Food Security 101: Part 8

Visions for Local Food Systems

By Ken Ross

As mentioned in part 7, this section of the work is going to explore an aspect of Sonya Cameron’s review (‘Realising Food Secure Communities’), which explored the features of “What a better food system might look like.” The review in its entirety is a ‘must read’ if you want to be serious about building a local food system in your community. Cameron called the following six, basic features, “Visions”, that were common to most of the 39 documents she reviewed, and implies their consideration and adoption could lead to the creation of “better food systems”. They are listed and discussed below.

Local: Local is what you make ‘local’, but the core of it is, ‘By Locals, for Locals’, and
that the actions of building a local food system should also be intentionally building community resilience. This fits entirely with what we have been discussing in the 7 earlier parts of this work and stated in part 4, that, “Food Sovereignty is the pathway to Food Security”. You don’t have sovereignty without autonomy, local decision making and other forms of control,
and this can only happen locally – locality by locality - until further decisions are made for collective action with other neighbourhoods/communities. So, a big “Yes” to Cameron’s conclusion of ‘locality’. When people meet, communicate and work together for their common benefit, they build understanding and trust – the glue of strong communities.


In most hamlets, townships and larger towns (potential communities) of Aotearoa/NZ, this
approach needs to be taken a step further. I am referring to the taking back of control of local commerce. The economies of small and large towns (communities) haven’t just been raped and pillaged by Neoliberal Economic policies and the actions of ‘Free Markets’, they have been thoroughly buggered as well. The financial income and economic commerce of a community is a property and resource of the community, that the people should not just value, but also manage and control. They should never allow the external, exploitive and parasitic forces of a capitalist economy to suck it dry. The commerce potential of local food is a great place to start.


Communities can organise themselves to provide the basic needs for life in their community (just as thousands of generations of our forebears have done), or they can let external parties do it and suffer the consequences. If they do take charge, they can enjoy the rewards of having done so. In early 20th Century New York, 100 families (approx. 500 people) could financially support one family of bakers, who produced all the bread and baking needs of the remaining (approx.) 99 families/495 people. If that’s the basic formula for a baker, what is the formula for a butcher, a green grocer, or the person who repairs shoes? So, how ‘Local’ are we talking? That ‘Local’. And remember, the ‘wheel barrow distance’.


Affordable: “Everyone can afford nutritious food.” This is an altruism that extends from the UN statement on Human Rights. However, in our current environment (physical, social, political and economic), this presents us with wider complexities that we need to deal with as a society – especially in the way we spend money and in the way we vote. For instance, we live, work and spend in a capitalist economy (but not just any old ‘capitalist economy’). In Aotearoa/NZ, we endeavour to function in one of the more gung-ho, free markets on the planet where the obscene and highly disruptive, Neoliberal policies of the 1980’s, had some of their greatest impacts – even on a global scale – though we rarely acknowledge that. So, the current context for this sensible ‘Vision’ is, at present, an industrial food system run on capitalist principles which means profits must be maximised (impacting product cost toconsumer), while the costs of production are driving down. Translated, this means paying the least possible amount to the grower/producer and driving down the wages of the people working in the food industry. Given our food industry is one of our larger employers, this action then creates 'relativity issues’ through all sectors of the economy that hold all wages down. What that generally means is the people who produce the food often can’t afford to buy it back at the supermarket. ‘Affording’, has to be tackled, but it is not a quick fix. But never forget, the industrially produced food you currently buy is still artificially cheap, because of the fossil fuels used to get it to you, and all the environmental, social and economic ‘shortcuts’ taken in its production. If the fossil fuel suddenly stops arriving, the cost of food will skyrocket.


Likewise, the ‘cost’ of ‘nutritious food’. I have been a commercial grower (organic, subtropical fruit) plus a teacher of horticulture for 19 years – mostly with an organic/regenerative focus. I know what nutritious food looks like, feels like, smells and tastes like, and I know what it takes to grow it. It takes CARE. That caring cannot happen in soils that are overworked and mined of nutrients then supplemented with chemical salt-based fertilisers, where plants and soils are sprayed with all manner of biocides (fungicides, herbicides and pesticides) and the whole system is geared for maximum outputs from minimum inputs and every shortcut in the book is taken. Growing (‘nutritious’) nutrient dense food, in healthy soil and healthy growing environments, using sound husbandry practices, employing staff fairly and justly and having totally ethical relationships with all your own suppliers and customers, and being financially viable, is entirely possible, but it requires many people in our society to adopt a very different relationship with food. There are some incredible growers of amazing food in this country. Most of them work too bloody hard, and burn out when they shouldn’t, because they are forced to compete with a publicly subsidised, toxic food industry that spends vast sums of money on lies, they call ‘advertising’.


