9 January 2014

Dr Beccy Whittle takes a fresh and provocative look at food security, asking whether small scale, locally produced food can help feed the planet’s growing population.

Local food is not normally mentioned in the same breath as food security but I think there are some very good reasons why we should at least consider this properly.

I once asked a leading scientist (not from LEC!) what contribution local food movements such as community and guerrilla gardening could make to achieving food security. His response was like a pat on the head to a well-meaning but ultimately mistaken child: of course local food initiatives are all well and good, he told me, but they can never form a credible part of the solution because they are incapable of delivering the volume and calories needed to ‘solve’ the food security crisis of a probable 9 billion people to feed by 2050.

And thus, like the five loaves and two fishes in the famous Bible story, the smallness of the local food offering fades into insignificance in the face of a massive global problem. Or does it? Because of course the story doesn’t end there...

Moving beyond ‘volume’ and ‘calories’

On the face of things, that scientist was right. Despite the massive resurgence in ‘Grow Your Own’ across the country, the volume of food produced through these initiatives remains relatively small. Yet food is much more than volume or calories. What happened to taste? Enjoyment? Sociability? Culture? Tradition? Nutrition? Surely we’re missing a big piece of the jigsaw if food is only seen as fuel?

For me, the real potential of local food initiatives that I’m keen to explore in my research lies in the changed relationships that they may engender between food production and consumption. In short, local food initiatives might, just might, offer a route to addressing the unsustainability of the food system as a whole.

Reshaping the global food system

Think, for a moment, of the dominant food supply system here in the UK: most of our food comes from large farms across the world and is sold to us through supermarkets which exist to provide consumers with maximum choice at the lowest possible prices. As my esteemed scientist friend pointed out, trying to insert local food as we know it into this system simply doesn’t work since local producers are unlikely to be able to offer the high volumes and low prices needed. And, as for the year-round availability of products which the supermarkets have normalised: UK bananas in January, anyone? I don’t think so.

However, local food systems are not just a different form of production since they can lead to different kinds of consumption too. Take my allotment as a small but illustrative example. Since we started producing our own food, our consumption habits have also changed: not through the much hallowed mechanism of individual choice but as a simple response to a different mode of accessing food.

Previously, meals were based around what took our fancy when perusing the supermarket shelves (which could easily have been air-freighted asparagus from Peru). Now, however, meals are based around what is growing on the plot right now, so we eat more seasonally. We also eat more healthily simply because we have to keep up with what the plot is producing. In short, rather than being driven by the ‘choice’ available through supermarkets, where foods appear stripped of their environmental and social costs, our meals are more closely tied to what we can grow easily and sustainably down the road.

Of course I’m not saying that everyone should get an allotment as a solution to global food security. Neither am I saying that we should move to a world entirely without supermarkets. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t be dismissive of other food movements simply because the volumes of food produced are small. On the contrary, they may have the potential to transform the food system as a whole by developing more sustainable relationships between production and consumption.

For the moment, the jury is still out on this question but, when I’ve done my research, I’ll be sure to come back and let you know…

Beccy’s blog is based on a LEC seminar she ran late last year. Below are links to examples of local food groups in Lancaster.







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