A powerful take on local food (interspersed with a stream of consciousness)

Parke Troutman tells us that “Carrots are not enough” in a compelling piece challenging the framing and potential of local food, and urging a nuanced but still forward-looking and positive vision of the movement.

Humans have never eaten “all locally”, he points out, which is quite certainly correct. Indeed, in a book chapter to be published next year, I call one of the goals of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (o MST) a “brazen and historically accurate” revival of the concept of subsistence:

“A subsistence parallel to the more complex forms outlined throughout this volume. Subsistence, it appears, has rarely meant production only for local provision or survival, at least in their pre- and early-penetration of imperial and global capital manifestations.  So we might replace [the MST’s stated goal of supporting] “small farm production above subsistence levels” to the tongue-in-cheek “brazen and historically accurate subsistence”… production for both personal or communal subsistence, and for sale—[while acknowledging] regional and cultural variation.”

Put another way, in the spirit of what Troutman says, in a different piece I’ve written (currently in final review) (now published; read author’s version here), I quote brilliant food systems writer, academic and activist Raj Patel before moving on to some other guy people also think was pretty sharp:

“[Food sovereignty takes direct aim at] a one-size-fits-all approach to agriculture, as opposed to the context specific results generated by democratic deliberation. By leaving the venues of subnational engagement open… La Vía Campesina calls for new political spaces to be filled with argument… a call for people to figure out for themselves what they want the right to food to mean in their communities, bearing in mind the community’s needs, climate, geography, food preferences, social mix, and history… We will know if the promise of food sovereignty has been realized when we see explicit discussions of gender politics and food production,” (Patel 2007: 91; emphasis added).

…[The question of the] right venues and scales for these democratic discussions may find its solution in a useful tautology implied by food sovereignty: decisions and food systems should be localized as far as is possible and effective, but no further… This intentionally echoes Einstein’s oft-paraphrased comment: “The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience,” (Einstein 1934: 165).

This comment by Einstein is often paraphrased as some version of “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” I think this goes for “local” as well–and the thing is, we don’t and won’t know until we try. What the appropriate levels of localization are will depend on place and people; it can’t be decided a priori. But that does not mean that we are not less local than we used to be, and even needlessly so. One go-to example for me are what I call “Daly’s Cookies”:

“Americans import Danish sugar cookies, and Danes import American sugar cookies. Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient.” (Herman Daly, 2001, “Globalization and its discontents”)

Beyond this, we see countries exporting large amounts of wheat and corn (and other commodity crops) to each other, potentially passing each other, as Daly imagined with the cookies, with a boat or plane of grain from one country coming within waving distance of another of the same grain from another country. We see, in eastern Nicaragua, exports of fresh produce to the western side, or to other countries, with locals importing cheaper produce from abroad for their own consumption (as told to me, at least, by John Vandermeer). And while Troutman is right that the Human animal has not, for quite a long, long time, eaten completely locally, most food is still eaten and consumed within the same country: only 17% of wheat (the most significant exported cereal) is traded across borders; 6% of rice; 10% of meat (numbers from van der Ploeg’s The New Peasantries, pp. 289-290).

Wait–does mean we’re already local and the movement can pack in and go home knowing they’ve done a job well-done? No, not at all. For one thing, the export-vs.-import and local-vs.-regional-vs.-national-vs.-international question is, let us, very vexed. “Local” is hard to define and highly socioecologically contextual. (That is: it depends.) Certainly, “local” when defined by political borders can get weird (where “local” ends up being across the state, while there’s food you want available in another state that happens to be literally across the street). But the local question is not one of simple arbitrariness–there are plenty of reasons to think humans are better-suited for interacting primarily with a localized community and ecosystem (some references that speak to this are below). We are less likely to cheat and more likely to help out people that we know personally, or who are members of a group or community we feel personally connected to. (Obviously this can extend beyond local, easily, but repeated interactions with a group and its specific members is powerful, and one would think easier/more likely in a “more local” context.) Local governance institutions have been found to be a powerful force in recent years, in significant part from the pioneering work of the late, Nobel Laureate in Economics, Elinor Ostrom. (Her book Governing the Commons is a monumental work in this area.) And I’ve long suspected–and found some at least preliminary support for–the idea that more locally-focused food systems that maintain long-distance links, but do not depend on them as strongly, may be a more stable system, and more resistant to price shocks and speculation. (To be sure, this last idea is a suspicion/idea in progress.)

tl;dr:  We’ve never (or not recently) been an all local species. But we quite arguably have shifted way too far in the other direction. Trade is in our heritage–hip hop hurray and huzzah–but that by no means means that the current levels are optimal, much less that they should increase. (I’ll shake my fist more concretely at comparative advantage for your entertainment some other time.) There are a number of reasons based on the literature on governance, human psychology, political economy, democratic forms, and complexity to think that a more local system would be better. 100% local? No. But there’s nothing to say that going from 5% to 10% — or 75% to 85% — wouldn’t be an improvement in many cases.

