July 19, 2016

Scaling Up Local Food Systems

A Food Hub truck in Philadelphia. PC: Civil Eats

Americans may be known for their poor eating choices, but more and more are seeking out food grown and produced closer to home. The number of farmers' markets in America has exploded in the last 20 years: from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,284 in 2014. Still, the vast majority of Americans continue to buy food from mainstream grocery and bigbox stores and most grocery stores, restaurants and workplace cafeterias obtain that food through global supply chains. For the local food movement, the logical next step is to increase the scale of production, reaching beyond farmers' markets and entering the broader food economy. What will it take to scale up local food systems? 

A group of green-collar workers at the Urban Farming Institute of Boston

Local food doesn't simply mean food grown near where it's sold. It often includes the principles of sustainable agriculture, climate-adaptive planning, fair labor practices, higher standards of animal welfare, and community involvement and development. While we often think of agriculture as a rural activity, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 800 million people worldwide are growing vegetables or raising animals in cities, which according to Worldwatch produces 15 to 20 percent of the world's food. For example, in Brooklyn, New York, Added-Value Farm grows up to 40,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables on 2.75 acres for low-income residents. Urban agriculture also has the unique opportunity to sequester more carbon in densely populated cities. Yet farmers who prioritize these principles face several obstacles to scaling up their distribution. 

Ecotrust conducted a research project to identify barriers to "scaling beyond farm-direct channels into mainstream outlets" in Oregon; they interviewed farmers and ranchers around the state, along with processors, wholesale buyers and other actors in the state food economy. Their report,  "Oregon Food Infrastructure Gap Analysis," focuses on "Ag of the middle" (AOTM). This includes farms and ranches that are in between direct-to-consumers small farms and the large commodity markets that supply most of the produce we see in grocery stores. AOTM operations typically supply their regional food economies but can't scale up as they lack the requisite infrastructure, such as local food processing and cold storage.

AOTM is a conceptual framework. Chart by Ecotrust.

Ecotrust's main finding is that the existing food infrastructure (warehouses, processing facilities, delivery services, etc.) and the standard business framework in the food industry both favor large-scale farmers and pose significant barriers to entry for AOTM producers. For example, AOTM producers typically cannot meet volume minimums, and they lack access to affordable processing and distribution facilities. They also lack "soft" assets such as market development strategists who can create the type of branding and marketing that is commonplace in larger operations.

It's time to invest in this scaling up process. Midsize producers are often better able to meet regional demands than large-scale industrial farms, whose focus on national and global commodity markets can lead them to forgo principles of sustainability. AOTM producers can benefit the wider local economy in ways that are important but not always quantifiable, like active community engagement. They also offer more obvious benefits, like providing more local and regional jobs. Midsize producers will only thrive when the proper infrastructure is set in place to accommodate the regional food market.

Added Value Farm in Brooklyn, NY. PC: Greennycha.org

Still, some midsize producers are managing to transcend these market obstacles. Ecotrust found that successful AOTM producers are taking control of various parts of the supply chain from production, processing, packaging and storage, all the way to sales and distribution. By avoiding a middleman, they can often negotiate prices directly with their buyers and secure a larger percentage of the final product value. Farmers may deliver their products directly to suppliers, or distribute through a "food hub," a centralized location where multiple farmers bring products to be sold to many institutions in the region. Growing the market for direct sales to retailers, food services and institutions is the next logical step for scaling up the local food movement.

-Jacqueline Sussman
Carl Safina: What are animals thinking and feeling? 

Anthropomorphism as a way of denying that animals think and feel is, at long last, on the way out. Carl Safina is one among a growing number of scientists who embraces the rich and remarkable lives of non-humans. 
Restoring Beaver Populations in California

Beaver in California: Creating a Culture of Stewardship is a new, free booklet on the efforts to bring back beaver to rehydrate thirsty California. Full of information, guidance and inspiration, it opens the door to the power of eco-restoration in addressing climate, biodiversity and many other environmental, social and economic issues. 
Upcoming Potluck and Discussion:

Global Warming, Endless Growth, and the Extraordinary Power of the Powers of 2

When: 6 - 9 p.m. on Sunday, July 24, 2016. 

Where: Cambridge, MA. See Meetup page for address. 

Al Bartlett was a physics professor at the University of Colorado who spent the last few decades of his life educating on the insidious magic that takes place when anything doubles over time, i.e., 2 x 2 x 2 x2 ... "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." When we apply this perspective to climate change, our understanding of the climate deepens, especially with respect to positive feedback loops. Adam Sacks will lead us in a discussion of the implications of the exponential function for addressing climate and related phenomena. 
Introducing  our next upcoming conference:

"Restoring Oceans to Reverse Global Warming"

We will present global efforts at ocean-related restoration and uncover new possibilities for addressing the climate crisis. 

Stay tuned for more information! 
For up-to-date info on our events

About Bio4Climate

Through education, policy and outreach, our mission is to promote the power of the natural world to stabilize the climate and to restore biodiversity to ecosystems worldwide. Collaborating with organizations around the globe, we advocate for the restoration of soil, and of grassland, forest, wetland, coastal and ocean ecosystems-along with the associated carbon, water and nutrient cycles-to draw down excess atmospheric greenhouse gases, cool the biosphere, and reverse global warming, for the benefit of all people and all life on earth. 

Learn more about our ongoing projects, upcoming events and find additional information and resources at bio4climate.org