Artwork by Elena Levy



Alternative Food Systems


The COVID-19 pandemic caused some major disruptions to the global food system, including restricting travel of seasonal labourers and transportation of food over long distances. Resultingly, alternative food systems like community gardens, farmers' markets, and traditional Indigenous methods of food production, have grown in popularity. But why did we move toward globalization in the first place? Can both of these strategies be used together to create a more resilient food system? 



Dr. Evan Fraser, Director, Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph
Alesandros Glaros, PhD candidate, Dept. of Geography, Environment & Geomatics, University of Guelph



Lisa Conroy, Community Garden Coordinator, Two Rivers Neighbourhood Group
Dr. Pierre Desrochers, Associate Professor, Dept. of Geography, Geomatics & Environment, University of Toronto Mississauga


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More Food Secure Future Episodes







Evan  0:18  
Hi, my name is Evan Fraser, and I'm the director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. This is part of a regular podcast series on how to feed the future in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and nutritious. Today I'm joined by Alex Glaros. Since the 1950s, agriculture in many parts of the world has made many drastic changes. Incorporating principles of industrialization, many farmers now single-handedly operate massive machinery across a landscape as far as the eye can see, grow in highly automated controlled greenhouses, or raise livestock intensively. The modern farm is often technology intensive, large in scale and produces cheap food for livestock and supermarket shelves across the world. 

However, these changes in practices, though widespread, do not represent the entirety of the food system. A recent study found that small scale farms - that's farms operating under two hectares of land - produced between 30% and 34% of the global food supply. In North America and Europe, family farms and farmers markets and community gardens represent just some of the many approaches to farming that have persisted and continue in many places to flourish. At the same time, Indigenous communities around the world maintain food production and consumption traditions that have lasted for millennia. The catch all term that some people use for these types of different farms, practices and traditions is alternative food systems. In this episode, I'm here with Alex to explore different values and practices that describe alternative food systems, why they continue to endure and, in some places, grow, and what their potential pitfalls are. 

Today, we chat with two experts. The first is Lisa Conroy. She's a coordinator at the Two Rivers garden in Guelph, Ontario. She's a farm educator, and a farmer. Lisa has many years of experience working in the alternative food sector operating her own community-supported agricultural business where consumers receive weekly boxes of fresh vegetables and fruits. Lisa grows these herself. Lisa also manages to community gardens where she organises community members to grow their own food on public land. Alex and Lisa chat about the importance of local food and some of the farm management practices that Lisa uses to minimise soil disturbance and increase plant diversity on her farm.

Alex  2:23  
To start off I'm wondering if you could tell us briefly, you know, who you are, what you do, what your role is in our food system.

Lisa  2:30  
I'm Lisa. And I play quite a few different roles at this point. I have my own small farm that I've been growing vegetables on for about six years, I ran a CSA, which is a community supported agriculture programme. So people buy in for a share of vegetables and they get a box of vegetables every week from June until October. So at my peak, I had about 23 families getting vegetables from my farm. And I also am the community garden coordinator for Two Rivers Neighbourhood Group. We have two community gardens. And I'm also at the moment working at Ignatius Farm as the farm educator so I'll be running their workshops and field trips this, this year. Yeah.

Alex  3:23  
Many many hats. 

Lisa  3:25  
Yeah, haha.

Alex  3:27  
Can you tell us a bit about what you grow on your farm?

Lisa  3:30  
I grow all kinds of vegetables. I try to have a diversity. One because I think that's more resilient, but also so that I've got different vegetables to offer my clients every week. I don't think anybody wants to get just lettuce and tomatoes or something week after week, you get tired of getting the same stuff.

Alex  3:50  
Definitely. And you said a really key word there resilience, how do you define that?

Lisa  3:56  
Just you know, you have backup systems, you are growing a diversity of vegetables. And so if one crop isn't doing all that well one year you've got something else to to lean on. And also having a diversity of crops is good for your soil, you're not always taking up the same kind of nutrients. And they also, you have less pest problems because you don't have one big field of, like, spinach or something. We've, I've got a one bed of spinach and then the next bed is beans and the next bed is carrots and then maybe there's another bed of spinach, but it's you know, 100 feet away.

