Re-imagining the Food Chain


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.)

Dig Deeper

  • In Wisconsin, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems has documented eleven strategies that American producers are using to aggregate and distribute food regionally. The report, Scaling Up: Meeting the Demand for Local Food is available in whole, or chapter by chapter.
  • Riots broke out in Niger's cities when food prices jumped in 2008. Et si la crise alimentaire profitait aux paysans africains? describes how farmers in that country have had to organize so that their views on food security can be heard above the expectations of urban consumers and despite the terms of international trade agreements.
  • For a brief but incisive analysis of the factors that constrain the scale of local food, read Local Food: The Untold Story by Martin Gooch of the George Morris Centre in Guelph, Ontario. The sector faces huge challenges, not the least of which is the minor contribution that transportation makes to food's carbon footprint.
  • The Canadian Centre for Community Renewal's report Strengthening Yukon Local Food identifies strategic points in that region's food value chain and the types of initiative that currently can give food security the greatest boost.

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.



Rural Development Initiatives, Inc, a non-profit headquartered in Eugene, Oregon is featuring the topic of local food production, distribution, and consumption at this year's "Regards to Rural" Conference held on the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis June 24-25.  Let's gather to talk about the link between food systems and rural community development.  Ben Hewitt, author of "The Town that Food Saved," is keynote. For more information, go to or contact Shawn Morford at  Limited scholarships are available.

Hi Don!

I am writing to ask if you would be able to tell me the source for the statistic you provide in the beginning of your article ("Two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables consumed here are imported".)



Hi Dana - sorry for keeping you waiting so long for a reply. The source for that statistic is John Anderson's presentation of April 29, 2008 to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food (page 5):

Evidently, the number originates from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada ... but he does not specify the document.