6 Reasons Local Food Systems Will Replace Our Industrial Model

John Ikerd May 18, 2017

September 28, 1958—A Sunday comic strip by Gene Fawcett envisions a future of farming in which “fat plants” and “meat beets” are used to cut down on the amount of farmland devoted to cattle pasture.

A local, com­mu­ni­ty-based food sys­tem cer­tain­ly is not a new idea. It’s sim­ply an idea that is being reassessed in response to grow­ing pub­lic con­cerns about the cur­rent glob­al food sys­tem. When I was grow­ing up in south Mis­souri in the 1940s and ear­ly 1950s, our family’s food sys­tem was essen­tial­ly local. I would guess close to 90 per­cent of our food either came from our farm or was pro­duced and processed with­in less than 50 miles of our home. There were local can­ner­ies, meat pack­ers, and flour mills to sup­ply gro­cery stores and restau­rants with local­ly grown food prod­ucts. Over the years, the local can­ner­ies, meat pack­ers and flour mills were con­sol­i­dat­ed into the giant agribusi­ness oper­a­tions that dom­i­nate today’s glob­al food sys­tem. Super­mar­kets and fast-food chains replaced the mom-and-pop gro­cery stores and restaurants.

Today, I doubt there are many com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States who get more than 10 per­cent of their foods from local sources, as offi­cial esti­mates put local foods at well less than 5 per­cent of total food sales. Esti­mates of the aver­age dis­tance that food trav­els from pro­duc­tion to con­sump­tion with­in the Unit­ed States range from 1200 to 1700 miles. More than 15 per­cent of the food sold in the Unit­ed States is import­ed, with more than 50 per­cent of fruits and 20 per­cent of veg­eta­bles com­ing from oth­er coun­tries. More than 30 per­cent of U.S. farm income is derived from agri­cul­tur­al exports to oth­er coun­tries. The local food sys­tem of my child­hood has been trans­formed into the glob­al food sys­tem of today. Most of these changes took place dur­ing a 40-year peri­od, between the late 1950s and the late 1990s.

Today, we are in the midst of anoth­er transformation.

The local food move­ment is the lead­ing edge of a change that ulti­mate­ly will trans­form the Amer­i­can food sys­tem from industrial/​global to sustainable/​local. Organ­ic foods had been the lead­ing edge of the move­ment, grow­ing at a rate of 20 per­cent-plus per year from the ear­ly 1990s until the eco­nom­ic reces­sion of 2008. Growth in organ­ics sales have since sta­bi­lized at around 10 per­cent per year. The organ­ic food mar­ket reached $43.3 bil­lion in sales in 2015 — more than 5 per­cent of the total U.S. food mar­ket. Today, organ­ic fruits and veg­eta­bles claim more than 10 per­cent of their mar­kets. As organ­ic foods moved into main­stream food mar­kets, many con­sumers turned to local farm­ers to ensure the integri­ty of their foods. The mod­ern local food move­ment was born.

How we got here

To under­stand the local food move­ment, it’s impor­tant to under­stand the birth of the mod­ern organ­ic move­ment. The organ­ic move­ment has its roots in the nat­ur­al food move­ment of the ear­ly 1960s, which was a rejec­tion of the indus­tri­al­iza­tion of Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture. Fol­low­ing World War II, the mechan­i­cal and chem­i­cal tech­nolo­gies devel­oped to sup­port indus­tri­al war­fare were adapt­ed to sup­port indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture. The back to the earth” peo­ple decid­ed to cre­ate their own food sys­tem. They pro­duced their own food, bought food from each oth­er, and formed the first coop­er­a­tive food buy­ing clubs and nat­ur­al food stores.