What needs to change at the meta level in this ‘space’ is too big for most of us. Getting rid of capitalism and its ills, is a very long haul – unless it implodes of its own accord (which is of course, more than highly likely). Likewise, turning an industrial agricultural industry to regenerative agriculture is like trying to turn the Titanic. So, if you are looking for reasons for growing food communally and locally, you have just read it - so you can (afford to) eat nutritious food. Do it, with all your heart, but don’t take short-cuts.


Connected: “People are connected to their food and the environment it comes from”. Many people living and working in a complex, Western society spend much of their day in and on concrete. Unless they deliberately seek an outdoor experience, their most immediate connection with the natural, biotic world is through the food they purchase and eat. Now, as we both know, most industrial food production takes place in highly modified environments (e.g. indoor pigs, cage raised chickens and hydroponic plants being at the extreme end), but you will remember from part one of this ‘story’, “the game we play is let’s pretend”, so let’s keep that
end up. If ‘food’ is their ‘connector’ to the biotic world, and that world is brought much closer to home in the 'Localisation’ process, there are very high chances of increasing the level of
connection to the (natural) environment. As the food production, aggregation and distribution processes localise, the whole world of food becomes a greater, sensory experience, and when these sensory experiences are shared with other members of the community in the local co-op, community garden, farmer’s market, harvest celebration etc., strong bonds will form. Connections, then networks of functional relationships, are the breakfast food of champion
communities, so building connection around the shared need of locally produced food, is an immanently sensible idea.


Healthy: “Good food environments mean healthy food choices are easy.” There’s a very large elephant in this room and analysing every aspect of its existence is beyond the scope of this
session. Let’s just settle for the basics. The main tenant of this statement is the very old admonition (the Greek civilisation knew it), “healthy food brings forth health to people” (or, “let food be thy medicine”). Its underlying understanding is that healthy food can only be grown in healthy (food) environments. Starting approximately a century ago, more modern forms of this admonition (which were more by way of warnings), began calling on Western civilisation to halt the rush to let go of the old, labour intensive and biological methods of agriculture. This was a time when farming became mechanised and agriculture embraced the huge surpluses of machinery and armament chemicals (used for fertiliser manufacture) left all over the UK and Europe at the end of World War 1. The more intelligent and often recorded voices of that period were those of Sir Albert Howard and Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s, Lady Eve Balfour (Soil and Health Association in UK) and Jerome Rodale (Rodale Institute in the USA) in the 1940’s, and Rachel Carson (USA) in the late 1950- to early 60’s, whose voice was mainly raised against
the horrendous contribution World War 2 made with its surplus chemical stocks, to the proliferate use of biocides in agriculture (recall, “Silent Spring”?).


Sadly, the predictions made by these 5 intelligent, passionate and caring people, have come to
pass. They all stated that the creation of unhealthy soil conditions (growing environments) through the use of destructive practices, chemical fertilisers and biocides, would result in
unhealthy/toxic foods that wouldn’t be able to maintain health in humans. Those chickens have come home to roost and we now have huge mortality rates in industrial societies caused by heart disease and cancer – diseases that were rare in advanced societies at the time those
first warnings were given (1921, by Sir Albert Howard and 1924 by Rudolph Steiner). Add to that, the myriad of other diseases, such as the auto-immune conditions, that strike people at younger and younger ages every decade, and are increasing in prevalence every year. As a society, we are shocked by these statistics, but we NEVER talk about the ‘WHY?’ behind the rise in prevalence, because we really don’t want to think, or know, about it.


There is a very, very good reason for being closely involved in growing your own food, and for
growing it with as much care as is humanly possible.


Ignore the formula (Healthy Soil -> Healthy Food -> Healthy People), at your peril.


Regenerative: “Food systems that produce nutrient-dense food while protecting the environment and supporting flourishing eco-systems.” It’s not going to be too long before the word ‘regenerative’ is appropriated and bastardised by the forces of darkness, just like the concepts of ‘organic growing’ and 'sustainability’ have been, but while ‘regenerative’ does have meaning and impact, let’s keep using it. The word ‘generative’ denotes something that empowers, mobilises, and gives energy or ‘life’ to (i.e. ‘Genisis’). The use of the prefix ‘re’ indicates it is being done again, being repeated. It has to be, because we broke the original system, so it is a good, descriptive word for the problem we face. Our growing environments have been degraded, the food produced in those environments has been denatured and degraded, and the human bodies that rely on that food have been poorly sustained at best, but in the worst cases, severely degraded also. In other words, our actions, our outputs and our outcomes in industrial agriculture have been largely degenerative. It is urgent, that we reverse the entire process and work re-generatively. Oddly enough, we seem to know what we should be doing to be regenerative in our food growing because, all over the planet there are thousands of very old (and a few, very new), examples of how to manage environments and grow, handle, process and utilise foods so they are totally 'regenerative’ to the end user. Most of those examples continue to exist because people were unable to, or refused to, take up the practices of industrial agriculture in the first place – ignoring the inducements to do so or the threats made for not doing so.