Alex  4:39  
Awesome. Thank you. So when we're talking about things like farmers markets or community gardens or CSA systems, a lot of people sort of group them under this broad term alternative food system. I was wondering if you could in your own personal opinion and based on your experiences, tell us what you think an alternative food system means.

Lisa  4:59  
Well, alternative food system can be almost anything. Anything that's not getting food from, you know, the grocery store. So, I guess for me, I've been shopping at farmer's markets, and, you know, been part of a community garden and things like that for a number of years. So I almost don't think of them as alternative anymore. Yeah, I guess, to me alternative is really looking at, like you mentioned earlier about eating bugs instead of pro-, you know, for protein, or, I don't know, looking at systems that are producing vegetables for everyone, instead, one of the things I struggle with as a farmer is I'm always trying to make a profit in my business, but I would like my vegetables to be available to everybody. So finding that price point, and making my costs as low as possible, so that as many people as possible can, can afford my local organic vegetables. And also looking at agriculture that is rebuilding regenerating soil health, instead of, you know, for a long time, we all talked about sustainable, and at this point, some of the leading edge research says, sustainable is okay, but what we really need to be doing is regenerating now, rebuilding. 

Alex  6:30  
Is local food, a key piece of this puzzle?

Lisa  6:33  
I think it is, I think it's important to support your local farmers, local businesses, local economy, you can do some really cool things on a small scale. If, you know, your vegetables aren't travelling as far when you're shopping local, they're not sitting around, you're getting super fresh. They were probably picked at peak instead of not at peak and then let ripen in storage or, or whatever. So in a way, I think it's the vegetables are healthier. And you can get to know your farmers and go see their, their farms and talk to them about their practices.

Alex  7:18  
Just in the last, last question, you mentioned the word regenerative. And I was wondering, on your own farm specifically, what kind of different practices do you use to implement that?

Lisa  7:28  
So I've done a lot of thinking and studying permaculture, which is so in the agriculture sense, you're you're trying to have permanent agriculture, you use a lot of perennials, what I've tried to do is have permanent beds. So in a lot of agriculture, you've got your field and you till and every year you're retailing the whole field, and then you put your strips, your beds of whatever you're growing, but they're not always necessarily in the exact same spots. I don't use tillage, I have beds that I've dug by hand. And I keep them in the same spot every year. So the pathways are always the pathways, and then I planted clover in the pathways to avoid erosion and keep that soil covered, and it's feeding the soil. Yeah. And like I said, I don't I don't use tillage, I use a lot of hand tools, try to keep the soil covered so you're not getting erosion, rotating crops. One of the things that I'd like to get into is using more cover crops. So you're covering, you're seeding a crop in this, in the fall to cover, that will grow and cover your soil over the winter. And then it's feeding the soil. I haven't done enough of that. And it does, it is tricky if you aren't using tillage because how do you get it incorporated in the soil? In the spring? It's a bit tricky. Yeah. 

Alex  8:58  
Awesome. Thank you. Recognising that you do have those multiple hats, what do you think are the main hurdles facing a quote-unquote, alternative food system? 

Lisa  9:08  
Oh, well, for the farmers, or new farmers, young farmers, access to land is the main hurdle. Also financing. I mentioned earlier, the finding the balance between your price that people will pay for your vegetables and the price that you need to charge to be able to maintain your business. You know, community gardens. Some, Guelph has a great community garden program. I'm so happy to be part of it. And so many people have have access to gardens, but still there, there is often a waiting list. There's more people wanting garden space than we can handle. And one of the things that has come up for me this year is sort of there's some people that don't respect community gardens, so vandalism has been a bit of an issue. 


Alex 10:06
Well, yeah, that's the last of my questions. Thank you so much. That was really helpful.

Evan  10:12  
It was great to hear a little bit about Lisa's experience and the different strategies she uses on her farm. Alex, can you talk a little bit about what we mean when we say something is part of an alternative food system?