Con­cerns about the health and envi­ron­men­tal risks asso­ci­at­ed with the syn­thet­ic fer­til­iz­ers and pes­ti­cides were not the only rea­sons they chose to grow foods organ­i­cal­ly. They were also cre­at­ing and nur­tur­ing a sense of con­nect­ed­ness and com­mit­ment to tak­ing care of each oth­er and car­ing for the earth. The phi­los­o­phy of organ­ic farm­ing was deeply embed­ded in their com­mu­ni­ties. To these food and farm­ing pio­neers, organ­ic was as much a way of life as a way to pro­duce food.

Novem­ber 14, 1965 — An illus­tra­tion pub­lished by Athel­stan Spilhau­son spec­u­lat­ing that syn­thet­ic food prod­ucts would be need­ed to feed an ever-grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. (Image: nextna​ture​.net)

Organ­ic farm­ing and food pro­duc­tion remained on the fringes of Amer­i­can soci­ety until the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment expand­ed into main­stream soci­ety and sci­ence began to con­firm the envi­ron­men­tal and pub­lic health risks asso­ci­at­ed with a chem­i­cal­ly-depen­dent, indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture. As organ­ic foods grew in pop­u­lar­i­ty, organ­ics even­tu­al­ly moved into main­stream super­mar­kets. Except for restric­tions on use of syn­thet­ic agro­chem­i­cals and food addi­tives, organ­ic foods then began to seem more and more like con­ven­tion­al indus­tri­al foods.

Con­sumers who were con­cerned about the eco­log­i­cal and soci­etal con­se­quences of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture then began look­ing to local farm­ers to ensure the eco­log­i­cal and social integri­ty of their foods. Between 1994 and 2015, farm­ers mar­kets increased in num­ber from 1,755 to near­ly 8,476. In the 2012 USDA Cen­sus of Agri­cul­ture, there were 12,000 CSAs (com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ed agri­cul­ture) and an esti­mat­ed 50,000 farm­ers sell­ing direct to con­sumers by all means. Many farm­ers who use organ­ic pro­duc­tion prac­tices don’t both­er with organ­ic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Their cus­tomers know and trust them to pro­duce good food.”

A more recent devel­op­ment in the local food move­ment has been the mul­ti­ple-farm net­works of local farm­ers. The net­works may be food alliances, coop­er­a­tive, col­lab­o­ra­tives or food hubs. Grown Local­ly, Idaho’s Boun­ty, Viro­qua Food Coop, Good Natured Fam­i­ly Farms and the Okla­homa Food Coop­er­a­tive are exam­ples of food net­works of which I am per­son­al­ly aware. These alliances range in size from a cou­ple dozen to a cou­ple hun­dred farm­ers. The Nation­al Good Food Net­work lists more than 300 food hubs” — although I can­not vouch for their suc­cess or authenticity.

Why local food is part of a larg­er move­ment that could actu­al­ly change everything”

The local food move­ment is so decen­tral­ized and dis­persed that it is impos­si­ble to accu­rate­ly esti­mate the size or impor­tance of the move­ment. The USDA esti­mat­ed the val­ue of local food sales by farm­ers at $9 bil­lion in 2015. This fig­ure does not reflect the retail val­ue” of food sold by farm­ers to local restau­rants or retail­ers. Vir­tu­al­ly every­where I go, I dis­cov­er new local foods initiatives.

The local food move­ment also is so diverse that it is dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish between those who are com­mit­ted to eco­log­i­cal and social integri­ty and those who sim­ply see local foods as anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty for prof­its. Food hubs are gen­er­al­ly defined as orga­ni­za­tions that allow farm­ers to aggre­gate their indi­vid­ual pro­duc­tion to serve mar­kets that are larg­er than they can serve alone. Admit­ted­ly, the future of the local food move­ment depends on being able to scale up” to serve increas­ing num­bers of con­sumers. How­ev­er, if farm­ers com­pro­mise their eco­log­i­cal and social integri­ty in the process of scal­ing up, they will be lit­tle dif­fer­ent from indus­tri­al farm­ers who are pro­duc­ing foods many of their cus­tomers are attempt­ing to avoid.

