12 strategies for developing local food system resilience
- 2021-04-19 06:58:24.0
- food system resilience
In February 2020, the collective Les Greniers d'Abondance published a report on local resilience. Based in France, the team of researchers, activists and consultants released a 175 pages report focused on food resilience issues, and what local governments can do to address them. In particular, the report focuses on global threats to the ways we currently produce, distribute and consume food: climate change, biodiversity collapse, soil erosion and degradation, development of built environments over arable lands, disparition of wild landscapes, depletion of energy and mining resources, and - last but not least - increased political and economic instability. Had they postponed their report by a few months, they might have added "pandemic" to the list of threats, as COVID-19 started to shake the global food economy.
Why does local food resilience strategy matters?
Since March 2020, many people have experienced for the first time, with disarray, the sight of empty shelves in the supermarkets of developed countries. Meanwhile, farmers have been forced to throw away million gallons of milk and to euthanize their livestock (Yaffe-Bellany & Corkery, 2020), as the number of people relying on food banks to feed themselves sharply increased (Schanzenbach & Pitts, 2020).
Between the farmer working the land, the bee that supports the plant pollination, the synthetic fertilizers added to the fields, the truck that transports the food, the factory that transforms the raw material into processed items, the cashier who scans the food items at the supermarket, the family who eats their breakfast, and the person who picks up the trash, there is a global network of exchanges - a network of networks - that underlies what we call our "food system" (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: The food system (as designed in the report by Les Greniers d'Abondance)
But these networks and processes that make the fabric of our food system are increasingly vulnerable, partly because they rely on destructive practices that accelerate global threats. For example, the production of synthetic fertilizers is responsible for 1.2% of the world?s total energy on an annual basis, and a major source of GHG emissions (IFA, 2009). In turn, the rise in GHG emissions directly contributes to global warming, which disturbs the climate, and has an effect on the food that can grow on a given landscape. A 2017 study by Berardy and Chester found that yields of agricultural commodities in Arizona (alfalfa, sorghum, cotton, barley and wheat) would fall between 1% and 12.2% per 1°C increase due to climate change (Berardy & Chester, 2017). The climate conditions would also impose an increase in irrigation requirements in an already water strained region, and an increase in the use of fertilizer, whose production emits a large amount of GHG. It is a vicious circle. Moreover, the structural change in temperature deeply transforms landscapes, by encouraging the migration and the growth of pathogens that directly affect plant health and survival.
The 11 action steps
The report develops 11 action steps to support local food system resilience. These steps were developed for French applications. In this blog post, we use examples of the United States to illustrate the phenomenons that were already discussed in the report. For example, the 1st step (increase the agricultural population) initially covers the declining agricultural population with French demographics. In this post, we use figures from the United States, where the same declining numbers.
Action Step 1: Increase the agricultural population
According to the last USDA census, there were 3.4 million farmers and ranchers in the United States in 2017, with an average age of 57.5. The average age continues to rise, which raises concerns for the future of the food production capacity in the country. Without farmers, it is impossible to aim for food self-sufficiency in the country. An increase in the numbers of farmers and farmworkers is necessary to improve the resiliency of the US food system.
USDA. 2017. Census of agriculture, Highlights, Farm Producers
The report identifies 6 levers of action to support this action step:
- carry out a land diagnosis and watch of the projected farm sales
- support farm ownership transfers by supporting and bringing together the local actors and networks
- reserve land and systematically prioritize farmers? installation
- make land available
- acquire land
- develop farm activity tests for entrepreneurs who do not come from a farming background
Action Step 2: Preserve agricultural land
Like in France, farmland is threatened in the United States. Human constructions are spreading at a sustained pace, often destroying fertile agricultural land. A study by the American Farmland Trust shows that agricultural land is increasingly being converted, fragmented or paved over, threatening the integrity of local food systems. Since 2000, the United States has lost more than 11 million acres of farmland to development.
