Is A New Sustainable Food System Possible?

I occasionally am asked if I actually believe that a new community-based sustainable food system could possibly replace our current corporately-controlled industrial food system. My answer has consistently been, yes. I am convinced such a change is possible, although I am not so naïve or idealistic as to think that the transformation will be quick or easy. In a previous series of blog pieces, I have provided one scenario of how such a transition might come about and what farming and food production might look like 25 years from now – in the year 2040. In essence, I believe the sustainable regional, national, and global food systems of the future will be made up of networks of sustainable small “community-based” food systems – both rural and urban.


Why do I believe such a change is possible? First, I am an old man and I have lived through the transition from the local, community-based food system of my youth to the industrial-global food system of today. The major part of that transition occurred within a span of about 50-60 years during the latter 1900s. I believe, sustainable systems of farming and food production today are further advanced than the industrial systems of farming and food production were during the early 1950s, when I was in grade school in rural Missouri. Farming and food production will continue to change; it always has and always will.


Second, it is now clearly evident, for all who care to see and understand, that the industrial systems of farming and food production have failed. They aren’t working now and are not going to work in the future, as I have explained in previous posts. There is a public awakening that something is fundamentally wrong with the American food system and that more of the same is no longer a viable option. The only remaining question for many is: “Change to what?”


Third, new scale-appropriate mechanical and electronic technologies offer new possibilities for making enough safe and wholesome foods affordable and accessible to everyone – without degrading nature or society in ways that diminish opportunities for the future. The basic concepts embodied in microcomputers, including laptops, tablets, and smartphones, are equally applicable to small-scale equipment for growing, tilling, harvesting, and processing agricultural products. All that is needed is the vision to see the potential and the incentive to create what is needed.


Portable electric fencing has revolutionized the possibilities for sustainable small-scale humane, grass-based, and free-range livestock and poultry production. Walk-behind and small pull-behind tilling and harvesting equipment is reducing the drudgery, as well as costs, for small-scale organic, local, and direct marketers of produce and field crops. The markets for such technologies are growing and are approaching the point where “customized mass-production” – meaning efficient manufacturing at a less-than-industrial scale – will be economically attractive for more inventors and small-scale manufacturers.


Perhaps most important, the new digital technologies make it possible to develop and sustain meaningful, “personal” connections among farmers and others who share a common commitment to good, wholesome, delicious, and nutritious, sustainably-produced foods. Obviously, digital communications also facilitate personal isolation; but email, texting, and tweeting, for example, can also help keep close personal friends in even closer personal contact. Digital technologies are being used to create and sustain local, community-based food networks that give sustainable farmers access to far more local customers than they can stay connected with through farmers markets or CSAs. Equally important, these digital-based local food networks can help potential food customers find and stay in contact with the full range of like-minded farmers who are willing and able to supply local customers with sustainably produced foods.


Fourth, the business of retailing – including food retailing – is changing both fundamentally and rapidly. The value of Amazon stock recently surpassed the stock value of Walmart. This makes Amazon the world’s largest retailer, in terms of market value, although Walmart is still far larger in total retail sales. Virtually every major retailer, including food retailers, is scrambling to develop web-based markets with home delivery – following the lead of


I can foresee a time in the future when every community has its own local food system, connecting local farmers with local customers through regular personally-connected transactions facilitated by a local digital food network. Face-to-face contacts – at farmers markets, on-farm sales, regular farm visits, of local food festivals – would still be needed to punctuate the less personal means of connecting in order to maintain relationships of trust and integrity. Each local network would be shepherded or cared for by one or more local facilitators. Facilitators would maintain web-based food hubs where farmers let their customers know what they have available for delivery, day-by-day, and customers let their farmers know what they need, day-by-day.


Perhaps most important, I believe each local community-based food network would make regular home deliveries. Products ordered through show up on your doorstep. I believe local foods would show up on your doorstep, or perhaps in a well-insulated box with a food drop-chute for your local “food carrier.” This service could start using existing services such as Fed-Ex or UPS, but quality local service may require community-based delivery services.


The objective of these new community-based food systems would not be “self-sufficiency,” but instead local assurance of quality, integrity, and sustainability, including a commitment to community “food security.” Personal relationships of trust among community network facilitators would ensure that foods that could not be produced locally were made available locally from farmers in other local food networks that share the same common values and commitments to quality, integrity, and sustainability. In essence, national and global food networks would be sustained through shared social and ethical values and a common commitment to sustainability.


This brings me to my final reason for hope for a new sustainable future for farming and food production. I believe that people are awakening to the need for the kinds of personal relationships and moral commitments that are essential to make sustainable, community-based food networks a reality. There is a growing realization that the pursuit of material economic self-interest has not brought Americans greater satisfaction or happiness. Americans are finally discovering that we are not only material beings but also social and moral beings. We need personal, social relationships for reasons that have nothing do with any economic value we may receive in return. We need a sense of purpose and meaning in life, a sense of what we are doing is significant, that it is right and good. The rejection of industrial systems of farming and food production, and the creation of a new future of food, is not just about a better way to fuel the human body, it is about feeding the human soul and spirit. In this kind of awakening, there is always hope.


John Ikerd