This is the vibe that permeates farmers markets, restaurants, supermarket chains, coffee shops, and entrepreneurial magazines. It’s printed on tote bags and proudly displayed on product packaging. It’s worn as backpack buttons and chanted at rallies.
It’s kind of a big deal — but also not.
Despite all the hype about food miles, farm to fork talk, and relocalizing our food system, eating local is not as straightforward as consumers think. In fact, in the U.S. food system, transportation accounts for only 4% of the energy consumed. On a global scale, less than 10% of GHG emissions embodied in most food products can be attributed to transport.
Purely examining food miles ignores the geographic efficiencies associated with various types of transport. Transporting by cargo ships is the most efficient (fuel-wise), followed by train, trucks, and lastly planes. Flying one ton of food by plane is close to 70 times more carbon-intensive than the same weight on a cargo ship. Therefore, it’s actually worse for the environment to fly something from Boston to Chicago than have it shipped from Viet Nam to California. Why? Because the carbon-cost associated with production is oftentimes much lower internationally, outweighing the 11,000-mile cruise cost. Trying to grow durian in Boston would require greenhouse heat in the winter to support year-round growth and consumer demands, whereas in Viet Nam, that extra energy cost isn’t required due to climatic advantages. Plus, costs are distributed across the many more units one can fit on a ship as opposed to a plane.
While looking exclusively at food miles or carbon footprints neglects farmers, human rights, and water usage, it is still a useful metric. Eating local can boost local economies and build community resilience. It’s neither good nor bad, but consumers should have a clear sense of where their purchases lie on a spectrum of values and how eating local supports those values.
Eating local is important. Yet right now, eating local is a choice afforded by few. What if eating local becomes a necessity? What if it’s a right that’s been taken away?
These are not rhetorical questions.
Rather, they are considerations that must be made in light of biophysical parameters and the peak of critical resources discussed in a previous article. Regarding food as a valuable commodity with production limits is only part of the equation. Food is very much a political subject as well as a cultural force.
How can we reclaim control, then, of the food system in times of political and social turmoil? Food sovereignty may provide some hope.
Food sovereignty as a concept was introduced into public discourse by La Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in 1996. Known as the international peasants movement, La Via Campesina’s food sovereignty defends small-scale agriculture as a means to protect human rights and promote social justice, while strongly opposing corporate driven agriculture that destroys social relations and the living world. Other tenets of food sovereignty include:
Under these guiding ethics, food sovereignty places food at the nexus of culture, politics, and economics—all of which have strong ties to energy.
Food & Culture
Food sovereignty, however, doesn’t aim to define what is appropriate or inappropriate food. Culture is contested even within a specific region; it is dynamic and ever changing. Culture doesn’t necessarily resolve a list of good and bad farming practices, nor define what “good” food is. What examinations of culture can do is reveal power asymmetries and the process in which knowledge is disseminated.
Imagine in Yucatan, Mexico, a family sits down to eat. Handmade corn tortillas prepared by the women through generations of tradition are set next to puchero stew, fresh radish salpicón relish, and fruits. And for the table’s centerpiece, a bottle of Pepsi.
This family is real, and is one of many instances showcasing the complex relationships related to food. A knee-jerk reaction is to decry the presence of mega corporations infiltrating indigenous diets, and lecture upon the perils of sugary drinks, citing obesity and diabetic rates in Mexico. However, if you ask Leonor (the daughter of the household), she will reply that she understands that too much sugar is bad, and that Pepsi is just one of many beverages consumed by her family. Having a certain image of what culturally-appropriate indigenous food should be is reflective of colonial mindsets, and begs the question: who gets to decide what and how to eat? According to food sovereignty, Leonor’s family should get ownership over what is culturally appropriate for them. Yet the subtle shifting of cultural dynamics is perhaps more insidious than that.
Food, Economics, and Politics
Although money is the most popular currency, food is arguably the most basic unit of wealth. Without food, people have no health with which to sustain a society. Furthermore, not all food is created equal nor is there equal access. The struggle for food security is very much shaped by capitalistic economic imperatives with vested-interested policies upholding them.