Alex  10:23  
Great question, and a hard one. From my discussion with Lisa, I think there are some general characteristics that we can use to define an alternative food system. Usually, these systems are smaller in scale, localised, seasonal, and really try to bring consumers closer to those people who produce our food. They also generally try to avoid the use of man made fertilisers and artificial pest control measures like pesticides. Of course, it's tricky to say all alternative food systems have all these components. So when we define alternative food systems, we have to be careful to say that they can take their own form in different places.

Evan  10:58  
Interesting, it's almost easier to say what an alternative food system is NOT, than what it is.

Alex  11:05  
Exactly. And that makes it really exciting because people can be creative and carve out their own niche without trying to hit or maintain some kind of standard. 

Evan  11:13  
What about some of the difficulties, Alex? 

Alex  11:15  
Like Lisa and I chatted about, buying food at the farmer's market or shopping through organic aisles is often out of reach for the average consumer. However, these aren't the only challenges to the development of alternative food and farming systems. I explore some of these in more detail while talking to Dr. Pierre Desrochers, Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto. Take a listen. 

Thanks again for coming on, Pierre. To start, I was wondering if you would be able to introduce yourself to whoever's listening, tell us your title, what you research and teach, and how did you become interested in food research generally?

Dr. Desrochers  11:48  
So my name is Pierre Desrochers. I'm an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto. I dabble in too many topics for my own good, most recently, energy and food policy. So one of my key interests is to look at the current discourse or people promoting a greater production of local food for local consumers, but in light of the emergence of the globalised food supply chain. 

Alex  12:19  
Right And when did you start researching this? 

Dr. Desrochers  12:22  
I began researching that around 2007 when a visiting scholar came to my university and made the case for local food and basically considered long distance trade parasitical. I thought this perspective was extremely short-sighted. So I set out to remind people about the basic rationale as to why our food system became globalised in the first place.

Alex  12:47  
Interesting, and how do you define a local food system? Is it a specific distance or some other criteria?

Dr. Desrochers  12:55  
Well, there are actually no good definition of local food system because the only factor that people consider is the final product that is delivered to consumers, so typically produce or let's see, meats or local livestock being delivered at local markets. But the problem with that approach is that first of all, it is very arbitrary. So when this day of motorised transportation, a lot of people will consider 100 miles. But 200 years ago, when most people were walking to work, local food was really producing within a city or in the immediate proximity of it. But if you're talking to politicians or large retail chains that don't want to get into any trouble, they might consider local a national country. So for local, for example, for a while local food was the whole of Canada. And also in Ontario, local food will be within 100 miles of where you buy your food, but if it comes across the American border, whether Michigan or New York State, then it doesn't count that. If it's Quebec, I think they will give you 50 kilometres, but not much more than that. So there is no clear rationale behind the definition of what a local food system is. And on top of that many inputs that are used in food production, let's say the seeds that someone will grow or perhaps even that the embryos that people will use to produce meat animals might come from much further away. This is also typically the case for fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation equipment, most people don't live near to, near a tractor factory, and yet they will use tractor or else they will use petroleum inputs. So there is no good definition of a local food system and that is part of the problem.

Alex  14:43  
So when we're talking about local food systems, sometimes scholars and individuals often use the term alternative food system. And I was wondering, are these two terms related? How might you define an alternative food system and is are there problems with this idea?

Dr. Desrochers  15:02  
Well, the idea of an alternative food system or an alternative system of any kind is always to define it as opposed to the dominant system at any point in time. So what we've seen emerge in the last several decades is a system in which we use a lot of fossil fuels in which we make a nice, a lot of production, in which we use fertilisers that might be ground, that might be mined from the ground half a world away, or else captured from the atmosphere, nitrogen fertilisers and big plants that are located a long distance away. So what alternative local food producers are against are essentially the economies of scale that were developed, so that we can produce fertilisers effectively in large plants, pesticides, tractors and what have you. What these people want to do instead is to produce on a smaller scale, typically a greater variety of produce or animals within close proximity to final consumers. But again, these people will use plastics or they might import animals from further away. Typically, what they emphasize are things that they don't like, as opposed to things that might work. So for example, a lot of them will select varieties, let's say produce varieties that were discarded a while ago, because they did not withstand long distance transportation, or else it wouldn't have a long shelf life, where these heritage breeds or heritage seeds might have appeal to people who are looking to buy something different. Or else they will favour organic production methods which are in themselves again, defined by what they're not rather than what they are. So yes, it's, it's another can of worms. But basically, what local alternative food producers want to do is produce something different than what the large scale producers will produce. They will typically go for things that are more, that are more like expensive, niche products. And so they tend to target upper middle class consumers, as opposed to providing the kind of commodities that most people can afford in the supermarkets.