Troutman–remember him?–has some incredibly important points about what needs to be done, blindspots in the main body of the localization movement for inequality, complexity, and other challenges, so you really should go read it. But I’ll leave you with one of my favorite bits, which reflects issues I think are not usually grappled with not just in localism, but in academia, activism, planning, people working for change more broadly:

What I have seen is that local food activists figure out what to do by looking around them and seeing what they can do and then doing it. That’s certainly been my approach. The problem is that it allows you to stick with what is comfortable even if it is not effective.

Better is to ask where you want to go and work backward to figure out what it would take to get there. In short, you need to plan. This is not meant to be utopian. Plans almost never go as expected. That’s life. The purpose of plans is not to give you a rigid road map into the future. Rather, they give you a sense of what scale you must operate at. On that level, there’s an abyss between the actions of local food activists and their dreams.

(Emphases added.)

Putative citations for my two forthcoming pieces:

  • M. J. Chappell. Forthcoming. Alternative agriculture, the vernacular, and the MST: Re-creating subsistence as the sustainable development of human rights.in J. Murton, D. Bavington, and C. Dokis, editors. Bringing subsistence out of the shadows. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, Quebec.
  • M. J. Chappell. 2013. Movements for reinserting defensible values into global food systems. Page Forthcoming in R. J. Herring, editor. Oxford Handbook on Food, Politics and Society. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Local governance, economics, etc. etc. citations:

  • Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford
  • Clark, B. and J. B. Foster. 2009. Ecological Imperialism and the Global Metabolic Rift. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50:311-334.
  • Daly, H. E. 2001. Globalization and its discontents. Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly 21:3
  • Daly, H. E. 2006. The Concept of Scale in Ecological Economics: Its Relation to Allocation and Distribution.
  • Daly, H. E. and J. Farley. 2011. Ecological Economics: Principles and applications (2nd ed.). 2nd edition. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
  • De Young, R. and T. Princen. 2012. The localization reader: Adapting to the coming downshift. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Foster, J. B. 1999. Marx’s theory of metabolic rift: Classical foundations for environmental sociology. The American Journal of Sociology 105:366-405.
  • Herbick, M. and J. Isham. 2010. The promise of deliberative democracy. Solutions 1:25-27.
  • McClintock, N. 2010. Why farm the city? Theorizing urban agriculture through a lens of metabolic rift. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 3:191-207.
  • Moore, J. W. 2011. Transcending the metabolic rift: a theory of crises in the capitalist world-ecology. Journal of Peasant Studies 38:1-46.
  • Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Ostrom, E. 2010. Organizational economics: applications to metropolitan governance. Journal of Institutional Economics 6:109-115.
  • Ostrom, E. 2010. A Multi-Scale Approach to Coping with Climate Change and Other Collective Action Problems. Solutions 1:27-36.
  • Ostrom, E. and H. Nagendra. 2006. Insights on linking forests, trees, and people from the air, on the ground, and in the laboratory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:19224.
  • Prugh, T., R. Costanza, and H. E. Daly. 2000. The local politics of global sustainability. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
  • Salleh, A. 2010. From Metabolic Rift to “Metabolic Value”: Reflections on Environmental Sociology and the Alternative Globalization Movement. Organization & Environment 23:205-219.
  • Schneider, M. and P. McMichael. 2010. Deepening, and repairing, the metabolic rift. Journal of Peasant Studies 37:461-484.
  • Wittman, H. K. 2009. Reworking the metabolic rift: La Vía Campesina, agrarian citizenship, and food sovereignty. The Journal of Peasant Studies 36:819-840.
  • Wittman, H. K. 2010. Agrarian Reform and the Environment: Fostering Ecological Citizenship in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Canadian Journal of Development Studies 29:281-298.

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This entry was posted in Agriculture, Food Movement(s), La Vida Locavore [blog], Local food, Publications, Socioecological systems, Solutions, Sustainability, Taking Action and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A powerful take on local food (interspersed with a stream of consciousness)

  1. Allison Jack says:

    Reblogged this on Agroecology in Arizona and commented:
    We had a great discussion on Tuesday in my Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Production class. We had just read Patel, R. (2009) Food sovereignty. Journal of Peasant Studies 36(3) 663-706. and were talking about what the world would look like if the ultimate goals of the food sovereignty movement were eventually realized. Would there be international trade at all? Can countries even survive without international trade? What about places like Arizona where it actually makes more sense distance-wise to trade in agricultural crops with Mexico than with Minnesota? If ancient peoples traded long distances for important resources they didn’t have access to otherwise, is a goal of total regional self-sufficiency realistic or even desirable? Luckily my friend and colleague M. Jahi Chappell just happened to write something directly in this vein today. Now I know what I will be assigning for reading tonight! I’m looking forward to seeing these publications when they are out.

  2. Joern says:

    Reblogged this on Ideas for Sustainability and commented:
    More interesting thoughts by Jahi Chappell — reblogged here.

  3. Pingback: New publication (book review) | AgroEcoPeople

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