Buying Local Foods : “Alternative” Trend or Global Solution?

(By Cayla Albrecht, Queen’s University)


The more time I spend thinking, reading, researching, consuming, and helping to produce local foods, the less certain I become. Are local food systems a real long-term solution to global food insecurity or are they a highly romanticized, temporary trend exclusive to the developed world?

To oversimplify the debate, local food systems are, on the one hand, seen as a solution to negative environmental and social effects associated with conventional industrial agriculture. From environmental degradation, to inequitable compensation for farmers and farm workers, to poor human health and animal welfare, global industrial agriculture has come under substantial and legitimate criticism. The solutions for which, according to some, lie with local and alternative agriculture. On the other hand, local food systems are criticized along two major lines: feasibility and accessibility. In terms of feasibility, production from local food systems is insufficient to “feed the world” and in terms of accessibility, only those with enough time and money can access local foods. Issues of feasibility and accessibility in local food systems highlight the existing uncertainty of where to look, or who to look to, for leadership and action in the future. They also draw attention to the limited reach of “local foods” – at least as they exist in North America: at upscale farmers’ markets and grocery stores, as specialty and heirloom foods at higher prices, and in small-scale market garden shares. Because these criticisms seem so real, I feel the necessity of answering the question of who is responsible for local food systems governance and development in order to make them viable in the long-term and accessible to more people.

The rise of the “celebrity” farmer and the reverence of small-scale, independent farmers’ wisdom, like Joel Salatin and Wendell Berry, suggest that people are perhaps looking to farmers for food and agriculture solutions and innovations. At the same time, increasingly popular “buy local” marketing trends in North America and the EU rely on the idea that consumers are responsible for learning about and making healthy and socially and environmentally conscious food choices. “Buy local” promotions are based on the premise that consumer “food dollars,” which are largely responsible for the current dominance of heavily processed industrial foods in our food system, represent the best way to affect change in food and agriculture. But what about the role of governing bodies? Arguably, part of the skepticism that local foods will ever feed the world has to do with whether individual farmers or consumers can realistically affect change without larger policy support.

A recent report from the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) takes a significant step towards the “local-foods-can-feed-the-world” side of the debate and highlights specific ways that broader policy must support the development of sustainable regional and national food systems. The report calls for “truly sustainable” farming systems in the face of climate change, especially in developing nations – indicating that perhaps “local” is not just for wealthy developed-world consumers. It also suggests that agricultural trade must move away from increasing liberalization and export-oriented policies and towards supporting local and national level food production, distribution, and consumption – and even going so far as to say that global food trade should serve “only a complementary function” to more regionalized food systems. Within international institutional discourse, which has typically prioritized increasing global trade to improve economies based on the assumption that improved economies will in turn improve individual livelihoods, this type of recommendation is fairly unprecedented. The report’s policy emphasis also places responsibility on governing bodies (as opposed to individuals or markets) in addressing global food insecurity.

Despite the UNCTAD report’s turn toward recommending regional and national-level food security priorities, two recent trade deals that continue to promote global trace-liberalization have recently made headlines. One is between Canada and the EU and the other is the long-awaited global free-trade agreement approved by the World Trace Organization (WTO) as part of the ongoing Doha Round negotiations. Both agreements apply to more than just the agricultural sector, but the implications for food and agriculture are important to consider in light of the UNCTAD report’s recommendations.

The WTO global trade agreement claims to bring benefits to all signatories, and emphasizes that the poorest of the world will now have easier access to the global market on which to sell their goods. Critics argue however, that the agreement will not protect or improve national level food security or the food rights of impoverished people, indicating that free-trade for the purpose of economic development to improve livelihoods has failed (and will perhaps continue to fail) to address issues of hunger, malnutrition, and poverty in developing nations. In developed nations like Canada, further opening markets to cheaper imports (EU cheese, for example) also faces backlash – mostly from farmers groups for fear that national producers will suffer significant losses and that increased international trade will undermine national and regional food trade and the livelihoods of Canadian farmers.

That an organization such as the UNCTAD has come out with a report so clearly in support of rethinking agricultural trade and conventional industrial agriculture is perhaps a promising sign. However, the question still remains about the role of governing bodies. Will they – can they – implement some of the policy recommendations made by the UNCTAD, or are they perhaps lagging years behind as some of the biggest recent trade-negotiation deals still follow the long engrained status-quo of promoting more global trade with less restriction?

I doubt that local food systems will be able to overcome criticisms of feasibility or accessibility without broader institutional support, or at the very least an end to the subsidies and support currently directed to industrial-scale production and global-scale distribution systems. In the meantime, local food systems will continue to function thanks to individual farmer and consumer creativity, albeit imperfectly and probably with limited impact. But if we go back to the question of who is responsible for local food system governance and development, we see that some farmers and consumer-citizens are already taking on that responsibility and working to create the types of regional and national food systems that governments will hopefully one day support as eagerly as they now support the increase of global free-trade.