While Leonor’s family had the “free will” to buy Pepsi, its presence is undeniably a product of globalization and surplus. The homogenization of cultures with expanding globalization normalizes certain products and practices, eroding traditional practices in favor of convenience and the efficiencies of comparative advantage. Cheap products sold in bulk are enabled by federal subsidies given to certain crops and the livestock industry.
Today, the U.S. spends more than $20 billion annually on farm subsidies, the majority going to cash crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. It is because of these subsidies that the cheapest foods are usually the least healthy, and why organic food is more expensive despite requiring fewer inputs to produce.
Following the Green Revolution during the mid-20th century, developing nations such as India and Mexico became less dependent on developed nations for access to grains. Thus, the United States and Europe found themselves in a position of excess, and resorted to dumping subsidized grains and other commodities overseas to keep prices at home high. Insidiously, much of this surplus arrived on other shores under the name of “foreign aid” or “humanitarian relief.” In the process of protecting some farmers, the impacts of low prices were fully absorbed by developing nations. Seizing upon the subsidies, multinational corporations went on a mad-grab of low-priced surplus commodities to manufacture and sell. Without the same level of federal protection, developing nations were flooded with cheap products they couldn’t compete with, crippling domestic markets and farmers. This stagnant economic health perpetuated an image that developing nations were in need of assistance by wealthier nations, solidifying a toxic codependency. The same market distortion and price manipulations of the 1970s continue to this day.
Today, the U.S. spends more than $20 billion annually on farm subsidies, the majority going to cash crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. Subsidies protect farmers from price fluctuations but deter risk-taking for innovation, diversifying land use, and cutting costs. If soy monoculture buoyed by synthetic fertilizers make the most bank, why should a farmer invest in more nutritious crops such as fruits with less yield and environmental protection infrastructure? It is because of these subsidies that the cheapest foods are usually the least healthy, and why organic food is more expensive despite requiring fewer inputs to produce. It is quite bizarre to charge more for something that was planted with minimal inputs, rather than the conventional product that requires tanks of fertilizer and mile-long irrigation systems to grow.
Grains and sugars may provide the most calories (think high fructose corn syrup, chips, and box pastas) but they provide little fiber and few essential nutrients needed to nourish bodies. Poor quality food is linked to lower education, lower incomes, and higher rates of mortality. Add on socioeconomic barriers (redlining, prejudice, food deserts, etc.), the theft of indigenous land and sovereignty, and corporate protection, and you have the formula for why many still go hungry in an age of plenty.
Whether it is monopolies holding seed power over farmers, displacement of indigenous peoples and cultures, waterway pollution and corporate accountability dodging, bureaucratic invasions in the name of progress, or any other injustice—these are not singular events, but rather symptoms of larger ailments. Systemic change will require patience and novel but practical thinking. Below are some musings on what must and might happen in a new, just food system.
Relocalization: Reimagining Food Systems & Energy
It would be foolish to ignore the benefits billions of people have reaped from industrial agriculture and capitalism; however, it would be equally foolish to ignore the fact that the same system that lifted people out of poverty are putting them back in another form. With population and competitive market pressures, food production has been more or less decoupled from labour capabilities and become a corollary of abstract financial whims and runaway city-state complexity—all of this powered by fossil energy. It was stated before that food is the most basic unit of wealth, and this is still true, yet right now even food is a by-product of fossil energy, making it the real currency of modern society. Therefore, to break the dependency of food on fossil energy, and ultimately liberate people from financial (not physical) limits to well-being, relocalization efforts are a critical undertaking.
Relocalization…what does this mean?
Relocalization is a society-building strategy based on the local production of food, energy, and goods, and the local development of currency, governance, and culture. The main goals of relocalization are to increase community energy security, strengthen local economies, and improve ecosystems and social equity.
So what does this mean in terms of energy and food?
Well for one, it is beyond urban farming and community-supported agriculture (CSA). We need to reclaim our land and social creativity in an increasingly urbanized and disconnected world. But the true aim of relocalization is community sovereignty. Meaning, rights to energy flows like land and water, and control over how these are utilized and accessed. It’s cute to have a garden or windowsill pot, but it’s not so cute when food from California can’t make it to the Midwest or East Coast. What will you and your neighbors do then? Who will make the decisions on who does what? The government? No. Community solutions can be faster and more likely to have tangible results catered to the needs of those directly impacted.