Source: Farms under threat: the State of the States
To preserve these lands and facilitate the relocation of production, communities must set a goal of "zero net artificialization". A new artificialized space always represents a net loss of natural and agricultural spaces, and therefore an aggravation compared to the initial situation. Actionable levers:
- Observe existing agricultural land to know and limit its artificialization
- Protect existing agricultural lands
- Concentrate development within spaces that are already artificial
- Achieving zero net artificialization
Action Step 3: Promote the technical and energy autonomy of farms
Current agricultural production is based on a complex technical system and high consumption of fossil fuels. This lack of autonomy is a vulnerability in a context of economic and energy constraints. The current food production system is heavily mechanized and dependent on the petroleum industry, especially for fertilizers, pesticide, and transportation. The development of a manufacturing network for low-tech agricultural tools and local energy sources is an essential factor of resilience at the territorial level. Actionable levers:
- increase awareness on the need for farm technical autonomy
- promote the development of a local network of craftsmen-builders of farm tools
- develop pooling for farm equipment by supporting cooperatives for the use of agricultural equipment
- train farmers in energy efficient practices
- encourage self-production of energy
Action Step 4: diversify cultivated breeds and develop seed autonomy
Agricultural production today relies on the use of genetically homogeneous varieties, selected to maximize yields and optimize the processing, distribution and marketing of agricultural products. However, these seeds and breeds are not always the best adjusted to local environments, which makes them more vulnerable to climate change. Moreover, it leads to an impoverishment of cultivated biodiversity.
The structure of the seed industry is heavily concentrated, and only 4 players dominate the global seed market: Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva (Dow/DuPont), Chem-China, BASF. These companies control an estimated 60% of the global proprietary seed sales. The use of seeds is controlled by patents, which legally prevent many farmers from saving seeds for future production.
Source: Howard, P. H. (2018, December 31). Global Seed Industry Changes Since 2013. Philip H. Howard. https://philhoward.net/2018/12/31/global-seed-industry-changes-since-2013
- promote the growth of local seed companies at a local scale
- support the development of farmer seed houses
- invest in participatory research to develop new varieties adapted to local conditions and the need of farmers
- raise awareness and train farmers on the issue
- structure the value chain to ensure market opportunities for local varieties
Action Step 5: Adopt integrated water management strategies
Water is a critical limiting factor for agricultural production. In a context of rapid climate change, tensions over access to water resources will be exacerbated. Agriculture is a major user of ground and surface water in the United States, accounting for approximately 80 percent of the Nation's consumptive water use and over 90 percent in many Western States (USDA ERS, 2019). In 2018, total irrigated cropland accounts for nearly 56 million acres according to the 2017 Census of agriculture, but 2.1 million acres were affected by irrigation interruptions due to shortage of surface water, shortage of groundwater, irrigation equipment failure, energy price increase or energy shortage, high water salinity, loss of water rights, cost of purchased water. A water intensive crop, corn accounted for roughly 25 percent of total U.S. irrigated acreage.
- make an inventory of water resources, their evolution, and set objectives to reduce local dependency to irrigation
- develop financial and technical supports form farms to be less dependent on irrigation
- train producers to reduced farm water consumption
- for irrigation, reuse water waste from wastewater treatment plans
Action Step 6: Evolve towards a nourishing agriculture
Relocating the food system to strengthen its resilience requires the development of nourishing and therefore diversified agriculture.
- assess the nourishing capacity of a region
- promote the diversification of agricultural production in the bioregion
- use public procurement (for example for schools) to support certain productions such as local and organic farmers
- develop urban and peri-urban agriculture
- encourage self-production among the general population
Action Step 7: Generalize agroecology
The intensification of industrial agriculture is manifested today by a deeply degraded environment, a high dependence on synthetic inputs and a great homogeneity of agrarian systems. Dominant agricultural practices are proving to be a source of vulnerability and exacerbation of the threats described in the report.
Source - Impacts of Genetically Engineered, Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Thirteen Years, by Charles Benbrook, November 2009.
Fate of pesticides in the environment
Source: Odukkathil, G., & Vasudevan, N. (2013). Toxicity and bioremediation of pesticides in agricultural soil. Reviews in Environmental Science and Bio/Technology, 12(4), 421?444
- carry out a diagnosis of agricultural practices in the bioregion, and set improvement objectives
- raise awareness, train and support farmers to develop agroecology
- protect and massively develop forest and landscape infrastructures
- encourage organic agriculture and certified production
Action Step 8: Develop local tools for storage and processing
Like the seed industry, the food processing industry is heavily concentrated, and now relies on large units that are disconnected from farms and consumers (see infographic by the Family Farm Action Alliance below). Limiting the food system's dependence on transport and fossil fuels therefore requires the relocation of processing units.