For exam­ple, The War on Big Food”, a recent For­tune Mag­a­zine arti­cle, begins: Major pack­aged-food com­pa­nies lost $4 bil­lion in mar­ket share alone last year, as shop­pers swerved to fresh and organ­ic alter­na­tives.” The arti­cle iden­ti­fies arti­fi­cial col­ors and fla­vors, preser­v­a­tives, pes­ti­cides, growth hor­mones, antibi­otics, and genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied organ­isms among grow­ing con­sumer con­cerns. All of these con­cerns are linked direct­ly or indi­rect­ly to indus­tri­al food pro­duc­tion, includ­ing indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture. The organ­ic move­ment at least attempts to address all of these con­cerns. The arti­cle explains how the giant food man­u­fac­tur­ing and retail­ing cor­po­ra­tions are try­ing to repo­si­tion their orga­ni­za­tions to coöpt the move­ment or at least to min­i­mize their loss­es of market-share.

The local foods move­ment, how­ev­er, rep­re­sents an even greater chal­lenge to the indus­tri­al sta­tus quo than the nat­ur­al and organ­ic food move­ments, even though organ­ic obvi­ous­ly is a more mean­ing­ful label or descrip­tor than local. Indus­tri­al foods are local to some­one, some­where. How­ev­er, most indus­tri­al farm­ers, mean­ing con­ven­tion­al com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­ers, know they can’t sell all, or even a sig­nif­i­cant part, of their total pro­duc­tion local­ly. They are sim­ply too large and too spe­cial­ized. Large com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­ers must sell to indus­tri­al proces­sors and dis­trib­u­tors, which are like­wise too large to rely on local mar­kets. Large indus­tri­al orga­ni­za­tions are inher­ent­ly depen­dent on — and must com­pete in — non-local” markets.

Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, trust and the true cost of indus­tri­al food

Accord­ing to mar­ket research, con­sumers are pri­mar­i­ly moti­vat­ed to buy local foods for rea­sons of fresh­ness, fla­vor and nutri­tion. Peo­ple have learned that shipped-in foods gen­er­al­ly are not as fresh and fla­vor­ful, and are prob­a­bly not as nutri­tious, as fresh-picked, local­ly-grown foods at farm­ers mar­kets, CSAs and oth­er local mar­kets. Many peo­ple con­sid­er local foods to be safer because they are more like­ly to be pro­duced organ­i­cal­ly, or at least with­out pes­ti­cides or GMOs. In the case of meat, milk, or eggs, hor­mones or antibi­otics are more com­mon con­cerns. Most farm­ers who sell local­ly under­stand the con­cerns of peo­ple who buy local foods and attempt to address con­cerns that are not being addressed by the indus­tri­al food system.

In return, peo­ple who buy local foods often men­tion their desire to sup­port local farm­ers eco­nom­i­cal­ly and to help build stronger local economies and com­mu­ni­ties. Esti­mates based on com­par­i­son of local and indus­tri­al food pro­duc­tion in gen­er­al indi­cate that foods grown for local mar­kets con­tribute about four-times as many dol­lars to local economies as com­modi­ties grown for indus­tri­al food pro­duc­tion. That said, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of local foods and the incen­tives to pro­duce local foods can­not be reduced to economics.

Peo­ple tend to trust their local farm­ers” to not only pro­duce good food” but also to be good neigh­bors, good com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and good stew­ards of the land. Some experts may ques­tion the impor­tance of social, eco­log­i­cal, and unselfish eco­nom­ic motives for buy­ing local. How­ev­er, the fact that local foods clear­ly emerged in response to the per­ceived indus­tri­al­iza­tion of organ­ics sug­gests oth­er­wise. Amer­i­cans are try­ing to restore trust and con­fi­dence in their food sys­tem” by buy­ing local.” For this rea­son and oth­ers, farm­ers moti­vat­ed pri­mar­i­ly by prof­its or eco­nom­ics are unlike­ly to be suc­cess­ful in local mar­kets. Even­tu­al­ly, their cus­tomers will see their foods as lit­tle dif­fer­ent from indus­tri­al foods and will val­ue them accordingly.

