November 14, 2005
When Fred Kirschenmann spoke to the Farm Folk City Folk conference on “How New Alliances Can Bring Local Food to the Table” last week, he provided a great overview of what makes a stronger local food system essential to sustainable agriculture – and a key solution to the farm crises. Kirschenmann has a long association with the Leopold Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa. His talk made the case for local food.
Other speakers highlighted specific efforts to strengthen local food systems. The conference confirmed some key points about local food.
First, the dominant, fast food and long-distance food chain, labelled by some the 2,500-mile salad, is totally built around the consumption of fossil fuel – fuel that already exists. We just dig it up and transform it into a usable form to drive our technology and keep us warm in winter. Cheap fuel. A time is coming when our economy will first have to create the energy or capture it from the sun before the transforming process can begin. Expensive fuel is likely to increase the energy efficiency of local food production.
Second, conventional farming systems are at risk of going too far with “holding nature down.” Creation is diverse. Its functions are diverse. And farming, at its best, helps creation produce abundance for humans to harvest through its natural functions. But livestock agriculture relies on a few blood lines. Crop production has become input-dependent. Much of farming functions like our medical system, re-acting once a problem is evident but, caught in a constant state of crisis and has neither the time nor the money to find out what caused the problem in the first place.
The event also underlined one of the inherent dilemmas faced by those who advocate for, and participate in, building our local food system.
Many participants in local food systems have been attracted to the cachet of direct contact with consumers, independence from the retail giants, and achieving the status of legendary farm. This is not enough for local food to be all it can be. It needs to be efficient to maintain market clout. It needs infrastructure like cooperatives and value chains so that the efficiencies of specialization are available. Local food will benefit from strategic alliances that reconnect consumers to nature and the local countryside.
Elbert van Donkersgoed
This commentary was first published as Corner Post, Farm & Countryside Commentary #407.