Relocalization will require the expansion of civic and agricultural knowledge that many of us no longer retain due to our current educational system. It will require talking to people (maybe even those we don’t agree with!) and building resilience into a fragile energy-dependent food system. True sustainability in terms of local food systems means that everyone, especially youth, their families, and the disenfranchised, are involved in the process not only as beneficiaries of “green food” but as central voices in the planning, development, and execution of the food system and its interlocking parts: energy, public transportation, storage, economic development, and so on.
Community-scale production will require far fewer inputs than industrial-scale agriculture. By leveraging polyculture, regenerative agriculture, water retention/collection methods, synergistic field design, and existing infrastructure, we can mimic the living world and reap the benefits of ecosystem services performed by our living kin and biospheres, rather than pumping synthetic chemicals into the soil and air and using oil-guzzling machines to do the same things. Read more in our Regenerative Agriculture article to see what this could look like.
Manufacturing and Processing
From previous discussions, processing food accounts for about ⅕ of energy consumed. What if we ate…less processed food? Big crops like corn and wheat are present in almost everything we eat even if they no longer resemble the original plant thanks to subsidies and energy-intensive manufacturing processes. Can you imagine what it took to get from this to this?
Much of our food is processed now through grinding, milling, wetting, extrusion, drying, and baking/frying, made possible by electricity and steam energy to power giant drum dryers, presses, pumps, evaporation chambers, conveyor belts, and a bunch of other complicated machinery. With community-scale production, many products may become less viable without industrial infrastructure but many more can become less of a luxury. Cage-free eggs for a third of the price? Jam with actual fruits in it? Wild rice soup that doesn’t cost $10 a bowl? This is possible! By eating more “raw” foods in accordance with regional availability, a major chunk of energy can be avoided by foregoing mass production and heavy manipulation of foods. Yes, it may be slower, but it would enable more control over inputs and ethical sourcing, without banking on what the packaging promises. Which brings us to the next energy-saving aspect of food: the consumer.
Consumer literacy? Supply Chains? Alternative Storage?
After leaving the factory, food’s journey is barely half-done. Packaging, wholesale/retail, food services (restaurants, coffeeshops, etc.), and consumer storage/preparation make up the other half. Consumer purchases are akin to ballot votes, but instead of voting for candidates, they’re voting for companies, and indirectly the perpetuation of fossil energy dependency. This isn’t meant to guilt-trip anyone who’s not growing their own food or subscribed to a CSA. Many of us know things are pretty screwy but aren’t in a privileged position to change or aren’t sure where to start to wean off “The System.” Aside from familiarizing yourself with the green seals of sustainable products, what else can consumers do to become more ecologically-literate? For starters, we can seek alternatives to food usage, prep, and storage.
Food usage is not a technical term, though we technically use food for more than just sustenance. Food can be an excuse to get out of the house and dine without preparing it yourself. Food can be a social act, to be with company or flaunt status. It’s meant for consumption, but can be used as a prop for concerts or part of cultural festivities. Food’s versatility doesn’t necessarily detract from its nutritive value, although it does warrant asking: how can we use food in more consumptive and enriching ways?
Relocalizing food prep, from residential to restaurants, entails a hefty curbing of waste. Globally, ⅓ of all food produced is wasted and in the U.S., ~43% of waste occurs in the house. Is this a result of poor list-making? Not eating leftovers? Buying too much? Placing high value on pretty produce? Yes, and more. Considering many of us obtain our food from grocery stores requiring some mode of transport to reach, it makes sense to buy a bit more than we need “just in case.” Who wouldn’t want to save a trip and money from bulk deals? However, this surplus mentality is afforded by cheap energy. Banking on refrigerators and freezers to extend shelf life of foods and in some instances, cheap gas to make a trip to the store again if you forgot something, means there is little consequence for waste, save for your wallet and some moral guilt.
What would happen if this distance were closed? Not to imply everyone should relocate to within 5 miles of a farm, but what if food was sourced seasonally? In addition to eating locally, seasonal eating can contribute to lower inputs. Many foods are waxed or have preservatives added to extend shelf life; but if the food journey was shorter, less preservatives would be needed. Seasonal food is sometimes local, whereas local is always seasonal. By aligning our food expectations with regional and seasonal parameters, supply chains can be shortened and the chance of waste occurring from farm to fork could be lessened.
