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4.2.4: 4 Local and Alternative/Organic Foods and Food System Challenges

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  • At the end of module 2, you read about alternative food systems and relocalization of food production and distribution as one of the emerging future proposals in the history of food. These efforts, which will be revisited in a typology of current food systems in module 10, are an important source of ideas and initiatives to increase sustainable food production methods and equitable relations between consumers and producers. Local and regional food systems and initiatives have been promoted as ways to retain economic benefits and jobs within regional contexts. Organic and sustainable production methods often form a part of these movements and seek to reduce the environmental impacts of food production. Organic food is, in fact, a documented way to reduce exposure to pesticide residues in foods, which is of concern to many consumers. Food such as fruits and vegetables, that is fresher when it is consumed, which can be the case for locally produced food, is also likely to have a greater content of vitamins and other health-promoting components. However, others have pointed out that at a global level, the optimal freshness of produce, or a complete absence of pesticides, can be of smaller benefit to health in the overall food supply than would be, say, orienting diets away from processed fats or towards greater vegetable consumption or plant-based oils. This more incremental approach suggests that it is important to target low-hanging fruit like availability of lower-cost vegetables and higher-fiber diets to more of the worlds' population, rather than just playing up potential benefits from foods that are local or produced with fewer or no pesticides. It is also important to point out that there can be much confusion among consumers on whether all organic food is locally produced (it's not) or whether local food is always organically produced (also not true).

    In summary, given the much smaller size of these local and alternative food initiatives in comparison to the global food system, and also the scale of the problems of malnutrition and unhealthy diets, it may be important to put potential benefits of local and/or organically produced foods in the context of the overall challenges of the food system. For example, in the case of an urban food desert where only low dietary quality processed foods are available, increasing the availability of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains consumed using a number of strategies may be a more viable food system strategy to pursue than promoting locally or organically produced foods as a sole strategy. These multiple strategies could, in fact, rely on greater supermarket access and food streams from the globalized food system along with seasonal access to farmers markets for local produce. Home and community gardens can also complement and reinforce strategies for healthy eating. In addition, organizations of farmers using organic and other more sustainable methods have often acted as important allies in local food system settings for promoting healthier diets. As we will see throughout this course, the nutrition and sustainability outcomes emerging from the interacting parts of the food system are complex, and we can't always go with a single alternative to provide the best outcomes.

    Required Video: Putting local alternative food systems in context

    Please view this short video from the "Feeding the nine billion" project of Professor Evan Fraser at the University of Guelph. He argues for the importance of local, alternative food systems but also acknowledges the issues of scale that make global food systems an important aspect of diet and nutrition for the foreseeable future. This is not just about nutrition -- he is also reviewing many of the themes of food and sustainability we will be covering in the course and the relationships between human and natural systems as part of feeding humanity.

    Video: Feeding Nine Billion Video 5: Local Food Systems by Dr. Evan Fraser (5:19)

    Click for a transcript of the Feeding 9 Billion video.

    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. This video looks at how strong local food systems can help us overcome this problem. Many argue that because modern farms use a lot of energy and cause a lot of pollution, our food systems will prove unable to meet the rising demands of the global population.

    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 okay 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. Goodbye 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 among scientists, many point out that farms using alternative methods tend to have lower yields when compared with conventional farms. This means that many scientists worry that if we're going to feed a growing population using the alternative farming practices promoted by the local food movement, we’ll either need more farmland or we'll have to find ways of cutting down on our consumption and waste.

    A second common criticism leveled against the promoters of alternative food systems is that whenever alternative farms try to grow bigger, they end up looking just like 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 of the time, it doesn’t mean there is no role for such systems as a component of a secure and resilient food security strategy. Local alternative systems add diversity to our farming landscapes and diversity is very important because alternative farming practices often provide the template to help improve the design of more mainstream systems. Alternative food systems, especially in poor regions of the world, provide a buffer between consumers and the volatility 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 more aware of the ecosystems on which we all depend. They provide habitat for wildlife, they trap stormwater 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 farmers have access to processing facilities and markets. But we must also realize that local and alternative won’t feed us all. We’ll be relying on conventional farming systems that produce huge amounts of food in the world’s breadbaskets 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.

    If you’re interested in learning more about this and other topics on feeding 9 billion, you can check out the other videos in this series. Also, my recent book “Empires of Food”, goes into these topics in detail and you can, of course, find me on Facebook and Twitter, where I regularly post news on global food security. Finally, if there’s anything in this video that you want to follow up on, head over to is external), where I’ve posted all the scripts I’ve used in these videos, along with background references, and opened up an online discussion where you can weigh in with your own thoughts on anything you’ve just heard.