From the ploughing of the fields to the weekly supermarket run, food travels along a global supply chain soaked in fossil fuels. Fertilizers, pesticides, manufacturing, and machinery of all kinds, pumps for water hungry irrigation schemes, processing, plastic packaging, all the way to the energy-sucking open freezers of Big Box Food-Mart - all are links in a chain supplying the global cafeteria.
The food system has also delivered something many of us in our every day lives take for granted - cheap food. In the U.S .today only 9.6 % of income is spent on food, 10.2% in the U.K. and 10.4% in Canada. 70 years ago 25% of income went to food, about the same percentage as a Mexican spends on food today.
While the low cost of food is good news for consumers, it has not necessarily benefited producers. On average, farmers get less than 20 cents of every dollar consumers spend on food. In 1950, farmers received 41 cents out of each dollar. As recently as 1980, the figure was still as high as 31 cents.
Meanwhile, the role in farming played by human labour has declined. It accounted for almost 40% of the value of resources used in farming in 1950, and 9.5% by 1993. In contrast, over that time the value of machinery and chemicals used in agriculture increased from 25% to 43%. Fertilizer use has increased five-fold since 1950. Oil, natural gas, and new technologies have been the key.
Escalating fossil fuel prices are converging with the impacts of climate change (drought, flooding, and severe storms) and related water problems to make the reconstruction of local and regional food systems ever more crucial. This is no easy task, however. Globalization has hollowed out the infrastructure that served local and regional markets. Rebuilding is a key challenge in our transition to sustainable, much more local food systems
A second key transition challenge, especially in Canada and many other northern countries, is preparing for the next generation of farmers. Our aging farmers are often asset rich but cash poor. While ensuring decent retirement for them, we need to learn how to transfer their land, equipment, and buildings affordably to the next generation. Succession that helps us transform the food system will not happen by itself.
To reconstruct local and regional food systems we need to transform the food value chain:
- the movement of food from producer, through processor and marketer to consumer,
- the value added to food along the way,
- and the way the rewards of this work are shared by different links in the chain.
By adding more value to food closer to its point of origin, it will be possible for communities and regions to build a more secure food supply that is healthier for their inhabitants and for the environment. This is what we call a “values added” process, and it has the following primary components:
- make loans and investment, as well as training and technical support more readily available to farmers and value-added producers
- increase the supply of farm labour, and improve their working conditions and terms of employment
- preserve and increase the supply of prime farmland while reducing the impact of its high cost on production and succession.
- co-ordinate farm production and value-added processing so they can satisfy higher demand
- increase the capacity for value-added processing and for warehousing and distribution, and make more effective use of current capacity
- analyze and quantify the current demand for local food and the food imports for which there is a viable local substitute.
- increase public awareness of the importance and availability of local food
- design and advocate public policies that enhance one or more components of the local food value chain.
- identify and improve relationships amongst the various actors in the local food value chain.