To combat reliance on energy for storage infrastructure, new ways of preserving food must be considered. The refrigeration sector (including air conditioning) accounts for 17% of electricity usage worldwide, even though refrigeration efficiencies have dramatically increased in the past 35 years. Additionally, the proliferation of cold chains will actually lower waste from transport spoilage, raising food supply in developing countries by 15%. Nonetheless, extensive supply chains still require lots of cooling along the way, adding those pesky CFCs, HFCs, and other GHGs to the embodied energy of manufacturing these machines. While the future of global food supplies is yet to unfold, the path towards modifying energy at home is already paved. Quite a few things we refrigerate now don’t actually need it. Fruits and vegetables are fine sitting outside in a cool, dry place, or with roots submerged in some water. A few alternatives to refrigerating include:
Other methods to keep food for a while include canning, fermenting, pickling, drying—the list goes on! Every little action we do has a myriad of alternative ways of doing. To begin extracting yourself from “the necessities” of modern lifestyles, start by exploring these.
Relocalization & Society
Relocalization of food is critical…yet this is just one facet of our lives. What else will have to relocalize in times of energetic simplification? Most likely we will have to shift work, leisure, and travel into closer proximity.
In the U.S., a nation built for the automobile age, the average commute to work is 25 minutes one way. Since the 1980s, every decade has seen a decline in carpooling, and now 76% of commuters drive alone to work. While public transportation and biking or walking to work is in vogue, the infrastructure to support a massive relocalization effort is nowhere near completion. Rather than aiming to replace gas cars with electric cars, policy will have to aim for more collective solutions.
Yes, electric cars emit less GHGs in transit, but the embodied energy in constructing these vehicles cannot be ignored. Furthermore, EV batteries are dependent on finite precious metals like lithium, cobalt, and more, with no proper way to dispose of or reuse them once their lifespan is exhausted. Mining for these metals pollutes ecosystems and the people living in them, and the metals themselves are often unethically sourced. Until electric transport is powered by renewable energy (wind, solar, hydro), the promise of ditching dirty energy for electric cars and rail is highly misleading. Now you might say these are baby steps and it’s better than nothing. To this end, provisional means are a necessity, but in urgent times, it is far wiser to pursue the greatest provisional means. In other words, this is the time to think “radically.” Radical transitions require radical solutions, not pins and bumper stickers.
Ironically, the word radical actually means “roots.” It’s not outlandish to pursue seemingly impossible solutions or propositions; rather, we are returning to our roots. This is not to romanticize the past. However, it is undeniable that “simpler times” came before us and are once again coming ahead. To make this just transition, a pragmatic understanding of energy with a little creativity is needed.
Doing metropolitan work closer to or at home? The COVID-19 pandemic has already forced us to do so.
Having fun and leisure within your country? Um, most of the world already does that.
Embarking on adventures that don’t require tons of money and miles traveled? Look around, and discover your own community.
Is this a suggestion that the dream of open highways and road trips, or travelling the world is being dashed away before our eyes? Bluntly put, yes. To an extent.
Euphemisms like the American Dream really are dreams, since you must be asleep and fully ensconced in the consensus trance to believe them. So in a sense, we are being robbed in broad daylight of empty promises that were never rightfully ours to begin with.
It’s still possible to see the beautiful world or try exotic foods, or even move out of your hometown and work far away. But the means with which we do these things will change. How will we do this? There’s no clear cut solution, nor should there be. Every implementation must be culturally and geographically contextual. Yet there exists some energetically sound solutions already being tested, including:
Relocalization and reclaiming food sovereignty must align with biophysical reality and restorative justice. It is integral to repairing human relationships with each other, our living kin, and the world we inhabit. It will ask us to take a hard look at our current cultural values, foregoing consumption and growth as substitutes for health and spiritual well-being. It will demand coming up with new metrics to evaluate well-being and attain said quality of life, while emphasizing quality over quantity. This transition will be slow, but the simplification is already underway. Under deep justice ethics, living in the present will require living for the future.
There’s a great book, Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, that might be fun to check out. It’s like a fermentation manifesto.
For a deeper dive into relocalization, read this breakdown.