The Importance of Local Food, part 1: Dismantling of Distance and Time
This is part one in an article series looking at why local food is one of the most important tools for reversing climate change and Living Happily Ever After.
Nature, what a thing! A seed, soil, some chicken poop, water, a few weeks and all of a sudden, a gigantic fennel!
Three years ago me and my fiancee left the city and instead chose the field, the forest, the hens, the vegetables and the relative small town calm of Gnesta, an hour south of Stockholm, Sweden.
I see myself as a decent home grower of vegetables. Decent but still totally an amateur. You can guess the pride and satisfaction I felt when harvesting this half kilo beast the other day.
Apparently, fennel can thrive in Sweden under the simplest of conditions — my 100 sqm plot. But, when you visit the local grocery there is no trace of Swedish fennel. Instead there are lots of pale, wilted, overripe or underripe vegetables from Spain, The Netherlands and all over the globe. That feels just plain wrong. Why is that? Why isn’t the shelves packed with crisp just harvested local produce?! Because that is what we want, isn’t it? For me and many others, the emotional reply is: of course! We like the idea of purchasing our greens straight from the farmer. So much that marketing people for ages have been using this, capitalising on our longing with tempting (and often fake) stories.
In this article series I will take a deeper look at some of the reasons local food is one of the most important keys to reversing climate change and Living Happily Ever After.
Articles in the series:
- Distance, the climate and the environment
- The local economy
- Quality, taste and nutrition
- Tradition, pride, community, the purpose of life
- Food safety, resilience
Dismantling of distance and time
A lot of the food we buy at the supermarket comes from places we have never visited or even heard about. The industrial food system does a great job bringing us produce from far corners of the globe. We have access to food on a daily basis that would make kings and queens green of envy 150 years ago.
In those days, time and distance placed great constraints on what types food we could get a hold of. Techniques such as drying, salting and pickling could extend the shelf life considerably. A good root cellar could get us through the winter. But since transportation of goods was slow and cumbersome we were mostly referred to consuming local and regional produce. The food system back then was out of necessity local and to a large extent circular.
Then, industrialisation came along. The invention of the rail road allowed for transporting fish from coastal communities to the inland. Grain, vegetables and agricultural inputs such as fertilizers could be hauled long distances cheaply, allowing for centralised storage and processing. Later on, refrigerated transport as well as home fridges allowed for cities to be emptied of cows (and farmers). Not to mention the impact of the shipping container.
By making shipping so cheap that industry could locate factories far from its customers, the container paved the way for Asia to become the world’s workshop and brought consumers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the globe. — Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
Cheaper transports, more efficient transport, longer shelf life. Every new invention meant the constraints of time and distance grew weaker. When and where the food was produced became less important.
New technology allowed for the emergence of a new type of player – the national and global food corporations, using time and distance as raw materials, quickly taking a dominant position in the market. Transportation, processing and warehousing turned out to be highly profitable ventures. Another way to put it is that bridging of time and distance became the fuel that fed the industrial food system. The actual bridging is the mechanism that creates the profit margin, the thing that makes “the World Economy Bigger”.
These new boys on the business block had a vested interest in a long-distance food system. The transportation, warehousing and storage infrastructure of the new system was designed to meet the needs of national corporations, not local businesses or local customers. The further apart producers were from consumers, the more pivotal and profitable the connecting role of corporations. — Wayne Roberts, How To Grow a Local Food Web
From farmer to business owner
With distance and time out of the way, the old “business model” of farming a diverse range of crops was quickly outdated, unprofitable and replaced by one of specialisation. I put “business model” within quotes to highlight the shift that took place. Before specialisation few farmers would have thought in terms of “business model” at all. Rather, farming was a way of life. “Way of life” is probably not even that an accurate description. The term implies a choice has been made. Rather, most farming in pre-industrial times was carried out of necessity. In that sense, farming was life itself.
Specialisation turned the farmer into a business owner, competing on an ever growing market with margins decreasing every year. You no longer worked to to provide for your family and local community but to produce a commodity for a consumer you had never met.
The shift could be describes as one from an inherently local food system to a global food system. What out of necessity and geographical constraints was a circular system had become a linear system.
With every new technical landmark, the capacity of the industrial food system grew and continues to grow. Where food is produced and when it was produces becomes more and more irrelevant. And if where the food is produced is irrelevant, that also makes the concept of place and origin less relevant.
But, why is this a problem? Why is there an inherent problem in transporting food long distances?
Dissociation and separation
The physical distance to the place where our food is produced strengthens an instrumental view of nature as a resource for humanity to use and exploit. We have a much harder time relating to what is far away and “out of sight” than to what we see and interact with on a daily basis. The geographical separation — the actual distance — also gives birth to a feeling of separation and one of dissociation.
Do you think that somewhere we are not Nature, that we are different from Nature? No, we are in Nature and think exactly like Nature.” — C.G. Jung The Earth Has a Soul.
Our dissociation makes it harder for us to empathise with nature. It nourishes the narrative that we are somehow separate from nature, that our wellbeing is not connected to that of our planet and its ecosystems.
And that, is a really big problem! Our ability to associate and empathise is crucial when tackling complex issues.
The majority of the global challenges we are facing — climate change and environmental destruction — has their roots in the food system and our connection to soil. With an ever decreasing capacity to relate and empathise with nature, how can we make the right decisions to reverse the damage?
It turns out, we can not. Or at least we find it very difficult. To reverse the argument, would it be fair to say we could save the planet just by choosing what we put on our plates?!
Of course not. Our tendency to seek simple solutions to complex problems leads to one of the most common pitfalls — designing solutions today that prove to be the problems of tomorrow.
Where do we go from here?
We need a food revolution and that soon! We need to rebuild our connection to place, to the piece of land that puts food on our table, to the ecosystems that supports continued human life. We need to put the concepts of distance and time back where they belong – in the center of the equation!
Cutting carbon or putting our destructive habits aside doesn’t cut it. We also have to recreate or regenerate the damage we have done to earth. The movement of regenerative agriculture is gaining steam.
To be successful we also have to apply the regenerative perspective on ourselves. We have to rebuild our relation to soil, to the place where our food is produced. We need to find the way out of the feeling of separation from nature and realise that humanity not only is dependent on nature but inherently a part of nature.
By bringing time and distance back, by caring about where the food was produced, by whom and when, we also start caring for place, for soil, for our ecosystems and for earth.
It is high time to start getting interested in the origin of fennel!
This article is part one in a series exploring the relationship between local food and environmental destruction (including climate change).
A shorter version of the article has previously been published as an editorial at AGFO – En starkt bidragande orsak till klimatkrisen.
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