The modern warehouse-on- wheels food distribution system, with its just-in-time delivery from producers to processors, and finally to retailers, works just fine.
But there is a dark side. Not only is it totally dependent on a smoothly functioning economy and uninterrupted supplies of fossil fuel for powering every link in the chain, it is also enormously complex and thus prone to systemic failure.
Local food activists believe that the current model is unsustainable. Fearing that the wheels might come off with disastrous consequences some day, they are working on a Plan B.
But to do that, they need farmers who know how to grow a wide range of food products, preferably nearby.
SURVEY OF FARMERS
John Devlin, a professor at the University of Guelph, recently conducted a study that asked 28 farmers their views on the local food movement and their perceived role in it. His goal was to add the farmer’s voice to a discussion heretofore dominated by urban activists.
Extensive interviews were conducted in Waterloo County, home to one of the most successful local food efforts in the country, mainly due to the presence of a large number of Old Order Mennonites operating small farms with a great diversity of food production.
Devlin was most interested in the concept of “solidarity,” defined as a set of shared principles between groups that constitutes a major characteristic of effective social movements.
“What is the nature of the solidarity – if there is any – between the local food producers and consumers?” said Devlin, in a panel discussion at the 22nd annual Rural Policy Conference of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation and Brandon University’s Rural Development Institute.
“Does a farmer’s engagement with local food, as producers, indicate that they have solidarity with the local food movement?”
The farmers, it turned out, saw local food as a consumer movement, he said.
“They’re not saying this is ‘our’ movement. They are saying it’s ‘their’ movement. They’re happy that it exists, but it is external to them,” said Devlin.
While the stereotypical local food activist might be concerned with food quality, freshness, or organic, as well as deeper issues such as globalization, the environment, social justice and “food miles,” the top issue for farmers is price, volume, and the survival of their family farm livelihood.
On the surface, those differing perspectives appear to show there is “very weak” solidarity between the two groups.
However, when urban foodies go out of their way and pay premiums to buy local food at the farmers’ market, they are expressing solidarity with a key, shared principle: ensuring small and medium-size family farm survival.
He said his research shows that for urban food activists to successfully link up with food producers to address food security issues they must put farmers’ concerns first.
“The central message we should be concentrating on is economic viability, independence, strong and healthy rural communities, quality of production, customer loyalty, and the continuity of the agricultural legacy,” said Devlin.
Customer loyalty is a big concern among farmers, who may suspect that local food is nothing more than a passing fad.
“But if the local food movement can communicate that they are going to grow this market for the farmers because they want the farmers to grow more local food, I think we are going to get the system to grow.”
The notion that the business side of food production can be disconnected from social movement discussions is false. Consumer economic boycotts have enjoyed enormous success, for example, in ending apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, and so-called “green consumerism” is simply one of many offshoots of that era.
“It’s an act of consumption, but it’s also a political act. It’s an act of solidarity,” said Devlin.
“My suggestion to local food activists is that we try to bump up that concept of consumer solidarity, and not allow it to be seen as simply an environmental or social justice issue on one side and a commercial issue on the other.”
Local food has a fit as a social movement that targets consensus building, rather than simple protest or con-f lict-based approaches to achieving change, he added. [email protected]
– john devlin