Alex  17:16  
Thank you. So first, I'll get you to introduce you, you wrote a book, The Locavores Dilemma, and you can explain what it's about better, a lot better than I can for sure. So you've talked a lot about the 100 mile diet, and what do you think are the biggest dangers or flaws of the 100 mile diet?

Dr. Desrochers  17:32  
Well, what one needs to remember is that historically, most food production was local. And that's historically because you had no transportation, you had no way to keep diverse food for long periods of time. And you were really limited in terms of moving things over long distances. So for example, if you go back 200 years ago, if you wanted milk it was typically produced in a city because you did not have transportation. Chicken, small animals also were typically produced in close proximity to final consumers. Also, because you couldn't transport fresh produce over long distances, a lot of these were produced, again, very nearby cities. And that first, well, 200 years ago, you see the emergence of greenhouses that are made out of glass, wood, bricks and stuff like that. But then what happens is that well, you have a number of developments in terms of transportation, so you have the advent of the railroad and the steamship. So suddenly, you can ship large quantities of food over long distances. So you and then you have the advent of refrigeration. So what people realise is that, you know, milk produce in the countryside, some distance away from our cities is actually a lot better than milk that is produced in a city because cows are fed grass or, you know, other agricultural products, whereas in cities, they were often fed the leftovers of breweries and other manufacturing processes. And so what you see is that regions that have a comparative advantage in producing certain types of food can expand their operations. And again, with the advent of things like canning, refrigeration and the railroad, it suddenly makes a lot more sense to grow food where for example, nature gives you the heat free of charge, and then ship it over long distances to cities, as opposed to building greenhouses close to cities, where producing the same item cost you a lot more money. So food production is the specialty produces, they localised from urban areas, into areas where they grew a lot better. So for example, California, southern Florida, some part of the American Midwest, in Canada, well obviously places like Southern Ontario. And what you see is that we produce a lot more food, there's a lot more diversity, and it also becomes a lot more affordable for urban dwellers. And so there were very strong economic and technological forces that relocated a lot of food productions, from close proximity to final consumers to more distant areas. And that was because, again, there were significant economic and technological advantages in terms of doing that. Now another benefit of long distance transportation steamship and the railroad again in the early 19th century, it's that these technologies put an end to famine, malnutrition. So what a lot of local food activists tend to forget is that the problem with wanting to produce all your food locally is that from time to time, you will have bad years. You might have a drought, you might have a flood, you might have too much rain one year, you might have a late or an early frost problem. And so what would happen is that, it didn't matter whether you were in a temperate or a tropical climate, producers would have bad years from time to time and to bad harvests in a row and you would have a famine. So what happened with the emergence of long distance transportation is that you can suddenly move economically large quantities of food between regions that produce a huge agricultural surplus in one year, because their conditions were exceptional, to regions that have experienced again, the drought, the frost, perhaps a fungus problem. And so long distance transportation and the globalisation of our food supply chain was essential to improve humanity's food security. So there are other considerations. But again, a lot more food produced more affordably to consumers and an end to famine and malnutrition are, I think, very good arguments in favour of localising our food supply chain. 

Alex  21:38  
Great, thank you. Now, there's one term that you use there that I think is really important, it'd be great if you could define it. For the listeners, the term was comparative advantage.