Per­haps most impor­tant, the local food move­ment not only rep­re­sents a rejec­tion of indus­tri­al foods but also rep­re­sents an emerg­ing vision of a fun­da­men­tal­ly bet­ter food sys­tem of the future. I can fore­see a time when every com­mu­ni­ty will have its own local, com­mu­ni­ty-based food sys­tem. Com­mu­ni­ties will not be self-suf­fi­cient” in food pro­duc­tion, but will give pri­or­i­ty to buy­ing local foods from local farm­ers who give pri­or­i­ty to local mar­kets. They will give pri­or­i­ty to those farm­ers who main­tain per­son­al rela­tion­ships with their local cus­tomers through per­son­al­ly-con­nect­ed eco­nom­ic trans­ac­tions. In order to main­tain rela­tion­ships of trust and integri­ty, face-to-face con­tacts at farm­ers mar­kets, on-farm sales, reg­u­lar farm vis­its, or local food fes­ti­vals will punc­tu­ate less-per­son­al eco­nom­ic trans­ac­tions. The pri­ma­ry objec­tive of such com­mu­ni­ty-based food sys­tems would be to pro­vide local assur­ance of qual­i­ty and integri­ty, root­ed in shared social and eth­i­cal values.

I believe this vision of a new and bet­ter food sys­tem is emerg­ing from today’s local food net­works — alliances, col­lab­o­ra­tives, coop­er­a­tives, per­son­al­ly-con­nect­ed food hubs and oth­er inno­v­a­tive rela­tion­ships. How­ev­er, the skep­tics may ask: would it actu­al­ly be pos­si­ble for a new local, com­mu­ni­ty-based food sys­tem to replace our cur­rent cor­po­rate­ly-con­trolled indus­tri­al food sys­tem? When I am asked this ques­tion, my answer con­sis­tent­ly has been, yes. I am con­vinced such a change is pos­si­ble, although I am not so naïve or ide­al­is­tic as to think that the trans­for­ma­tion will be quick or easy. Why do I believe such a change is possible?

Six rea­sons why local food sys­tems will replace the cor­po­ra­tion-con­trolled, indus­tri­al model

First, as men­tioned pre­vi­ous­ly, I have lived through the tran­si­tion from the local, com­mu­ni­ty-based food sys­tem of my youth to the indus­tri­al-glob­al food sys­tem of today. The major part of that tran­si­tion occurred with­in a span of about 40 – 50 years dur­ing the lat­ter 1900s. I believe the new organic/​local/​sustainable food sys­tems of farm­ing and food pro­duc­tion today are fur­ther advanced today than the indus­tri­al sys­tems of farm­ing and food pro­duc­tion were dur­ing the ear­ly 1950s. I can still remem­ber the steam engine lum­ber­ing by my grade school, mov­ing from one thrash­ing loca­tion to anoth­er. This was ear­ly indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture. I can still remem­ber my moth­er hand­ing her gro­cery list” to a per­son behind a counter at our coun­try gro­cery store who would select the items on the list from shelves, bar­rels, and the meat case, weigh and pack­age as need­ed, put the items in a paper poke,” and total up our gro­cery bill” for the week. There were no super­mar­kets. I saw my first fast food restau­rant when I went to col­lege — a McDonalds.

Sec­ond, there were far few­er good rea­sons to change the sys­tem of farm­ing and food pro­duc­tion back in those times than there are today. The main rea­son to change farm­ing in the 1950s was to reduce the phys­i­cal labor and drudgery of farm work and to free up farm­ers for jobs in the fac­to­ries and offices of a grow­ing indus­tri­al econ­o­my. Changes in food pro­cess­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion were designed to remove the drudgery of home­mak­ing — mak­ing food prepa­ra­tion quick­er and more con­ve­nient. Indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture was also meant to reduce costs of pro­duc­tion, elim­i­nat­ing hunger by mak­ing good food” afford­able and acces­si­ble to everyone.

