How locavores can improve global food systems

Posted: 10 January 2022 | | No comments yet

Locavores believe in eating locally grown/produced food, but is this the most sustainable choice? Biosystems engineer, Lisa De Vellis examines how locavores and global food producers can happily coexist for the benefit of us all.

Locavores believe in supporting their local farmers, their local economy, and what is perceived as the most ethical food chain

Eating locally produced food has proved more than a fad, it’s become a badge for the socially conscious. Locavores believe in supporting their local farmers, their local economy, and what is perceived as the most ethical food chain. Here, Lisa De Vellis proffers a case that marries the locavore ethos with that of global food producers, illustrating how they can happily coexist for the benefit of us all.

With up to 811 million people currently going hungry every day, the 2030 goal of zero global hunger is on track to fail miserably. The fact that those who produce most of the world’s food are themselves the most food insecure demonstrates how broken and unsustainable our global food systems are.

Food systems sustainability

Sustainability has three pillars: environmental, economic and social. While these factors can overlap and be mutually reinforcing, global food systems lack a co-ordinated sustainability approach.

Agriculture generates a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases and is viewed in terms of environmental impact. Business interests based on economic and market-based considerations dominate supply chains, yet those producing the world’s food suffer disproportionately.

Ethical diets such as eating local food have become a badge for the socially conscious.

Social sustainability prioritises human rights, enabling access to knowledge and resources. It is arguably the most overlooked and most important approach to sustainability in global food systems. Upskilling producers, securing land rights and access to fundamental commodities like higher-quality seeds and fertilisers would not only optimise farm-based practices but also drive economic and environmental sustainability.

Sustainability comes from the supply side. But the demand side should reinforce best practices.

Ethical diets such as eating local food have become a badge for the socially conscious. So-called ‘locavores’ promote local eating as the sustainable choice. But instead of addressing the social inequalities and human-rights abuses within our global food systems, the locavore culture creates an alternative food system accessible only to the privileged few.

If we genuinely strive to eat our way to a more just and equitable world, the locavore ethos, which reallocates power and generates trust, can be applied to global food systems supporting human rights.

Meet the locavore

The locavore movement started in 2005, when three San Francisco Bay Area women challenged their community to only eat food from within a one hundred-mile radius.

Hypocrisies are pervasive among ethical diets and the locavore diet is no different.

Locavores believe in supporting their local farmers, their local economy, and what is perceived as the most ethical food chain by reducing the distance food travels; despite such systems not always having the lowest carbon footprint.

Locavores believe in supporting their local farmers, their local economy, and what is perceived as the most ethical food chain

Locavores believe in supporting their local farmers and opt for organic food

The line between local and global food has also become increasingly blurred. Few food systems are truly local anymore. Seeds, fertilisers and pesticides come from a globalised market, meaning that food grown next door may not be wholly homegrown.

However, the success of the locavore movement rests on two straightforward concepts: power and trust.

Shorter supply chains, which means fewer intermediaries between producers and consumers, are good. This gives farmers more power and helps consumers feel more connected to their food.

Shifting the power balance towards the farmer improves their access to knowledge and resources and consequently their ability to optimally manage the land and earn a fair living. By prioritising human interests, the locavore ethos enhances environmental and economic sustainability.

The global farmer versus the locavore

The concept of local eating goes back further than the modern locavore movement suggests.

Subsistence farming has existed ever since humans began cultivating the land; it entails crop cultivation for personal or household consumption as part of an economy where life is focused on accessing the essentials. Subsistence farmers are the original locavores, but by necessity rather than choice.

Today, paradoxically, millions of smallholder farmers, who are in closest proximity to the source of seventy percent of the world’s food, struggle to access enough food for their own families to survive.

Access to sufficient, adequate food is a human right, yet smallholders are the most vulnerable to hunger, mainly because global food systems support business interests over human interests. This is precisely the unjust situation the locavore ethos protests through shorter supply chains.

