Decreasing Distance and Re-Valuing Local: How Place-Based Food Systems Can Foster Socio-Ecological Sustainability

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Street art in Washington, DC.

With the global agricultural system in crisis, there is growing public understanding of issues surrounding food insecurity and the negative environmental impacts of agriculture. As a result, consumers are increasingly aware of the impacts of their food choices, weighing concerns about animal welfare, pesticide use, nutrition, and genetically modified foods. The advice to ‘eat local’ is one of several proposed rules of thumb to ease decision-making at the grocery store or farmers’ market. Promoted by activists and academics alike as a remedy to the dual problem of food insecurity and agriculture’s ecological impacts, the local food movement has gained significant momentum in recent years. But does supporting your local food system contribute to sustainability?

 

The drive for localization is premised in part on the concept of ‘food miles,’ suggesting that reducing the distance food travels between farm (producer) and fork (consumer) will minimize the environmental impact of consumers’ food choices. However, this claim has been critiqued by several studies showing that ‘food miles’ don’t necessarily represent a substantial portion of the energy usage involved in food production and that choosing imported food produced in more suitable climates can be more environmentally friendly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.1 As a result of these findings, some critique the localization trend for being a false solution to the environmental problems created by a globalized and industrial food system.2

 

These critiques of local food as a false panacea are not completely unfounded; however, they risk condemning an entire movement based on an incomplete evaluation of its merits. Greenhouse gas emissions are one useful indicator of impacts on climate, but they are not the only environmental parameter of interest. Furthermore, social and economic aspects of local food systems are central to sustainable farm systems, livelihoods, and community functioning, such as maintaining local farmland and creating fair employment opportunities.

 

While the word ‘local’ may have lost some ground in terms of its efficacy as an environmental indicator, a more holistic look at the contributions of the local food movement, and indeed of food production in general, will help revalue local food as a potential pathway to address social and ecological ailments within the food system. The concept of ‘local’ is still meaningful—it can and should be central to addressing global food security challenges. However, the term ‘place-based’ encompasses a broader conceptualization of scale and proximity, beyond simple geography, that includes a consideration of trade relationships and acknowledges the role of governance at territorial and national scales.

 

In order to advance the discussion on the role of scale and context in finding future solutions for a food secure world, I will explore the concept of a ‘place-based’ food system in consideration of the value of localized agricultural production. Through a discussion of the importance of social and ecological diversification, sustainable nutrient cycling, and cultural connection, one can distinguish between a local food system defined by a geographic boundary and one that is reflective of and responsive to social, ecological, and economic contexts at multiple scales. Local food systems that are place-based can reduce negative environmental and social impacts by helping to foster ecological resilience, mitigate economic risk, facilitate the sustainable use of local resources, and create culturally significant connections to the landscape and within regional communities.

 

Promotes Social and Ecological Diversification

 

The global agricultural landscape is increasingly characterized by industrial-scale food production shaped by comparative advantage, where regions specialize in particular agricultural commodities that can be produced most efficiently. In general, food production systems based on this model depend on export-oriented trade to sell crops. For example, in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada, a large proportion of productive land is devoted to growing blueberries. This is due in part to ideal environmental conditions and access to trade facilities, resulting in a saturated local market and a reliance on these export channels to sell berries overseas, sometimes at the expense of local food security and environmental resilience.

Houston Marsh
Blueberry fields in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, Canada.

In contrast, agricultural production that prioritizes local markets could be oriented to meet both the diverse needs of citizens and the surrounding ecology. At the scale of farm field or agricultural landscape, biological diversity has been shown to increase resilience to disturbances such as climatic fluctuations and pest threats.3–5 Depending on the type of crop, diversification is important for other biological elements of crop production, including pressure placed on both managed and wild pollinating insects.6–8

 

Diversification does not only have ecological benefits—growing an array of agricultural commodities can also help reduce exposure to market fluctuations.9 If a farmer or community is highly dependent on a single crop such as blueberries, they face significant economic risk from volatile global commodity prices. By encouraging diversity, a regional food system could have a built-in buffer for adapting to changing markets, both locally and globally.

 

There is also an important relationship between agricultural diversity and demands on human labor systems.10 Agriculture is inherently a seasonal endeavor, but activities and crops (and different varieties within a single crop) tend to vary in their peak demands on labor. If we were able to distribute our labor demand throughout the season, rather than concentrating it to a few months or even weeks, seasonal pressures on farmers and workers would decrease, creating conditions for a more socially just food system.

 

Facilitates Sustainable Nutrient Cycling

 

Sustainable resource use is one of the most significant challenges facing our society today, and the need to optimize resource use in the food system is urgent. While comparative advantage aims to increase efficiency through specialization, local food systems can bolster resource use efficiency through connectivity and complementarity.