An uniden­ti­fied com­ic pub­lished in 1963 depict­ing giant corn, robots and a gam­ma ray sprin­kler on a futur­is­tic farm. (Image: Google Images)

It was a noble exper­i­ment but it didn’t work. We have more peo­ple in the Unit­ed States clas­si­fied as food inse­cure” than we had back in the 1960s. More than 20 per­cent of Amer­i­can chil­dren live in food-inse­cure homes. In addi­tion the Unit­ed States is plagued with an epi­dem­ic of diet relat­ed ill­ness­es, such as obe­si­ty, dia­betes, hyper­ten­sion, heart dis­ease, and a vari­ety of can­cers. The indus­tri­al food sys­tem may have removed much of the drudgery of farm­ing and home­mak­ing, but it hasn’t elim­i­nat­ed hunger or mal­nu­tri­tion. I don’t want to bela­bor the point, but an indus­tri­al food sys­tem is not sus­tain­able. Sus­tain­abil­i­ty is the abil­i­ty to meet the needs of the present with­out dimin­ish­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for the future. Indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture obvi­ous­ly has failed to meet the basic food needs of the present.

Indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture is also sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly dimin­ish­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for gen­er­a­tions of the future, as it pol­lutes the envi­ron­ment, threat­ens pub­lic health, and depletes and degrades the nat­ur­al and human resources that must sup­port long-run agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. The prob­lems with indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture are sys­temic. They are ingrained in spe­cial­ized, mech­a­nized, large-scale, indus­tri­al sys­tem of pro­duc­tion. Indus­tri­al sys­tems gain their eco­nom­ic effi­cien­cy by employ­ing few­er peo­ple at less pay, while exter­nal­iz­ing envi­ron­men­tal and social costs on nature and soci­ety. These prob­lems can­not be addressed with­out fun­da­men­tal­ly chang­ing the system.

Third, we need not return to the drudgery of farm­ing or home­mak­ing of the past in order to make enough good food afford­able and acces­si­ble to every­one. New scale-appro­pri­ate mechan­i­cal and elec­tron­ic tech­nolo­gies offer new pos­si­bil­i­ties for ensur­ing food secu­ri­ty” with­out degrad­ing the integri­ty of nature or soci­ety and with­out dimin­ish­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for those of the future. The basic con­cepts embod­ied in micro­com­put­ers, includ­ing lap­tops, tablets, and smart phones, are equal­ly applic­a­ble to small-scale equip­ment for grow­ing, till­ing, har­vest­ing, pro­cess­ing, and prepar­ing health­ful, nutri­tious foods. All that is need­ed now is the vision to see the poten­tial and the incen­tive to cre­ate what is need­ed for a dif­fer­ent future.

Mean­ing­ful work, tech­nol­o­gy and the next generation 

Scale-appro­pri­ate tech­nolo­gies in farm­ing include portable elec­tric fenc­ing, which has rev­o­lu­tion­ized the pos­si­bil­i­ties for sus­tain­able small-scale humane, grass-based, and free-range live­stock and poul­try pro­duc­tion. Walk-behind and small pull-behind till­ing and har­vest­ing equip­ment is reduc­ing the drudgery, as well as costs, for small-scale organ­ic, local, and direct mar­keters of pro­duce and field crops. The mar­kets for such tech­nolo­gies are grow­ing with growth in the local food move­ment. Sales of human scale” farm­ing and mar­ket­ing tech­nolo­gies are approach­ing the point where it will be eco­nom­i­cal­ly attrac­tive for more inven­tors and small-scale equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers — using new tech­nolo­gies.

