beans and another? More or less beans. More or less water. More or less sugar. More or less additives. The blend of content affects both profitability and price.
A lot of foods are now cheaper than they have ever been in relative terms to income and inflation because the externalities of their production are hived off elsewhere — in cheap labour that we don’t see, into the environment which we are beginning to experience through the contribution of industrial agriculture to climate change, dead zones and biodiversity loss, and into the painful experience of billions of animals reared for food in desperate conditions. Those foods that are cheaper and therefore accessible to low income families who want to feed their communities well, are often poorest in nutritional value.
Local and regional approaches are excellent for experimentation with economic systems.
Acknowledging the cost of preserving natural capital and dealing with the many externalities that the food system pushes into other areas of life, will include additional consumer cost. We know that environmental and social transformation are directly linked. If local economies invest in smallholder food production at a regional level and link those to procurement in local schools especially — making high quality, tasty and nutritious meals available to young people from the start of their lives, we have a chance of changing our systemic human response to salt and unsaturated fats in our current diets.
It will be difficult to make food affordable if we do not give attention to wealth income and distribution of and access to, land — of which more later in this series.
6) Innovation (ideally bio-culturally appropriately which means regional) The recently published National Food Strategy in England recognises the opportunity for experimentation and innovation at a local level for food. Systems thinker Dave Snowdon of Cognitive Edge has long suggested that the appropriate level of response to complex systems is probe, sense and respond — supported by amplification strategies if things work and dampening strategies if things don’t work.
The Community Eat Well strategy involves prescribing vegetables and fruits to people on lower incomes alongside advice and support from a linked worker, and access to educational classes on cookery. But what if instead this were linked together with existing permaculture, organic food growers, forest schools in a whole community, whole food approach? In our previous article on SCOOP Jersey we showed how it is possible to innovate highly nutritious smoothies and fruit drinks for people who are on higher incomes and yet save the basic fruit for those on lower incomes. A blended learning approach in education has shown great success; perhaps prescriptions don’t quite cut it?
The report also recognises the value of diversity in terms of innovation in the food system.
“My ideal Food-topia would contain organic farms as well as solar-powered high-rise greenhouses growing fruit and vegetables in cities; rewilded landscapes, as well as traditional upland farms. I want to see massive investment into biodiversity, but also into agricultural science and innovation, so that farmers can increase their yields and cut back radically on the quantities of chemicals they use. I want weed-picking robots and blight-spotting drones to become as much a part of the landscape as cattle from local native breads restored to their natural environment.” Henry Dimbleby, author. I think he meant breeds but I’m also for local bread!
This kind of Food-topia is best experimented with and innovated at regional/local level. Even in a country as small as the UK, we have different ‘growing’ climates. Where I live in the south east we have an extensive ‘bowl which stretches from the South Downs to the coast where light is plentiful, and an abundance of innovation is springing up alongside traditional farming methods. We have both organic agriculture, conventional agriculture, aquaponics, hydroponics, vertical farming, a growing viticulture sector. But that can’t be replicated everywhere.
Understanding the potential for food innovation in each bio-culturally unique landscape could be brought together in a single food system innovation strategy (more to come in the next article). This is where Donella Meadows vision of a series of inter-connected bioregional learning centres could come into its own.
“Helping people and cultures all over the world develop and express their own capacity to solve their own problems, consistent with their own needs and with the ecosystems around them. And doing that through enhancing the power within all cultures and peoples to combine intellectual knowing and intuitive knowing, reasoning about the earth and living in consonance with it.” she wrote.
And then a vision started to form in her mind, again in her own words:
“… of a number of centres where information and models about resources and the environment are housed. There would need to be many of these centres, all over the world, each one responsible for a discrete bioregion.
They would contain people with excellent minds and tools, but they would not be walled off, as scientific centers so often are, either from the lives of ordinary people or from the realities of political processes. The people in these centers would be at home with farmers, miners, planners, and heads of state and they would be able both to listen to, and talk to, all of them.”
7) RECONNECTION TO NATURE
There are a myriad of studies showing the importance of connection between humans and nature. We are nature. From the ancient Japanese art of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing which draws on the therapeutic powers of nature and connects people with the natural environment to academic research by people such as Professor Miles Richardson of Derby University’s Nature Research Connectedness Group to conferences held by leading NGOs — in the Uk for examples such as the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and National Trust — we acknowledge that better connection to nature is better for human health. What better way to achieve that than through society’s intimate connection to its local food supply system?
We are literally what we eat. Food is the most fundamental way we interact with our environment. What we eat is constituted from the soil in which it is grown, the grass or grain it eats or the ocean in which it swims. Archaeologists are able to work out where people lived in their childhoods from looking at the composition of the relative proportion of oxygen and strontium isotopes in teeth.
Whilst our gut biomes have adapted to food from all around the world, there is some evidence that they thrive best with microbes supplied from their own locality. I have little scientific evidence to cite, but my own story of surviving chemotherapy for advanced lymphoma included staying in the places where my body was most familiar with the bugs of that environment. In my case my stables and horses. You might think that to be a risky environment. Horse dung. Flies. But instinctively I felt that if my immune system was going to be under pressure, it would deal best with bugs it knew. I sense there may be some learning in there for our food system design, but it is the reflection of someone who would most likely be labelled a Prophet by Charles C McCann.
In part 16 of this series we’ll be looking at the design principles for a local food system — or any local economic system.