 

Nutrient management in food production exemplifies this concept. The management of nutrient inputs to maintain soil fertility and achieve optimal crop yields is challenging farmers around the world. While the importance of nitrogen and phosphorus to plant growth is universal, the forms in which they are most available to producers (e.g., as synthetic fertilizer or aquatic plant matter) differ depending on a variety of contextual factors. For example, if farmers do not have access to credit or capital but are located next to a farm that has livestock, cattle manure may be a more economically accessible form of nutrients for their crops. Moreover, the concentration in which each nutrient is needed in the environment differs based on biophysical parameters: different fields require different nutrient management strategies based on crop type and soil conditions. On the flip side of nutrient deficits, there are also major problems globally with nutrient pollution where excess fertilizers from agricultural areas have leached into waterways. Particularly in the case of phosphorus, an essential nutrient required for plant growth and a nonrenewable resource, addressing this dual problem of too little in the field and too much in the environment by recycling nutrients can help create more sustainable agricultural systems.

 

While the designation of ‘local’ prescribes nothing in terms of production methods—all food production is local somewhere—a diverse localized food system can facilitate the connectivity between components that would help address this imbalance. For example, if agricultural regions contained both crop production and dairy or other livestock operations, facilitating nutrient recycling between these systems could be more feasible than between distant regions specializing in each of these commodities. Managing the flows of goods in a global trade system presents its own challenges, but redistributing waste products as valuable inputs can be more feasible in place-based systems.

 

Fosters Cultural Connection

 

Perhaps one of the most significant yet undervalued benefits to a thriving local food system is the connection that it fosters to the local landscape and the food producers that steward it. This is referred to by some academics as the “re-spatialization” and “re-socialization” of food, and can be accomplished by shortening supply chains in order to increase proximity and connection between people and the farms (spatial) and farmers (social) that produce our food.11

Suzie's Farm
A farm in Imperial Beach, California sells produce to community members from a roadside stand.

The distinction between place-based and local becomes particularly relevant in this discussion. All food can be considered local somewhere, and produced by someone, but the extent to which that food system is embedded in the local landscape—or that citizens are connected to the people that produce it—is dependent on the ‘distance’ between production and consumption. Distance here is not necessarily restricted to the geographic or spatial sense—people are also removed from their food system through social separations in time and through various institutions. Undoubtedly, if a citizen’s ‘local’ food system is highly integrated into a global market, they are less likely to have a personal connection (whether physical, spiritual, or otherwise) to the food that they consume on a day-to-day basis.

 

The benefits of a strong cultural connection to food and food-producing landscapes should not be undervalued. There is extensive work in the social and political sciences that discusses the meaning of “place” as more than a geographical reference, extending it to encompass social and relational meaning stemming from everyday experience and practice, with roots in historical and indigenous landscapes based on strong relationships between people and the surrounding environment.12,13 Re-establishing this relationship with our agricultural landscape through food will be at the core of the social and political transformation we need to create a more sustainable and food secure future.

 

Final Thoughts

 

Local food systems can be revalued for their diverse contributions to sustainability and our conceptualization of local food should be broadened beyond ‘food miles’ to enhancing connection to place. Localized food systems have the capacity to build resilience, facilitate complementarity, and connect individuals to their landscape. The idea of “food from somewhere” is not simply verbiage but a way to meaningfully connect people to issues that touch them daily through the food that they eat.

 

In addition to this re-anchoring of the food system in a given locale, we will still need to recognize the significance of global ties. The elimination of trade or specialization is not desirable; instead, I suggest that considerations of fossil-fuel efficiency should be balanced with far-reaching socio-ecological consequences of a homogenous landscape. Local food systems cannot be separated from the influence of the global food system, but many agricultural outcomes of interest are spatially bounded and locally important. In other words, global forces may influence what a given region grows, but the consequences, such as pest threats, pollination pressures, labor demands, and market fluctuations, are experienced at the local level.

 

This paper contributes to a careful circumspection and greater clarity regarding how we delineate and understand the ‘local.’14 In doing so, we will also need to acknowledge the connections to other places that are no longer so distant, and the role of global economic integration as a driver of local socio-ecological changes.15,16 If we are to successfully re-embed our food system—including policy incentives, governance structures, production practices, and individual choices—within a given place, the multi-scalar and nested nature of these connections will need to be considered.

 

Whether through policy frameworks or consumer choices, developing thriving and diverse local food systems is an alternative to the inherent risk involved in specialization. Elucidating the precise benefits associated with supporting local food, as well as the challenges and trade-offs,17,18 will be central to advancing the legitimacy of the local food movement.

 

References

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