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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

Sustainable Local Food Systems: An Analogy

Healthy, sustainable local food systems must function as a complex, dynamic, integrally-connected living ecosystems, like the diverse community of living organisms in and around a fruit tree. Community based food systems must functioning in harmony with the larger patterns of society and nature. Sustainable local, community based food systems are essential for creating sustainable national and global agri-food systems because only living organisms have the capacity to function within society and nature as healthy living systems – as healthy organisms within the socioecological systems of society and nature.

The failures of the current agri-food system are inevitable consequences of the inherent conflicts or disharmony between the mechanistic systems of industrial farming and food production and the organismic social and ecological environment within which the agri-food system must function. The only way to solve this problem is to replace today’s mechanistic industrial agri-food system with an organismic sustainable agri-food system.

As an analogy, a sustainable local food system might actually be thought of as the ecosystem of a healthy fruit tree. The tree leaves collect carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements from the air and, through living process of photosynthesis, form carbohydrates and other basic building blocks for food. These basic nutrients provide food for other living organisms, mostly organisms in the soil that the tree depends on for its health and productivity. The tree’s limbs and trunk carry a portion of the carbohydrates to the soil to provide food for the various microorganisms in the soil. In return, the organisms in the soil make nitrogen, potash, phosphorus, calcium and other minerals and micro-nutrients that are in the soil available to the tree.

Chemical elements from the soil as well as from the air are essential to sustain the health of the tree and to allow the tree to produce fruit. The tree’s blooms and fruit feed bees, birds, animals, and other living things that share the ecosystem of the orchard. A share of the tree’s fruit and leaves must fall to the ground to feed beetles, earthworms, nematodes, bacteria, fungi, and the other microorganisms in the soil. The seeds in fruit allow the tree to reproduce – to sustain orchards of new fruit trees, indefinitely. The fruit tree sustains and is sustained by its living, biological community.

Now back to the local food system: Consumers of local foods are analogous to a specific class of living organisms in the soil: Let’s call them “bio-humes.” Farmers are a subgroup of bio-humes that nurtures the natural biological processes of the tree in ways that increase the creation of nutrients that are particular useful to other bio-humes – carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Sustainable farmers are like probiotics in that they enhance the effectiveness of the earth’s digestive system to create a surplus on nutrients. The increased production allows farmers to sustain themselves and a larger bio-hume community without diminishing the nutrients available to sustain the other biological organisms that must sustain the tree. Local butchers, millers, bakers, and distributors perform functions that make the nutrients produced by farmers more desirable to the bio-hume community. A healthy living ecosystem relies on a diversity of biological species each functioning in harmony with the pattern of sustainability – a resourceful, resilient, and regenerative living system.

All analogies fall apart at some point. Unlike other species, we humans have almost unlimited mobility and we have the ability and responsibility of self-determination or self-will. Real local farmers, butchers, millers, and bakers are free to decide whether they want to give priority to nourishing their local community or instead maximize short-run self-interests by selling their products for higher prices elsewhere. They can also choose to buy their nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash from outside suppliers rather than depend on healthy, living soils. Real local community members can decide whether to support local farmers, butchers, miller, and bakers with their food purchases or instead minimize their costs by buying their food elsewhere.

The industrial pattern of food production was created to maximize productivity and minimize costs by maximizing short-run economic efficiency. This has led farmers to abandon their priority for local markets in search of greater profits elsewhere. This has led local butchers, millers, and bakers to seek cheaper raw materials elsewhere rather that give priority to local sources of raw materials, including local farms. The resulting geographic specialization has led local consumers to buy wherever prices were lower rather than give priority to local suppliers, including local farmers.

However, the ability of natural ecosystems to produce food ultimately depend on the health of localized agroecosystems, meaning local soils, farms, and farming communities. Agroecosystem health in dependent on mutually beneficial relationship among the living organisms that make up agri-food system as living organic wholes. Real fruit trees, grasses, vegetables, and other solar energy collectors can’t move about the landscape of continents to find nutrients that are not available in their local biological communities.

If farmers in general fail to maintain the health of the soil on their farms, then agro-ecosystems in general will lose not only their ability to sustain their productivity but also their ability to produce healthy, nutritious food. If consumers in general fail to support their local farmers economically, farmers everywhere eventually lose their ability to sustain the health of their soils and agroecosystems. If local producers and consumers fail to nourish each other, the ecological/social/economic systems that must sustain humanity will lose their resilience, regenerative capacity, and resourcefulness. The global agro-food system will not be sustainable.

Farmers need not rely solely on local markets or rely solely on soil health for productivity. However, sustainable farmers must give priority to the biological health of their soils and the socioeconomic health of their local communities. Consumers need not rely solely on local farmers, butchers, millers, and bakers for their food, but they must give priority to the health of their local food economy. Focusing on the industrial pattern of production to produce quick, convenient, and cheap food, has created a host of ecological, social, and economic problems that now threaten the sustainability of the entire agri-food system.

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