In my trav­els, I meet many young peo­ple who are choos­ing human scale” farm­ing as their way of life. I recent­ly came across a blog piece on the Nation­al Young Farm­ers Coali­tion web­site. It begins: You want to be a farmer? That’s great news because we need a lot more farm­ers! But there are some things you should know before div­ing in…” 

The author is a young farmer who has been farm­ing with her part­ner in the Pacif­ic North­west for more than 10 years. She went on to name five things that any­one who wants to be a farmer should understand: 

1. Farm­ing is real­ly, real­ly hard. (Let me stress that one more time….)

2. Farm­ers are not just farm­ers (They have to do a lot of oth­er things.) 

3. Farm­ing can be dan­ger­ous. (You can get hurt farming.)

4. It takes mon­ey to make mon­ey (par­tic­u­lar­ly to get into farming).

5. It’s the best work you’ll ever do.

She writes: Do you want to feel com­plete­ly sat­is­fied and ful­filled by your work? Lay your head down at night know­ing you are doing some­thing that helps the plan­et and your fel­low humans? There is noth­ing more sat­is­fy­ing than pro­vid­ing a basic need: food. I love what I do, and wouldn’t trade it for any­thing — sore mus­cles, finan­cial risks, and all.”

The future

It’s pos­si­ble to make a good eco­nom­ic liv­ing on a human scale” farm. At a recent con­fer­ence in Toron­to, Cana­da I met a young farm cou­ple, Jean-Mar­tin Forti­er and his wife, Maude-Hélène Desroches. They gross more than $100,000 per acre on a 1.5 acre mar­ket gar­den with an oper­at­ing mar­gin of about 60 per­cent. They’ve been farm­ing for more than a decade now, and today, Jean-Mar­tin leaves most of the farm­ing to Maude-Helene while he works on an edu­ca­tion­al farm­ing project to help oth­er young farm­ers learn how to make a good liv­ing pur­su­ing their pur­pose or call­ing as farmers.

His new farm­ing project, Ferme des Qua­tre-Temps, is designed to fur­ther demon­strate how diver­si­fied small-scale farms, using regen­er­a­tive and eco­nom­i­cal­ly effi­cient agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices, can pro­duce a high­er nutri­tion­al qual­i­ty of food and more prof­itable farms.” Jean-Mar­tin writes, If there is one thing I’ve learned through all my years as a farmer, it’s that if we are going to change agri­cul­ture, it’s going to be one farm at a time. All we need is for more peo­ple to be will­ing to go out there and just do it.” 

An aer­i­al pho­to­graph of La Ferme des Qua­tre-Temps — an agri­cul­tur­al project in Hem­ming­ford, Que­bec that aims to demon­strate what the farm of the future could look like. (Pho­to: La Ferme des Quatre-Temps)

With respect to tak­ing the drudgery out of home­mak­ing, promi­nent chefs are show­ing us that the most fla­vor­ful, nutri­tious foods typ­i­cal­ly require very basic and often-min­i­mal prepa­ra­tion when they come direct­ly from the fields and pas­tures of local farm­ers. In addi­tion, afford­able kitchen tech­nolo­gies are avail­able to make basic food prepa­ra­tion far eas­i­er today than it was for my moth­er. More than 80 per­cent of the total dol­lars spent for foods in the Unit­ed States does not go to pay for the food itself, but for pro­cess­ing, trans­porta­tion, pack­ag­ing, adver­tis­ing, pre-prepa­ra­tion, and retailing.

We can’t elim­i­nate hunger by mak­ing food cheap, but we can pro­vide food secu­ri­ty by mak­ing good, min­i­mal­ly processed, un-pack­aged, unad­ver­tised, food avail­able local­ly and help­ing peo­ple learn to select foods for nutri­tion and health and pre­pare food for them­selves. Peo­ple will find ways to spend qual­i­ty time with their fam­i­lies prepar­ing food from scratch once they under­stand the true costs of quick, con­ve­nient, and cheap,” indus­tri­al foods.