Dr. Desrochers  21:47  
Essentially, what I tried to teach students is that there are significant differences in terms of the type of soil, the altitude, the latitude, the amount of water that certain locations will get. So it obviously makes a lot more sense to produce tropical fruits like banana or oranges in tropical locations, and ship them to, let's see, a place like Toronto or Vancouver, rather than build greenhouses in order to recreate those tropical conditions. So in some parts of the world, again, nature gives you heat free of charge. In other cases, you might have a climate that is actually drier than any other area. And in many cases, with that you have less of, you have less problems with pests, like for example, fungus, so apples, for example, do a lot better or require a lot less pesticides, when they're grown in places like the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia or Eastern Washington state, where you have a lot less moisture in the air than in other parts of North America. If you look at orange productions, orange production in North America, again, California specializes in the kind of oranges that we buy on supermarket shelves, whereas Florida will specialise in the kind of oranges that end up in orange juice. And again, that's because California has a drier climate, and they're better off in terms of producing higher quality oranges. But in that context, it makes sense for Florida to specialise still in orange production, but the kind that will end up being produced in juice, for example. And there are also other considerations apart from what nature gives you and a significant one is labour costs.

Alex  23:28  
And your argument is that a local food policy wouldn't inherently discourage this comparative advantage.

Dr. Desrochers  23:35  
There is no region in the world that can be good at producing everything. So why fight against nature? If you try to fight against nature, you produce, you promote economic inefficiency. Again, there is a cost in terms of producing additional heat. In a climate like southern Canada, you need to burn a lot of natural gas, you need to build greenhouses. So yes, you will save on transportation costs because you will be closer to consumers. But the fact that the price of doing this or producing things this way is a lot more expensive than producing something like a tomato, in a place like Florida, where nature gives you the heat free of charge. The fact that we can import tomatoes from Florida, for a lot less money than growing them in greenhouses in Ontario, tells you that for certain kind of tomatoes, especially the lower end of the market, there is no point in producing these kinds of tomatoes in greenhouses close to final consumers, the additional amount of energy and money that you spend on, that tells you that what you do doesn't make sense economically but also environmentally.

Alex  24:40  
Great. Well, you've definitely given us lots to think and talk about and I think so much, Pierre. 

Dr. Desrochers  24:45  
Thank you.

Evan  24:47  
Alex, it was great to hear about some of the potential pitfalls for alternative food systems in that interview. What would you say are the key ones that stood out to you?

Alex  24:55  
Well, Dr. Desrochers highlighted a few really important ones. It's important to think where our food comes from at the supermarket and why it is so cheap. The amount of time and effort that goes into producing food and smaller more localised systems is pretty staggering. It's also really important to consider how we define local. What radius is sufficient before the term local loses meaning?

Evan  25:14  
Absolutely, Alex, it's important to recognise the trade offs too. On one hand as I see it, our global food systems are extremely good at allocating different foods to different areas, if and when it's needed. This is really resilient in one sense of the word so if you've run out of mangoes from Asia, no problem you can get mangoes from Central America. If you have a poor harvest one year that's okay you can bring food in from another region that maybe produced a surplus. However, sometimes even these systems, these systems that operate at massive scales, are vulnerable. In other words, under a different perspective, these global systems lack resilience. The coronavirus pandemic has really shown this. What happens if and when global food flows, or labourers we need to plant or harvest food are shut down? Through this lens, it's important to also look at building more local or regional food systems as well.

Alex  26:05  
So thinking about both our interviewees, it sounds like we have two really different perspectives. On the one hand, there's Lisa's perspective that alternative food systems have a lot to offer in terms of improving local environmental health, building our local economies and reconnecting consumers with farmers in the food system. On the other hand, Pierre's perspective is that, in terms of economic efficiency, it makes the most sense to build global and scale supply chains to maintain stable supplies of cheap food.

Evan  26:32  
Yeah, again, thinking about trade offs. When we think about our food and farming systems. We have to balance all of these different factors, convenience, affordability, reconnection, education, quality, and many other traits. It sounds like both types of the system discussed above actually have a lot to offer. 

You have been listening to the Feeding 9 Billion podcast. To learn more about food security, or to incorporate food security into your classroom, please visit our website at This podcast is supported in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Research Chair programme.