Source: Hendrickson, M. K, Howard, P. H., Miller E. M., Constance D. H. (2020) The Food System: Concentration and its impacts
- carry out an inventory of existing processing units
- romote the local development of processing and storage tools
- use public procurement for collective catering
- relocate the food chain
Action Step 9: Simplify and shorten the food supply chain
In the space of a few decades, the rise of the agri-food industries and mass distribution have revolutionized food logistics. Food is now mostly transported by cargo ships and trucks over thousands of kilometers, and routed in just-in-time flow to points of sale that are often inaccessible without a car. Anticipating the decline in oil production requires greatly reducing the distances traveled by food and consumers by deploying local distribution networks.
- integrating food systems into urban planning strategies
- build shared distribution platform for regional producers
- develop local distribution channels
- promote the development of local points of sales
- develop "last mile" logistics solutions
Action Step 10: Eat more plant-based food
Changes in consumption practices are essential for the transformation of production systems. Faced with growing constraints on crop yields, reducing the consumption of animal products allows a much more efficient use of a territory's resources such as land and water, but also largely reduces GHG emissions (see a list of research articles on the environmental impacts of meat consumption here).
- make way for plant based proteins in collective catering
- prefer local and quality products in collective catering
- reduce waste in collective catering
- raise public awareness on changing diets
Action Step 11: Massively recycle nutrients
In the United States, most of the nutrients supplied to agricultural soils come from mineral fertilizers and depend on non-renewable resources . The synthesis of nitrogenous fertilizers consumes large amounts of natural gas. Most other fertilizers (phosphorus, potassium, zinc ...) are made from mineral resources whose exploitation is compromised in the short term by oil supply constraints and by the depletion of better quality deposits. The scarcity of fossil fuels will also restrict the availability of sulfur - an element that is often limiting for the growth of certain crops - and of sulfuric acid used for the synthesis of phosphate fertilizers. In the medium term, in a context of gradual reduction in the supply of new nutrients, the current linear system can only lead to a gradual depletion of agricultural soils and a decrease in overall production.
- make public buildings exemplary for excreta recycling
- install collection equipments for excreta
- structure local value chains around the recovery of human excreta for agricultural use
- recycle biowaste to make compost
Values in food system transformation
Improving the resilience of our food system is a pressing challenge, and different actors offer different visions and recommendations to address it. Identifying positionally and values underlying any set of recommendations is critical because it allows to put the intended impacts of these recommendations into a larger perspective. The report by Les Greniers d'Abondance was developed thanks to a large review of the literature on food resilience, but also thanks to the contribution of very diverse groups of people including farmers and researchers. It largely promotes a vision of food system resilience that relies on strengthening local capacities for food production, increasing the number of people growing food, and using farming techniques that depart from using oil-intensive tools such as synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and heavy machinery. If we look at it closely, such a transformation of practices implies and promotes a huge shift in values.
In my own research, I explore how such a transformation supports the development of a "culture of care" (Giraud, 2021), which is critical for the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal. Indeed, agroecology (and other practices such as permaculture and regenerative agriculture) are rooted in an attempt to produce food while minimizing the negative impacts on the environment and the society, but also while encouraging the positive impacts. For example, these practices recognize that the higher the biodiversity on a given site, the higher the resistance of crops to pests and diseases will be, and the higher the soil fertility. Hence, these practices are rooted in an enlarged practice of care, that is not solely focused on a given crop, but on the whole ecosystem. By doing so, they participate in the moral transformation of our food systems, and support the flourishing of a culture of care which is central to the development of a more sustainable world.
Adapting the model in the US
The report was designed for French local governments. It concludes with a summary table that brings together the tools and skills available at each political level of decision making, and in the areas of land zoning, agriculture production, project management, consumption and waste production, etc. Such a table cannot be directly translated for the United States, because the political fabric is very different. However, the idea can be adapted, starting with the identification of the players and levels of decision making in each of these key transformation areas. Strong variations are to be expected between States, but the influence of the federal agricultural policies is likely to be similar. As a start, the framework could be used to analyze the tools and skills available in one given State, and then expand further.
About the Author
Esteve Giraud is a PhD candidate at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, and her research focuses on the contributions of Care Theory to urban food system resilience. She currently serves as a Research Associate at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, where she studies the benefits of organic food and the challenges it currently faces. In 2016 she wrote a book about the ethics of the organic movement published in France. She holds a Master in Economy from the University Pompeu Fabra in Spain, and a Master in Business Administration from Toulouse Business School in France.
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