Saturday, August 11, 2012

What would keep us from going down the same path to "big ag" all over again?

As I've been pondering local food networks and activism over the past couple of years, one question keeps coming to mind.  It's all very well to be rediscovering smaller-scale modes of production and consumption, but our current large-scale systems developed for reasons that seemed wise at the time (trying to help farmers make a secure living, make food more affordable, reduce the back-breaking labor of cultivating land).  What would keep us from enacting the same cycle again, and ending up with just a nouveau version of today's "big ag"?  How do we hold the line at things that work at a local or regional level, rather than letting market logic push things toward the national and global?  As the networks of distribution and supply in the local food realm become more extensive, with "food hubs" and other intermediaries, aggregators, and specialized services of various kinds now appearing all over the landscape, this seems worth considering.

What happened the first time around is that competition and economies of scale came to favor larger producers, companies, and distributors, beginning as early as the mid-19th century but really becoming entrenched after World War II.   So if we're going to create and maintain small- and mid-sized systems, there needs to be something that can counter that trend toward bigness.

I spend a lot of time critiquing tourist-oriented development, so I feel a bit funny saying this, but I really think that tourism (and the whole repertoire of tourist-oriented techniques of publicity and experience-marketing) might help us here.  I wrote about this elsewhere in relation to fuels, cars, and railroads, and I wonder if the same thing might apply to local food.  At the moment, the case is being made for relocalizing/regionalizing in ways that are largely touristic, focusing on creating "hereness" and branded identities or products and locating local food within constellations of other heritage- and recreation-oriented attractions.  But that's not to say that the infrastructure that's being built in the process won't have its own staying power if and when times get tough(er).

Agritourism and selling experience rather than just food may not seem like smart strategies for the long-term survival of small food producers, but it's worth remembering that domestic tourism actually flourished in the Great Depression, as people saved money by taking vacations closer to home.  More to the point, the emerging networks we're now seeing may be building systems and connections and knowledge that will be highly serviceable for robust local and regional food systems down the road. If present-day tourism helps us do that, then I'm all for it.

And my assumption is that by the time we find ourselves finally facing up to the realities of a carbon-saturated, fossil-fuel starved world (the imminence of which is becoming more apparent every day), many of the "externalities" inherent in the national and global food systems that now feed us will have shown themselves to be "unsustainable" in the long run.  The costs of obtaining oil, public subsidy of industrial food production and the transportation systems it relies on, reliance on below-market-value legal and illegal labor--our present way of producing food has multiple weak spots.  We may wake up one morning to discover that the smaller-scale, less energy-dense, more reciprocal networks we've been putting in place have simply become the new way of doing business.

So as corn and soy crops wither in this year's drought and Greenland's ice cap melts, the somewhat odd blend of people and motivations in the local food movement--boutiquey, nostalgic, and political in about equal parts--may offer some hope that in decentralized and sometimes contradictory ways, we're reinventing things right out from under the industrialized system.  I was heartened to read a recent Wall Street Journal interview with the chef at the upscale Stone Barns Center, running along these same lines.  "Five years ago," he says,  "I would have said that locavorism was at its height and that a new fad was coming to replace it. Now I'm actually convinced we're just beginning to see its potential." As we also see the potential of extreme weather and growing competition for fuel and other resources, that's a hopeful thought to hold onto.

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