There is an interesting way of looking at this issue. Physicists speak of a process called entropy. Entropy describes the process of ‘running down’ that occurs in all things in the universe – including the ‘universe’ itself. The formation of the universe (in an unimaginable release of energy called the ‘Big Bang’), created a high level of order or organization, which resulted in enormous concentrations of various forms of energy, and large deposits of pure elements (e.g. iron and hydrogen). Since the formation of the universe, those concentrations of energy and elements have been scattering and degrading, so they become less concentrated and more widespread, and far less organized. This process of entropy is true for the entire, known, universe, except for a very temporary process that is known to occur here on earth, in isolated and temporary instances for short bursts of time, in seemingly isolated events. In these ‘events’, the process of entropy is reversed, and elements and energies become concentrated, organized and complex for short but variable periods of time, before entropy once again takes over, and the temporary organization breaks down. Scientists have begun to call this temporary reversal of entropy, a process of ‘ectropy’. Most of us just call it, ‘life’, or‘ biological life’.


The astute among you will have noticed the similarities between the life affirming processes of an agriculture that is re-generative and those processes called ectropy that create greater
organisation, complexity and the ability to withstand the forces of degradation. Similarly, you will note that the practices of industrial agriculture, in spite of being intended to create life, and maintain that life force so it can fuel the life of humans, actually attempts to do so with resources and materials that are ‘dead’ (machinery, fossil fuels and chemical fertilisers) and far from life affirming (biocides).


It stands to reason then, that if you are wanting to “produce food that is nutritious for people” (builds health), and produce it in a manner that strengthens and enhances the environment it is grown in (“regenerates te Taiao”), you will draw strongly on instruments that are living and imbued with ectropy (the force or process that reverses and resists the force of degeneration – or entropy). That’s what ‘regenerative agriculture’ sets out to do, and does do, exceedingly well. Enough said.


Resilient: “Food systems that can withstand and recover from times of crisis,” is how Cameron’s review describes this feature or 'Vision’ for “a better food system”. I have absolutely no beef at all with either of the concepts the feature of ‘Resilience’ embodies, that firstly, whatever we do has to stand up for itself in really tough conditions (“withstand crisis” is the phrase Cameron used) and secondly, what we do has to also have capacity to bounce back when the tough conditions abate (“recover from crisis” is how it is described). The really interesting thing for me is how quickly the word ‘resilient’ has become a ‘buzz word’, used by almost everyone on a daily basis, including the halfwits who are denying there are serious problems facing the physical and biotic environments, and all of humanity. The Covid 19 epidemic brought ‘crisis awareness’ to the fore. Most people can now at least, spell ‘crisis’.


Look at resilience this way - every human worth their salt, at least for the last 200,000 years
(but obviously way beyond that), has been building appropriate (to their resources, skills and time available) levels of resilience into every endeavour they made, unless there was a very deliberate building/creating of something very flimsy and temporary for a specific reason. If that hadn’t been the case, none of us would be here now. So why the ‘buzz’? Why is ‘RESILIENCE’ suddenly important? Well, dear reader, you may have noticed that ‘things have changed’ (or are changing, for the late arrivals among you). While crises have always been with us, and nature has evolved to deal with them also, they are arriving thicker and faster than they used to and all sensible predictions suggest this is the Sunday School Picnic end of the measuring stick. Currently, most people in Western societies (and this includes the majority of politicians), don’t have an iota of understanding of how serious the ‘poly-crisis’ currently is (I’m hoping you do), never mind how much worse our living conditions will become in a decade or so. This factor therefore, makes it difficult to pitch to the right level of ‘resilience’ for any issue in any environment.


Of course, if you’re silly enough to ask me how bad it might get, my answer is, “Make everything you possess and undertake, very, very resilient, to every factor you can imagine – especially your shelter, food and water systems.” If you still don’t know what that means, start burrowing into the principles and applications of Permaculture, and especially explore ‘Zones and Vectors’. Look at the ‘Planetary Boundaries’ modelling work, get a good grip on the Global Climate Change impacts and how they will impact specifically where you live – plus gain an understanding of the concept of ‘peak everything’. “The Transition Handbook” by Rob Hopkins and “A Small Farm Future” by Chris Smaje, are great places to start. What’s ahead will impact every aspect of ourlives, especially our access to clean, fresh water and adequate, nutritious food.

Take care out there.