UK locavores have the luxury of participating in niche markets, responding to social and political hot topics. They consume global products like chocolate, coffee, tea and coconut milk; and this is a good thing.

Since we are eating imports, the ethical-eating debate should include how to best reform our global food systems. The locavore ethos can be extended to our global food systems, shortening supply chains and enhancing social sustainability in the process, which would improve the lives of those on whom these systems rely.

Lessons from locavores

The locavore ethos hands power back to those closest to our global food sources, ensuring access to knowledge, resources and quality of life. Shifting power in favour of the grower would restore trust in and transform our global food systems, driving all aspects of sustainability.

The current state of global trade often encourages agricultural countries to export raw, unprocessed goods such as green coffee beans or cocoa beans to wealthier countries for processing. This processing adds value that businesses in wealthier nations profit from at the grower’s expense.

Governance that supports value-added product transformation at origin, such as roasting green coffee beans or canning jams and spreads, is one way to shift power back to the farmer. This would accomplish the following three things:

  1. Shorten the supply chain and reduce the number of players in between farmer and consumer
  2. Remove business interests as the dominating voice in global food politics, shifting the focus to human interests
  3. Increase the desirability of global foods by retaining origin specificity and fostering consumers’ connection to the farmer/producer.

Consumers should appreciate the origin-specific attributes of all sorts of global products in the same way they understand and value the origin specificity of wine.

This already exists with coffee, chocolate and other products to varying degrees, but it can be extended to many more. Essentially, the consumable should represent and promote the localness of a product, not only based on where the raw good was grown but by where and whom the food product was produced.

Even minor processing such as roasting beans, extracting oil, or canning fruits locally, would improve social sustainability and, by extension, promote human rights at the food’s origin. In this way, a product destined for export may still be classified as a local product, even if consumed as an import. The consumer would experience a more personal connection with the product and smallholders would gain greater control of a higher-value commodity.

Shortening the supply chain, rebalancing power in favour of the farmer, and strengthening consumer connection are the foundation of the locavore philosophy. Applying this to our global food systems presents a major opportunity.

Models that depend on long supply chains and support business interests at the expense of human beings must be challenged. Transforming raw goods into higher-value products by smallholder co-operatives shortens the supply chain, prioritises human rights and development, and supports economic and environmental sustainability.

Processing pride would increase, as would product quality and consumer loyalty. It’s a positive-feedback loop primed for mass support. But the policy environment and our personal food politics must overcome the pro-local mantra to create market demand in support of such development.

How locavores can reconcile a global diet

Locavores question the state of our industrial and global food systems. Such a critique is both valid and important.

Locavores understand that eating is a socio-political act. Local food choices can be viewed as supporting local people, economies and the environment and as resistance against a deeply flawed global system. But protesting the global food system while casually buying coffee, chocolate and coconut water doesn’t make sense; especially when those producing our global foods are hungry. Ignoring this only makes it worse.

Locavores assume local food is good. The subtext is that imported food is bad. There is a danger in the de facto valuing of the local over the global. It’s an anti-globalisation sentiment that ignores the realities of our food systems: that global smallholders are among the world’s most vulnerable.

Prioritising human rights

International human rights law preserves the humanity and dignity of all. But as progress with global hunger moves in the wrong direction, this law is not being upheld. The values of respect and relationship-building that locavores reinforce at home should also extend to global foods.

A human-rights approach to global food systems would address governance, accountability and inequality, creating an enabling environment for the reallocation of power and environmentally sound farming practices.

This approach would, in turn, expand the choice of imported products processed at origin and enhance their perceived (and desirable) local character. Combined, these factors would establish a new foundation for consumer trust in global products.

Local may be better; but not always. Local and global foods can and should coexist to encourage sustainable practices and grant more choice and enjoyment to the consumer. But, primarily, food systems must honour and protect the human rights of those producing the world’s food.

About author

A biosystems engineer with extensive technical experience in food and agriculture systems, Lisa De Vellis writes professionally about complex topics for a range of global stakeholders. Her passion rests at the interface of human rights, globalisation and development.