Fourth, and per­haps most impor­tant, new dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies make it pos­si­ble to devel­op and sus­tain mean­ing­ful, per­son­al” con­nec­tions among farm­ers and oth­ers who share a com­mon com­mit­ment to good, whole­some, deli­cious and nutri­tious, sus­tain­ably-pro­duced foods. Obvi­ous­ly, dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions can facil­i­tate per­son­al iso­la­tion; but email, tex­ting, and tweet­ing can also help keep close per­son­al friends in even clos­er per­son­al con­tact. Dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies are already being used to cre­ate and sus­tain local, com­mu­ni­ty-based food net­works that give sus­tain­able farm­ers access to far more local cus­tomers than they can stay con­nect­ed with through farm­ers mar­kets or CSAs. Equal­ly impor­tant, these dig­i­tal-based local food net­works can help local eaters find and stay in con­tact with the full range of like-mind­ed farm­ers who are com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing their local cus­tomers with sus­tain­ably pro­duced foods.

I believe local com­mu­ni­ty-based food net­works of the future will include reg­u­lar home deliv­er­ies — mak­ing local foods more con­ve­nient and acces­si­ble. The busi­ness of retail — includ­ing food — is chang­ing fun­da­men­tal­ly and rapid­ly. The total val­ue of Ama­zon stock recent­ly sur­passed the total stock val­ue of Wal­mart, although Wal­mart is still far larg­er in total retail sales. Vir­tu­al­ly every major retail­er, includ­ing food retail­ers, are scram­bling to devel­op web-based mar­kets. Food home-deliv­ery pro­grams — such as Blue Apron and Hel­lo-Fresh—may be paving the way for local food sys­tem that at least include a home-deliv­ery option. Local food net­works would seem to have a nat­ur­al eco­nom­ic advan­tage in local home deliv­ery of local­ly grown foods. Super­mar­kets and restau­rants that are com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing their local com­mu­ni­ties will like­ly con­tin­ue to have a sig­nif­i­cant role in local food net­works of the future. How­ev­er, the chal­lenge will be to sus­tain a com­mon sense of eco­log­i­cal and social integri­ty that comes from per­son­al rela­tion­ships of trust confidence.

We need a sense that what we do mat­ters, that it is right and good.”

My fifth rea­son for believ­ing a new and bet­ter food sys­tem is pos­si­ble is that the local food move­ment is a part of a much larg­er move­ment that even­tu­al­ly will change every­thing.” Hart­man Group, a lead­ing indus­try advis­er on food and bev­er­age mar­ket trends, recent­ly iden­ti­fied 10 major trends in U.S. food retail­ing and found that, Health, well­ness and sus­tain­abil­i­ty are start­ing to con­verge at the most pro­gres­sive food retail and food ser­vice out­lets. Con­sumers see the con­ver­gence as being all about mind­ful­ness, integri­ty and authenticity.”

The good news is that the trans­for­ma­tion in the food sys­tem is but a part, although an impor­tant part, of a trans­for­ma­tion in soci­ety as a whole that is about mind­ful­ness, integri­ty and authen­tic­i­ty. We are begin­ning to awak­en to a wide range of symp­toms of our unsus­tain­able econ­o­my with­in our unsus­tain­able soci­ety. As we respond to nation­al and glob­al chal­lenges, such as nat­ur­al resource deple­tion, cli­mate change, dying oceans, species extinc­tion, social injus­tice, and eco­nom­ic inequity we will cre­ate the envi­ron­ment for fun­da­men­tal changes in our sys­tems of farm­ing and food production.

Grow­ing pub­lic pres­sures even­tu­al­ly will bring about changes in pub­lic poli­cies, includ­ing farm and food poli­cies. Vir­tu­al­ly every major farm pol­i­cy and food pol­i­cy of the past 50 years has pro­mot­ed and sup­port­ed the indus­tri­al­iza­tion of Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture and glob­al­iza­tion of the Amer­i­can food sys­tem. Sim­ply remov­ing such poli­cies would rep­re­sent a major step for­ward. With sup­port­ive pub­lic poli­cies, the tran­si­tion from glob­al to local and indus­tri­al to sus­tain­able could move from grad­ual to explo­sive. Replac­ing exist­ing farm and food poli­cies with poli­cies sup­port­ing local foods and sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture could go a long way toward chang­ing every­thing” in Amer­i­can food and farming.

