Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Meeting Halfway between Locavore and Global

Continuing my exploration of organic, non-industrial vs. industrial, large-scale agriculture in terms of ability to feed the world, I came across a surprising assertion in a report I'm reading (The Future of Farming and Food, issued by the UK government). This report commits to the same values I discussed last time: right to food, sustainability, nutrition, global footprint and contribution to climate change, so I'm definitely intrigued (but not finished, it's long). The surprising assertion is that while they don't seem particularly in favor of big, industrial agriculture, they emphatically denounce national self-sufficiency as a viable agricultural system and advocate instead for a global food supply system, albeit with some radical changes. Global food distribution is usually associated with industrial agriculture.

Self-sufficiency of supply refers to the ability of the population of each country in the world to feed itself with produce grown within that country. This idea is definitely in vogue at the moment, and for good reasons.
• A country that feeds itself will be insulated from changes in global food prices. A recent story on NPR discusses various reasons for why food prices fluctuate less in some countries than others, greater self-sufficiency being one reason.
• Fossil fuels used for long haul transport of food would be reduced, although whether this would result in an overall reduction in fossil fuel is debatable because other uses, such as heating greenhouses to grow produce in a cold climate, could offset the savings gained from eating food grown nearby.
• Finally a country that is self-sufficient would not have to hand over much control of their food system to global multi-nationals, who don't have much stake in local well-being. For instance, in an area with farms that grow a variety of foodstuffs, selling (and buying) food locally would be one option for that area, whereas if all or most farms in a given area grew a single commodity, such as coffee, the community does not have any option but to buy food from an external source with a large enough infrastructure to procure, transport and sell that food across great distances, most likely a large corporation.

So why would this report argue against national self-sufficiency? Well, frankly, I don't know yet because I'm only reading the executive summary, which presents the conclusions but not the data to explain how these were reached. In a few hundred pages, I should have a better idea! But I would guess it is attributed mainly to the fact that many countries simply don't have a viable climate for supporting their population year round. I don't know that this is true, but if I examine my own situation in Colorado, I can certainly see that it would be a challenge...

While Colorado supports a huge agricultural sector, local food still isn't available during the winter, which by most standards, isn't a particularly hard one. I've gone to great lengths to store fall vegetables and fruits and can usually make it until about December without buying much from the supermarket. But in the months from January through to about April, the cupboards would be completely bare if I didn't buy produce from California. Obviously I could go further with preservation techniques like canning and freezing, but given that I already go to great lengths and spend a huge portion of my paycheck on groceries, I just don't see how asking each and every person to do this is fair or realistic. Carry that idea further to places with an even longer winter, and one has to wonder if people in those regions could survive on locally grown produce.

Despite the difficulties of eating locally (which is basically the same thing as self-sufficiency), I still don't believe that a global food system is the answer. This report proposes that in order for it to work, there must be drastic changes made, such as creating truly free trade by reducing subsidies in richer countries, or by some mechanism to stabilize prices of commodities.

Even if that happened, this still leaves every country completely dependant on global food policy, which seems like a precarious situation for small countries in particular, given that individually they will never be able to exert much influence on policy at a global level.

What about something halfway in between? For instance, each country focuses some percentage of resources on a commonly consumed staple in that country, e.g. rice or corn. The government could put national policies in place (e.g. tariffs on imports) that would push its farmers to grow and sell nationally the designated amount, say 50%, of the countries needs for this staple. The rest of the land could be used for any other purpose, such as commodity crops like coffee, or more diverse product like fruits and vegetables, or further growth of the staple for export. If global food prices increase, the country would have a buffer that could be used for softening the blow of the increase.

Perhaps strong national policies that mandate a minimum level of self-sufficiency and are tailored to each country's climate and culinary traditions would provide enough of a safety net to allow the remainder of the agricultural economy to be left to gravitate naturally towards the system that fits best, whether global or local in nature.

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