F9B: The Illustrated Series

Dowload the Webzine: Local Food Systems (Part 1) and (Part 2)


Hello, my name is Evan Fraser and I work at the University of Guelph in Ontario Canada.

This video series shows that climate change, population growth, and high energy prices mean that farmers may struggle to produce enough food for all of humanity over the next generation.  What’s more, many think that because modern farms use a lot of energy, and cause a lot of pollution, our food systems are hopelessly flawed.

These arguments go like this:  today a handful of large corporations control the vast majority of the world’s food trade. In doing so, they make a huge amount of money by using farming systems that damage the environment, exploit workers, and displace traditional farmers. By contrast, food systems based on local, diverse and small farms that use few chemical inputs like pesticides or fertilizers are more sustainable, equitable and democratic.

This is because when producers and consumers know each other and interact, then the entire community has a say in how food is produced. This should mean that farmers receive a decent income since they will receive a higher percentage of the value of the food they produce.  And they should also protect the environment better because consumers will be ok with paying more for food they know isn’t covered with polluting sprays. 

Also, because food is produced and consumed in the same region, the amount of fossil fuels burned for transportation should go down.

Good-bye processed cheese and vegetables from the Southern Hemisphere, and hello locally produced seasonal dishes.

Those of us in the rich parts of the world probably associate these ideas with the “100-mile diet”. In the Developing World, these ideas are often described as “food sovereignty” and are promoted by La Via Campesina, an international movement advocating that consumers and small-scale producers work together to take control of their food.

Many, however, question whether this vision of alternative food systems can provide a viable food security strategy for humanity’s growing population.

For instance, while there is a huge disagreement amongst scientists, many point out farms using “alternative” methods tend to have lower yields, when compared on a like for like basis, with conventional farms. This means that many scientists worry that if we are going to feed a growing population using “alternative” farming practices, we’ll need more land, or we’ll have to cut down on our consumption or waste in other ways.

A second common criticism leveled against the promoters of alternative food systems is that whenever “alternative food enterprises” try to grow bigger, they end up taking on many of the traits of conventional systems.  For instance, critics point out that when organic and fair trade farms grow they cause many of the same problems as conventional farms.

But do these criticisms mean alternative local food systems have no place in the 21st century?

I don’t think so.  Even if local alternative food systems don’t feed all of us all the time, it doesn’t mean that that there is no role for such systems as a component of a secure and resilient food security strategy. Local or alternative food systems add diversity to our farming landscapes. And diversity is very important because alternative farming practices also often provide the template to helps improve the design of more mainstream systems. Also, alternative food systems, especially in poor regions of the world, provide a buffer between consumers and the vagaries of the international market, while also empowering people by giving them some control over their food. Finally, having local farms integrated into the fabric of urban life connects city dwellers with their food, making them aware of the ecosystems on which we all depend.  They provide habitat for wildlife.  They trap storm water before it damages people’s homes. And they should be beautiful.

Therefore, my own reading of the debate around alternative farming systems tells me that to be sustainable we must support local food systems that use alternative agricultural practices.  We need to do this as consumers as well as through policy that should foster local food systems by making sure local farmers have access to local processing facilities and local markets. 

But we must also realize that local and alternative won’t feed us all.  We’ll be relying on our conventional farming systems that produce huge amounts of food in the world’s bread baskets for the foreseeable future, albeit with high fossil fuel inputs.  So what we need is a balanced approach: our food security will be enhanced if all of us are able to draw from both global and local systems.