Reviving Local Food Systems

January 20, 2005

Many small, sustainable farms struggle to survive within a framework of principles, programs and laws that doesn’t encourage ecological production and local distribution of food. Regional, national and international policies dramatically affect what and how farmers grow, how and to whom food travels, and the prices consumers pay for food (both directly and indirectly). Ultimately, these policies determine what ends up in America’s, air, soil, water and people.

By buying directly from small farms, you support sustainable agriculture with your dollars. Another way you can encourage the type of food system represented at the farmers’ market is to become informed about and involved in the development of policies that create a framework in which those systems can thrive.

Brain Halweil, a senior researcher for the Worldwatch Institute, visited the market in December for an interview and book signing. In his book, Eat Here, Halweil makes a strong case for “reclaiming homegrown pleasures.” Below are his suggestions for the types of policy changes that elected officials and lobbyists can encourage to promote the revival of local food systems:

Enforce antitrust legislation at the national and global levels. As every link in the agribusiness chain consolidates, there is a dire need for governments and international trade bodies to break up monopolies and oligopolies and enforce antitrust legislation. In the face of widespread consolidation, collective bargaining by farmers and local businesses will be essential, although several nations have laws that prevent such collective bargaining.

Eliminate commodity payments. Today, most agricultural policy encourages the production of generic commodities, while actually discouraging farmers from producing food for local markets. A case in point is the more than $300 billion that governments of industrial nations spend each year to support agriculture. Since the lion’s share of this money is tied to the production of a handful of commodities – such as corn, soybeans and wheat – this arrangement discourages diversification. Farmers interested in diversifying out of the handful of crops that receive payments and getting into food processing jeopardize a significant source of income.

Restructure agricultural education, research, and extension. Agricultural ministries, research centers, and universities should shift from a nearly exclusive focus on production to a more integrated view of the whole farming business. Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture argues that people interested in rebuilding local and regional food systems “need to create new alliances at our universities with the Colleges of Agriculture since the business school has the expertise in marketing, distribution, and supply chain design.

Tax fossil fuels rather than subsidize them. Long distance food would be vastly more expensive if oil prices were to rise, something that many geologists and energy analysts argue could happen in the next decade as world oil production peaks. In the meantime, climate change – which will likely have direct effects on the stability of food production – will provide the strongest argument for radically reducing fossil fuel use. National governments can accelerate this shift by eliminating subsidies for coal, oil, and natural gas and raising taxes on them instead.

Eliminate food dumping and reform world trade rules to ensure food sovereignty. Existing international trade rules prevent nations from safeguarding and developing domestic and local food production. Local labels, country-of-origin labeling, procurement policies, and standards are often seen as barriers to trade, but countries should be able to determine what foods cross their borders, including the power to forbid imports of a given food during its domestic harvest season.

from Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket Copyright 2004 by Worldwatch Institute

CUESA is co-sponsored an event (for farmers and non profits) at which U.S. agricultural policy will be explained and discussed. Presentations by Tom Buis of the National Farmers Union and Jim Miller of the Senate Budget Committee were followed by a conversation about the ABCs of the Farm Bill, issues and obstacles important to Californians for the 2007 Farm Bill, and the political landscape in Washington DC, Congress, and the USDA. Other sponsors of the event are the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Natural Resources Defense Council, and California Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

To find out about how you can influence the policies that affect our food system, visit


Topics: , ,