lthough there are people who insist that the local food movement has "gone mainstream" in this country, Canadians remain by and large Big Fans of Big Food.
Two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables consumed here are imported. Food items consumed In Ontario's Waterloo region, adjoining our biggest farm belt, travel an average of 4,497 km. In 2007, Canadians spent 10.2% of their income on food - 2½ percent less than in 1997 - thanks to the massive volumes that giant farms and processors turn out far away.
Of course, food produced and processed in the same vicinity as it is consumed is a passion for thousands of Canadians. Yet local food remains at best a hobby for many many more.
Can local food get big - so big as to supply most of us with a substantial portion of our diet? It is surprising how uncertain people are about how to answer that question. For while many proponents of local food do reckon that it can "achieve scale" and that it should ... they recoil at the possibility that growth will go wrong. It could realize greater demand and/or sales revenue, while missing the target that makes local food worth doing in the first place: tasty, nutritious food that personally connects and commits its producers, processors, marketers, and consumers to one another and to the planet itself. Unless this entire food value chain (see diagram, right) grows in mutual respect and collaboration, growth is a mistake.
Achieving scale in local food, then, has everything to do with changing the relationships between people in the food value chain. With their diverse experiences, abilities, and interests, how are they to get and stay reconciled?
Take consumers and producers, for example. Especially in cities, consumers pull together the demand for local food, link it to producers and processors, and promote it to the greater public and government. Many of these initiatives originate in the desire to get low-income households properly fed or in the desire to break the city's addiction to imported foods.
By contrast, producers - small farmers, to be exact - are likely to champion innovations that reserve for them a much greater share of the price of food. Until their farms are viable, don't expect to see a viable local food system. The trouble is, their viability may well depend on specialization and vertical integration among small growers and processors - the very behaviour that many urban consumers associate with agro-corporations. (Read more about this in the article Size Does Matter.)
How are such differences to be overcome? One way is undertake growth in terms of two types of infrastructure.
Over the last two generations a huge portion of this country's wholesale and retail marketing space, processing equipment, cold storage, and delivery systems has been sold off. Rebuilding this "hard" infrastructure is a central task in the growth of the local food sector. (For more details, read Regenerating Regional Food Systems.)
But just as important (not more important, mind you) are the interpersonal relationships, values, and organizational capacity called "soft" infrastructure. These are the factors that will keep local food from growing into a carbon copy of the mainstream food system, or, maddeningly, from developing products that Food Giants can pick up and resell as it suits them.
When investments are made expressly to build both these infrastructures, local food initiatives can indeed grow to transform the way whole communities feed themselves. (The i4 article Scaling Up Local Food explains how Japan's Seikatsu Consumer Cooperative accomplishes just that.)
i4 is an ejournal about Inspiring, Innovating, Inciting, and Inventing ways of life and work that permit humanity and the planet to thrive in this century of unprecedented challenges. i4 is a publication of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal.