What is a sustainable food system?
Often sustainable food systems and local food systems are considered to be the same thing. They’re not. The journey food takes from farm to table is complex and requires coordination at every scale, from local to global.
Local food has its place. There are programs in Kenya, written up by Rockefeller Foundation, that describe the role local food growing plays in reducing local unemployment and boosting secure access to food. There are great stories of community gardens in cities around the world that provide healthy fruits and veg for local residents. There are reams of unused land in cities slated for development, somewhere in the distant future, which could be used for raised bed gardens to grow local food at no detriment to the planned commercial projects. These opportunities need to be recognized and acted on.
On the other hand, there are returns to “economies of scale” that it make it cheaper, and sometimes more energy efficient, to process a large amount of things in one place. That might mean that it is more resource efficient to grow things far away from a city than it would be for everyone to grow their own.
The trend towards economies of scale in American-agriculture-gone-global have led to people feeling completely estranged from their food. And the “just-in-time” supply chain management principles that have been applied to food supply mean that most cities have very little storage of fresh food. Should there be a large scale disruption to the supply chain – such as what happened in New York City during Hurricane Sandy– cities can easily be left without food.
More research is needed to identify and publicize opportunities for efficient local food growth. At the same time, we need to shed light on the supply chains that bring us food from abroad and alerts us to vulnerabilities in those supply chains.
Where does our food come from?
Most of the time, this is a question that many people can’t answer. But the answer matters, and may be a matter of life and death. The Guardian and other news sources uncovered that slave labor was used to ruthlessly trawl the oceans to provide shrimp feed, devastating both the people and the environment involved. We are forced to remember that every dollar is a vote, and our buying decisions affect what type of world we live in.
A company called Provenance is developing a methodology that companies could use to keep auditable records of their supply chains, and communicate with the public who has touched their products on their way to market. This will help us understand the global implications of the cheap food we enjoy, and give people agency in choosing which business practices they will support with their money.
On the local front is Caleb Harper, head of MIT’s Open Agriculture movement, who proposes that we open-source our knowledge of how to grow food. If his food computers are built and distributed through the country, there is the potential to overhaul our way of educating young people about where food comes from and what factors help it to thrive.
And of course no discussion of food sustainability is complete without a serious discussion of how we deal with food waste. Organizations such as the Food Recovery Network and Imperfect Produce are working to connect food that would go to waste with hungry people. It only makes sense.
Choose with your Chompers
These are important ideas to have on the table. The way forward is not clear, but we can each play our part by thinking and talking about the supply chain of our food. Keep an eye out for innovative ideas like the Food Recovery Network and support them when you can. And think twice about why your chicken is so cheap.
By Nathan Suberi