The past decade has seen an unprecedented shift in our thinking about food systems. Books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma have exposed the numerous environmental and health risks of conventional food, while the organic movement is becoming big business: witness Wal-Mart‘s 2006 decision to ramp up their organic goods and Whole Foods’ recent $2 billion acquisition of Wild Oats. Needless to say, these are encouraging signs. The facts are now on the table, and people are finally beginning to realize that growing food without pesticides, antibiotics, or genetic engineering better for their bodies and the Earth.
But it’s just the beginning. Organic is great, but there’s a growing consensus that local food is at least as important to the planet’s health and our long-term prosperity. Just as distributed microgeneration is seen by many experts as the key to energy security, a sustainable agricultural system will depend on local networks of small and mid-sized farms.
With government subsidies, economies of scale, and artificially cheap transportation costs all working in favor of factory farms, the numbers seem to be stacked against such networks. Yet despite these hurdles, local food systems are sprouting up everywhere, and rewriting the rules of food economics in the process. So far, the most successful mechanism of bringing the community back into agriculture is the farmer’s market, of which there are now nearly 5,000 nationwide. By eliminating the middlemen, farmer’s markets allow local farmers to keep 90% of the profit from selling their food, as opposed to a mere 10% from conventional distribution systems. Even better are Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), which use a seasonal subscription system to provide farmers with upfront payments (check out Local Harvest to find one near you). Indeed, local seems poised to become the new organic: the UK has threatened to rescind its organic certification for air-freighted foods, while stateside, the 100 Mile Diet is becoming the green diet trend of 2007.
The next logical step is to localize even further, bringing agriculture from the hinterland into the city. Examples of successful urban farming organizations are sprouting up like… well, you know. Just to name a few:
- Intervale, a group of farms in Burlington, Vermont, supplies a tenth of the city’s produce.
- The Seattle Youth Garden Works empowers underpriveledged kids while producing food for two local farmers markets.
- Just Food organizes farming workshops in the 5 boroughs and promotes NYC’s network of 30 neighborhood farms and 50 CSAs.
How far can the local food evolution go? In a fully integrated food system, agricultural production would become a seamless part of the urban fabric. Green roofs, already widely touted for their ability to clean the air, insulate buildings, and capture stormwater, provide an ideal site for organic vegetables. Using permaculture techniques, it’s possible to produce annual yields of several tons in urban backyards, and the potential in less dense areas is even greater. As our suburbs age and become undesireable for commuters, they’ll make prime candidates for “un-development”: converting 2-acre lots into robust farms.
Visionary bioengineers John and Nancy Jack Todd have formulated plans for entire inner-city factories devoted to food production:
The upper level, shaped something like an amphitheatre, is designed for the intensive culture of greens like lettuce and spinach… the next level down is for climbing crops like peas, lettuce and tomatoes. They are grown in an aerated liquid solution which is pumped up from the aquaculture tanks below… the basement of the warehouse is used for the composting of the waste from the building and for the mass culture of mushrooms. All the components in the design are integrated to mutually enhance each other.
Until recently, we’ve taken for granted that which sustains us at the most basic level. But sustenance can’t go neglected for long, and as we build ourselves a forest green future, the production of food will begin to re-enter our daily lives. Will we go back to being a society of farmers? Hardly. I, for one, would probably make a mess of it. But whether we’re direct participats in the local food renaissance or not, all of us will benefit – after all, it doesn’t take a green thumb to appreciate the value of a green meal.