I believe the moti­va­tion for farm­ing and food pro­duc­tion even­tu­al­ly must go beyond food secu­ri­ty” to food sov­er­eign­ty” — which includes treat­ing food secu­ri­ty as a basic human right.” Com­mu­ni­ties need not wait for changes in fed­er­al poli­cies. Peo­ple in local com­mu­ni­ties can make a com­mit­ment to ensur­ing that every­one in the com­mu­ni­ty has access to enough good food” to sup­port healthy, active lifestyles. I have sug­gest­ed estab­lish­ing com­mu­ni­ty food util­i­ties” to pro­vide the legal and phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture for local farm­ers to share a com­mit­ment with fel­low com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers to pro­vide local food secu­ri­ty — using local gov­ern­ment to ensure the col­lec­tive eco­nom­ic means of doing so. Per­son­al rela­tion­ships of trust among com­mu­ni­ty net­works could cre­ate nation­al and glob­al food net­works sus­tained through shared social val­ues and a com­mon eth­i­cal com­mit­ment to meet­ing the needs of present and future — to sustainability.

This brings me to my final rea­son for believ­ing a new sus­tain­able future for farm­ing and food pro­duc­tion is pos­si­ble. I believe that peo­ple are awak­en­ing to the need for the kinds of per­son­al rela­tion­ships and moral com­mit­ments that are being devel­oped in local com­mu­ni­ty-based food net­works. There is a grow­ing real­iza­tion that the pur­suit of mate­r­i­al eco­nom­ic self-inter­est, includ­ing the quest for quick, cheap, con­ve­nient foods, has not brought us greater sat­is­fac­tion or hap­pi­ness. We are final­ly awak­en­ing to the fact that we are not only mate­r­i­al beings but also social and moral beings.

Cer­tain­ly we need the eco­nom­ic neces­si­ties of life — food, cloth­ing, shel­ter, health care — things mon­ey can buy. But, we are also social beings and need rela­tion­ships with oth­er peo­ple for rea­sons that have noth­ing do with any eco­nom­ic val­ue we may receive in return. We need to care and be cared for, to love and be loved. And, we are moral beings and need a sense of pur­pose and mean­ing in life. We need a sense that what we do mat­ters, that it is right and good. Car­ing for the earth is not a sac­ri­fice; it gives mean­ing to life — it mat­ters. The cre­ation of a new sus­tain­able and local food sys­tem for the future, is not just about a bet­ter way to fuel the human body, it is also about feed­ing the human heart and soul. I believe the spir­i­tu­al awak­en­ing that is dri­ving the local food move­ment even­tu­al­ly will change every­thing.” In this kind of awak­en­ing, there is always hope.

The Sta­tus and Future of Local Foods” was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on JohnIkerd​.com and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion from the author.

John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in south­west Mis­souri. He received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agri­cul­tur­al eco­nom­ics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri. After work­ing in pri­vate indus­try, he spent 30 years in var­i­ous pro­fes­so­r­i­al posi­tions at North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty, Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty, Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri before retir­ing in ear­ly 2000. He now spends most of his time writ­ing and speak­ing on issues relat­ed to sus­tain­abil­i­ty with an empha­sis on eco­nom­ics and agri­cul­ture. He cur­rent­ly resides in Fair­field, Iowa and is the author of sev­er­al books includ­ing Essen­tials of Eco­nom­ic Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, Sus­tain­able Cap­i­tal­ism, A Return to Com­mon Sense and Cri­sis and Oppor­tu­ni­ty: Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in Amer­i­can Agri­cul­ture and A Rev­o­lu­tion of the Mid­dle.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH