Local food systems around the world are very diverse and specific to each location. Alternative food systems are hailed today as a way to address the many negative consequences that perpetuate conventional food systems. However, this term is somewhat misleading. Approaches that are now being touted as novel alternatives, such as local and organic food production, direct sales from farmers to consumers, and farmers' cooperatives, established traditional ways of producing food in many parts of the world long before European colonist colonialism.
While there is no universal definition of what constitutes a local food system, the term generally refers to the distribution of food by small farmers who sell directly to consumers or to nearby restaurants and grocery stores. These farms produce a range of products for direct human consumption instead of bulk products for processing or corn for animal feed. Farmer owners have a direct interest in the health of their land and can avoid contract farming structures that encourage the extraction of the highest possible value from land without thinking about the impacts. Sales to local retailers or direct sales to end consumers also suppress some of the intermediate steps in the supply chain, where large food companies tend to capture profits, leaving more wealth in the hands of farmers.
Local food systems can be attractive to consumers who want to support farmers who prioritize high animal welfare standards and preserve local landscapes and resources. In the United States, local food systems include farmers markets, community gardens, and farms where the public can choose their own products. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs are also becoming increasingly popular. Originally developed by African-American farmers, CSAs allow consumers to purchase shares for a portion of a farm's expected harvest, helping the farm maintain financial stability.
Farm-to-school programs deliver fresh food to school canteens to replace otherwise highly processed meals. As the environmental and health impacts of conventional agriculture become better understood, public demand for cleaner, more sustainably produced food continues to increase. Organic food systems describe the production, processing, and distribution of food in which farmers and people who handle food avoid the use of certain artificial agrochemical inputs, including pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and certain synthetic food ingredients. On the other hand, organic production favors less toxic mineral and biological alternatives that minimize ecological impact.
Under the right circumstances, organic production can improve environmental health and crop yields over time. Organic principles can also often be applied to the processing stages of the system. Because organic production is about practices rather than size, organic food systems can have a local or even international reach. In the U.S.
In the US, the standards for organic production established by the USDA National Organic Program. Nearly a hundred countries have some type of legislation that protects organic food production. Fair trade systems attempt to rectify global trade relations that favor transnational corporations and higher-income countries. The advent of globalization benefited heavily subsidized agro-industrial companies that were able to surpass producers in lower-income countries.
Speculation in financial markets also caused unstable prices for food products, making it difficult for farmers to maintain livelihoods. When combined, these factors caused millions of farmers to lose the ability to earn a sustainable income with their land and, in many cases, unable to feed themselves. While there are a variety of fair trade certifications with a variety of mandates, fair trade certifications generally seek to correct the energy differences that characterize conventional food supply chains, leading to poor purchase prices for farmers. Rather than looking for the lowest supplier price, Fairtrade Purchasing sets higher minimum prices that allow for both environmental sustainability and economic justice.
Certification mandates may require traders to pay prices that allow for decent living conditions for farmers, to pay a premium for organic products, or to enter into long-term contracts with farmers to provide them with stability. While fair trade is not a panacea for the power imbalances affecting modern food systems, it demonstrates an approach to food production based on social and environmental values, rather than on purely lucrative motives. However, fair trade is not a perfect solution. In some cases, the social and economic benefits of fair trade may be more successful than environmental objectives.
Fairtrade also remains a minority market segment, plagued by the threat of free charging. Despite continued widespread support for the values that underpin fair trade, food buyers and importers are not legally required to obtain third-party verified fair trade certifications, allowing them to continue the historical power dynamic that generates poverty, environmental degradation and human rights. Abuses. When active, even well-designed fair trade certifications may not fully deliver on their promises, leaving some farmers with fair trade certifications still unable to earn a sustainable living from their work.
Multinational food companies that operate without fair trade rules of conduct have recently been sued for perpetuating human rights violations in the global chocolate supply chain, including human trafficking and forced child labor. In a globalized world of capitalist agriculture built on the foundation of colonialism, food systems can be extractive and exploitative. However, the growing popularity and diversity of alternative food systems offer hope for the future. By learning from the mistakes of conventional agriculture, tomorrow's food systems can restructure food production to ensure animal protection, economic stability, improved accessibility and the abundance of plant-based foods produced with respect for the environment.
Supporting local farmers who grow food for human consumption, ensuring fair prices in supply chains, and embracing innovation can bring the global food system closer to solving the malnutrition and environmental degradation that, unfortunately, continue to define food production today. There are a couple of major categories of local food systems. One is a farm-to-retail model, whereby farmers and ranchers have markets (often within a radius of about a hundred miles) for their products in the form of grocery stores, institutions such as schools or government agencies, and restaurants. Because food can travel outside of a city or an immediate area, this model can sometimes be referred to as regional.
Restaurants, convenience stores, supermarkets and cooperatives sell to the general public. Direct-to-consumer outlets, such as farmers' markets, farm stalls and CSAs, connect food producers directly to their customers. Food banks distribute food to partner food pantries, where they provide it free of charge to low-income households. Food systems belong to agri-food systems, which encompass the full range of actors and their interrelated value-added activities in the primary production of agricultural food and non-food products, as well as in storage, aggregation, post-harvest handling, transportation, processing, distribution, marketing, disposal and consumption.
This visibility of the food system allows retailers and customers to better understand where the food they receive comes from. The transition to sustainable food systems is essential to address global challenges such as climate change, hunger, biodiversity loss and deforestation. These large-scale buyers often have different requirements than those of those who sell food to the general public, such as liquid eggs for restaurants and boxed milk for schools, and producers can find it difficult to quickly adapt their production systems to meet the different needs of market. Food products can be shipped hundreds, or even thousands, of miles before finally reaching the consumer.
In addition, the advent of industrial agriculture and infrastructure built around conventional food systems have allowed the world's population to expand beyond the limitations of the Malthusian catastrophe. They have been associated with the 100-mile diet and the low-carbon diet, as well as with the slow food movement. Conventional food systems are able to consistently provide safe and reliable food products from year to year, during all seasons, through a combination of technology, skill and organization. The United States is an example of a domestic food system that can buy and transport food products from abroad to feed its population, requiring extremely complex supply chains involving a large number of actors.
As schools and restaurants closed due to the pandemic, these sales fell sharply, contributing to the phenomenon of increased food waste during the global pandemic. Sharing gardens, in which urban and suburban homeowners offer access to land to food producers in exchange for a portion of the harvest, is a relatively new trend, at the extreme of direct local food production. SFC is currently leading the statewide expansion of the Double Up Food Bucks program, which doubles the value of SNAP and WIC benefits at many local farmers' markets and other food outlets so that everyone can support their local food economy, regardless of income. Urban agriculture is another promising technological advance for food systems, as it could allow food production closer to urban consumers, thus reducing the energy and resources needed for distribution and helping to address food accessibility challenges in cities.