Local Food Movements Won’t Save the World

Why Local and Equitable are not Synonymous

Image Source: Polyp, “Gold Digger”

Over the last few decades, local food movements in the West have become popularized, bringing with them the promise of reshaping the food system in a positive way. We’ve all heard their rallying cry: eat local, buy local, support local. And it makes sense — buying local food might mean that we shop more seasonally, the food might be fresher, we get to develop relationships with the people who grow our food, and we get to support smaller producers — rather than the agribusiness conglomerates who put most of the food on supermarket shelves after it travels for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to reach us. There’s no denying that creating local food systems that run in parallel to the dominant, corporate food system can have many positive effects.

But we must examine local food movements in the West with more scrutiny if we truly wish to change the food system.

A local food system is a “collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management in order to enhance the environmental, economic, and social health of a particular area.” In essence, it is a smaller food system that often operates outside of the conventional system to have its own growers, markets, and consumers. But what does ‘local’ mean in this context?

In its simplest form, ‘local’ is just a scale — it could be a recognized border, a neighborhood, a region, or another set of boundaries drawn to demarcate who is part of the system and who is not. To do this, someone needs to define what ‘local’ means. And the most privileged — those who have historically had the most wealth, representation, and power — are overwhelmingly the ones who tend to shape ‘local’ movements.

They are the ones with the power to draw ‘local’ borders and thus determine who benefits from their initiatives and who gets left out. Most often, the ones left out are those who have been the most marginalized in the food system already. Further, most local movements are extremely homogeneous — they are composed largely of upper-middle-class white people who are focused on using their consumer power to create markets for more sustainable products and food. They are the ones who define the problems local communities face (for example, lack of market access for sustainable food) as well as the solutions (such as wielding consumer privilege in order to generate those markets).

Because white people are often the designers of such systems, the narratives surrounding local food movements generally reflect white cultural values and narratives. The nostalgia that is built into narratives of local food, for example, largely ignores the injustice in the history of farming systems. As Julie Guthman writes, in the United States “land was virtually given away to whites at the same time as reconstruction failed in the South, Native American lands were appropriated, Chinese and Japanese were precluded from landownership, and the Spanish-speaking Californios were disenfranchised on their ranches.”

The enthusiasm for these nostalgic narratives about local food systems is, for good reason, not shared by all. And these narratives often go unchecked in local food movements, because the ones in positions of decision-making power tend not to be the ones who have been marginalized, silenced, or otherwise excluded.

Further, simply because farmers are seemingly selling directly to consumers does not mean that they are free from exploitation, either. As Chris Newman breaks down in his article “Small Family Farms Aren’t the Answer,” if you tally up what all roughly one hundred vendors at a farmer’s market are paying in membership costs, transportation, and other expenditures needed to participate for a year, it would reach roughly US $1 million. With this kind of money, they could operate a brick-and-mortar store that would be open all the time — instead of a market that’s open only seasonally, two days a week, for four hours each time. The nostalgia and romanticization of shopping at a farmer’s market and buying directly from producers is a strong force — but is it truly more ethical?

People existing, shopping, or farming in the same geographic area does not mean that they have shared interests, nor does it mean that they have equal power and representation. In fact, the economic and social injustices that exist at wider scales are often reproduced at the local level. And as long as local movements are predominantly guided by the privileged, rather than holding space for those who have been the most exploited to define the problems and solutions, they will not be in the service of justice.

This is the first truth to understand about local food systems: just because a system is smaller in scale does not mean that it is more ethical, accessible, or inclusive than the alternative, and we cannot assume that it is.

Many local movements in the West are often seen as a form of resistance to an industrialized, corporatized, and globalized food system that has caused untold harm to communities around the world. And they may provide respite from the worst effects of these systems — the question is, respite for whom?

