LAKE MACBRIDE— A common belief about our food system is it’s a struggle between conventional and organic farming. Or, another way to frame it is industrial versus sustainable farming. To embrace any one of these over the others is a step down a slippery slope. According to the much hated agribusiness Monsanto, “the biggest problem with the debate over ‘organic’ and ‘conventional’ crops is that it suggests there are only two ways to grow food: a ‘good’ way and a ‘bad’ way. The reality is far different.” If a person knows anything about agriculture, it is easy to agree.
The global food system cannot be accurately characterized as any one thing because a transition to a sustainable food production model, one that can feed a global population expected to reach 9.6 billion people (potentially within my lifetime), is more complicated than any either/or scenario. In order to produce enough food, agriculture has to be diverse and scalable, but locally replicable. What does that mean? What it doesn’t mean is a bunch of Iowa farmers getting rich by exporting corn and soybeans overseas.
My friend Ed Fallon, organizer of the Great March for Climate Action, posted on Facebook, “it’s important to find ways to keep one’s food budget affordable while not violating one’s principles. For me, a combination of growing my own food, buying directly from local farmers, barter, and shopping at my local grocery store… keeps my food budget on par with what most people spend.” Whatever one thinks about Fallon, in this simple post he describes a food system that is sustainable, replicable and could be scalable.
A simple truth is that consumers, including home gardeners like me, should consider a food system that favors locally and sustainably produced food. The idea that we should exclude anything from our food system represents a step toward the extreme we shouldn’t take. Freshness and seasonality play an important role in developing a local cuisine and cuisine engenders life and makes it worth living.
The thing is, the cuisine I develop in Big Grove may be different from what I would develop anywhere else on the planet, based on what’s available. Fallon’s example relies upon supplementing one’s personal effort to secure food, and includes a commercial retailer. The one he mentioned in his post is a sponsor of his webcast program, but I don’t believe it matters a bit to substitute any retailer who is at the end of a world-wide food distribution system. In my case, I use several grocery stores to secure food I can’t get in my garden or through bartering. What matters more toward sustainability is decreasing reliance upon any one source of food when stocking the pantry. As Fallon indicated, it is possible to do so without violating one’s principles.
When we consider the meaning of my tagline, “sustainability in a turbulent world,” a local food system is as important as anything else we do. We have to eat to live, and while food obsession would not be a good thing, our outlook toward a local food system is as basic a need as anything. It is better to be inclusive of everything because as we develop a system of production, outside purchases, bartering, preparation, preserving and cooking food, the potential exists to sustain ourselves more locally. From a global perspective, each iteration of such a process is what makes a local food system scalable. This more than any one agricultural process or crop production system.
I’ll leave the macroeconomics of food production, packaging and distribution to others. What is more important is how individuals leverage what exists to improve the quality of their lives: a complex web of interdependence that is often forgotten, but remains as important as anything during our brief lives on the planet.