In a lot of recent conversations I’ve had both in person and online, there’s this idea that local=sustainable that underpins a lot of the discussion. Recently I’ve had some good back and forth in the comments section of a post about an online market for Durham. While I’m of the opinion that more local is usually more sustainable, it’s not always true. For one thing, over-dependence on any system results in vulnerability.
Here’s the Twitter exchange from the #sharedtablessymp that jump-started my thought process about vulnerability and resilience in food systems:
As one of my commenters (thanks Eric for inspiring this post!) points out, some local producers may “greenwash” their product in order to access premium prices. In other words, they are using practices that are pretty questionable to cut corners. This can have a detrimental effect on the people that ARE doing all the right things, which ties into RafiUSA’s emphasis on fairness and sustainabilty. While keeping in mind that greenwashing is something to be aware of, I’d like to focus on the benefits that local food systems can provide in terms of resilience. Local food systems (and economies as well) are a huge part of any effort to build more resilient society.
To understand resilience, I thought it might makes sense to look at vulnerability. I’d like to take a look at an example of vulnerability and disaster: the housing derivatives bubble and crash of 2007. (Keep in mind as I discuss this topic, I’m trained as an ecologist not an economist, so please look elsewhere if you’re mostly unfamiliar with this topic). For years, our economy has been reeling from mistakes that were made by a pretty small elite group of individuals. They built a house of cards built on speculation and sale of derivatives and are wasting an increasing amount of money. Still, they make up a huge portion of the economy. When Wall Street fails, our economy suffers immensely. That’s the definition of over-dependence and vulnerability.
The same type of fluctuation and speculation has hit agricultural commodity prices in the past. If everything is tied to that system, society remains vulnerable to price shocks that we can’t afford. In my mind, to build resilience, we need more than one food system. America’s national food system, for all it problems, provides a surplus of calories at relatively low cost. Local food sales, which have traditionally been anchored by fresh fruits and vegetables provide comparatively little. In my mind, to really succeed, local food systems need market capitalization. They need growth. They need it now.
Local food systems lack a lot of things right now. According to the USDA’s deputy Secretary in the recent #KYF2 (Know your farmer, Know your food) livetweet conference, the number one challenge is that we lack farmers. Accessibility is another significant problem as is consumer education.
Finally, in America, where we are led to believe there are usually two possible answers, we often think of mutually exclusive solutions. If the existing food system sucks, get rid of it and go local! This thinking seems a bit limited to me. We should do what we can to reform the existing system, while also helping local food systems grow. Over-dependence on any one region engenders vulnerability. We will always depend on (and hopefully have access to!) food that comes from other places. This is definitely a good thing if something wipes out this year’s crop!