Colonial powers stole land, committed genocide, and enslaved communities in order to create globalized economic and food markets — markets wherein demand in the countries of the colonizers necessitated oppression of the peoples in colonized countries as a means of generating supply. Today, colonization is perpetuated in a new form, as wealth continues to be consolidated into Western countries while it is plundered from others through policies and trade laws that disproportionately benefit those same wealthy countries. Farmers in Majority World countries are coerced by seed companies and governments to join this exploitative globalized system through policies and subsidized seed packages; a system that serves the demand of consumers in wealthier countries while leaving farmers with a barely-livable or unlivable wage, dependent on external inputs, and often in debt. The forces controlling our current food system are inextricably global.

Localism denies this reality — it puts blinders on to the injustices of the global food system and the peasant farmers it is harming, and instead of working to rectify those wrongs, it seals itself off from the globalized food system’s worst effects and creates a system that feels better to participate in.

But not only does that not address the problems facing the farmers who have been most damaged by this system, it actively harms them further. Formerly colonized countries cannot throw off extractive global systems, because the exports that previously kept them oppressed are their only means of generating income. Without a robust export market, newly independent nations tend to turn to funders like the IMF and World Bank, who provide loans with the caveat that liberated nations accept policies and trade laws that disproportionately benefit those same wealthy countries. Localism consolidates even more wealth into affluent communities when farmers, who have had this export-led model imposed on them, depend on these imports for their income and survival. That’s not to say that we ought to go back to unquestioningly supporting the conventional system. But it does mean that the wealthy removing themselves from that system is not going to solve its fundamental problems. Working to dismantle the injustice of the dominant system, on the other hand, has the potential to go much farther in creating a more ethical food system for all.

Local food movements cannot be an escape. Running away from the global forces of injustice by isolating ourselves and reproducing the same injustice on a smaller scale, but in a way that feels more comfortable, can hardly be called resistance.

The impulse to organize locally cannot arise out of a desire to shy away from the complexity of global forces like colonization. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that ‘local’ is a scale at which to do justice work. It is not automatically justice work on its own.

The systems we exist in today are merely products of our relationships with each other. If we truly want radical, new systems to replace those that dominate today, we need to start by being radical with how we relate to each other. That starts with radical truth-telling. Rather than avoiding painful global realities through localism, we need to hold the pain of understanding how injustice has shaped our communities. We can hold that pain more easily at the local level because we can gather together and share it. The communities who have benefited most from our unjust systems are ill-equipped to imagine something better. We need to understand that those who can set us on the path towards justice are those who have experienced the most injustice. They are the people we must prioritize.

None of this is to say that we should do away with local food systems and go back to all participating in the dominant one — far from it. This is an invitation to all those who care about making the food system better to begin asking more questions about the role of their local food movements within that broader goal.

Even though food movements at the local level can exclude the most marginalized for participating, the local also “creates opportunities for inclusion, innovation and participation.” As Patricia Allen writes, “Local food systems create possibilities for seeing the real people, social relations and conditions involved in the food system, leading people to think critically about the food system and, potentially, for increasing social justice…irrespective of the limits of the actual material or cultural transformations made through participating in local food systems, these forms can nonetheless create space for reflection, communication and experimentation with alternative social structures.”

The difference between a food system that reproduces injustice and one that fights against it is the degree to which it is focused on the individual versus the collective. If a local food movement is about consumer empowerment, isolating from the complexity of global forces of injustice, increasing buying choices, or unchecked nostalgia and romanticization, then it is just another space where whiteness is prioritized and reproduced, and it cannot, in good faith, be conflated with ethicality or justice.

But if a local food movement is a space where the people who have been most marginalized are represented, centered, and in positions of leadership guiding the movement; if the movement tries to come up with creative alternative structures to fight injustice in the food system; if it grapples with the tension between standing in solidarity with the struggles of farmers around the world and working at this more tractable scale; if it builds solidarity with other localities trying to do the same work; if it grapples with and turns towards the complexity of historical forces of injustice and seeks to build redistribution into its model — then local food movements can become some of the most exciting and hopeful spaces for the future of the food system.

The choice is ours.

Confronting Unjust Power in the Food System

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