The vast majority of our current global food-scape is controlled by a very small number of corporations who view food purely as means to profit. Nothing new here, food has been a means for profit since the advent of money, however never before has the food game been dominated so comprehensively by so few players.
Historically the food market has been made up of hundreds of thousands of small to medium sized growers, producers and vendors each operating independently and servicing their own local regions or a thin export niche. Today however, transnational corporations are growing ever larger and more powerful, and the inevitable outcome of a food oligopoly is now upon us.

For the last few years, we, the general public have been getting glimpses behind the curtains of these industrial food systems and we're not very happy about it. We are seeing gross injustice to small scale farmers, disadvantaged societies, animals and our environment - all for the sake of increasing the financial return on investments for shareholders.

So... what are we to do about it? How can li'l ol’ me make a difference? These mega-corps have so much power now that resistance seems futile.

Well, let's think about how the game works. The only way these corporations survive is because lots and lots of little people, like you and me, feed them with our dollars. It's a two way relationship. They feed us and we feed them. And why do we feed them instead of feeding the small family farm or the local providor down the street? Well, these days it's probably more because the small family farm or local providor don't exist anymore. But when they did exist, we chose instead to go to the supermarkets because they were cheaper, easier and they offered greater variety. That was the trick. Cheap easy variety. So we got hooked by the benefits and were distracted from seeing the long-term consequences that are staring us in the face today.

No use kicking ourselves though, we didn't know any better, and neither did those who were busy building their food empires. These people aren't bad. Actually they're really good. In some ways they're a bit too good at their jobs and have just gotten a bit too big for their boots.

So now that we are becoming aware of the problems caused by oversized food empires, the question begging to be answered is ‘How can we bring things back into balance?’

However, before we get too focused ‘how to’ of rebalancing our food systems, let's take a moment to imagine what a healthy and sustainable food system might look like.

In my opinion a healthy food system would be decentralised as opposed to centralised. As much food as possible would be sourced within local areas and from community dwelling business owners. It would make sense for as many nearby local regions to be running on similar decentralised systems so that they could trade easily with each other for items that are not available in their own back yards. A healthy food system ought to have at the core of its raison d'être, the responsibility to provide sufficient nourishment for all members of our society. It would need to be financially viable as a commercial operation, however the system itself would not exist to pay dividends to shareholders. It would instead reinvest profits for the purpose of nourishing more people.

Now before you throw me in the Marxist camp, be assured that I am not at all referring to a top down imposition of socialist ideals nor am I talking about regulatory policies on the trade of food. I am referring instead to a customer level response and a mechanism which gives us the choice to support a more responsible approach to food systems. It is also important that a food system does not exclude privately owned 'profit generating' enterprises. More than ever we need entrepreneurs to come out of the mist to start-up profit making food businesses that can feed into the new system.

Now let’s take a look at the nature and anatomy of food systems.

Firstly, a food system is not the individual parts that comprise it, but the overarching mechanism that constitutes the majority of food being traded within a society. Historically this overarching mechanism was the nebulous 'free market system' which existed between the thousands of relatively similar sized food enterprises. Today however, the free market system has been dominated and controlled by the oligopoly and the majority of food is traded within an exclusive and vertically integrated big boys club. Therefore the free market system no longer provides a domain for small and medium operators to flourish in abundance.

Drilling deeper into the mechanics of the food system we can see that there are five basic layers. Growers, producers, distributors, retailers and customers. Of these five layers, the oligopoly exists across the first four layers, with retail being the linchpin. Supermarkets determine which products are made available to customers to buy which is critical to ensuring market dominance.

An ongoing process of mergers and acquisitions means that fewer and fewer people are now in charge of more and more of the market. On the back of these gigantic retail operations, the larger growers and producers went about the same game of merging with and acquiring each other, to form advantageous economies of scale, and consequently improved supply relations with the retailers.

As a result, in a period of less than 30 years, the era old array of hundreds of thousands of smaller operators has coalesced into behemoth corporations that operate under completely different agendas. For example, rather than focussing on growing or producing food that contends in the market, based on what the customers want or need, these companies use their inordinate budgets to scientifically manufacture psychological demand for products that are not physiologically desired. In fact, the products pumped out are designed more for the purpose of low cost and large scale production than for providing nourishment.

At this juncture we may wish to revert back to the good old days of many thousands of smaller operators, but that is much easier said than done. It's not simply a matter of pressing the rewind button.

Having said that, I do feel that decentralising our food systems and re-establishing a diverse array of smaller localised operations is achievable via a new phenomenon recently coined by Rachel Botsman as ‘collaborative consumersim’.

Collaborative consumerism is a term mainly used to refer to the trend of consumers taking turns with goods between themselves, such as a lawnmower, rather than each individual buying and owning an item of their own. The exciting part is that this term can extend to goods that we can’t take turns with, for example, food. In this case collaborative consumerism would refer more to a united group of customers who use their collective buying power to support businesses that fulfill their common purchasing criteria. In the case of our food systems then, the criteria could be to support local products and businesses.

Now the good news is that the fifth layer of our food system, customers, are by far the most powerful layer... if they are united. If the customers are divided, as they are in our present system, then the next most powerful layer is the one which is most unified - retail.

So, you see, we do have the power to make the change happen, if we could just unite and get organised.

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Comment by Jools on January 12, 2011 at 11:02am
Hello Sandra you can use something called a refractometer to measure the nutrient density of your food.  Kay Baxter from Koanga has written a lot of stuff on nutrient dense food.  Very interesting.  I intend using one to measure the results in my home garden where I am slowly improving the soil quality.
Comment by Sandra on January 12, 2011 at 9:42am
Good post to get people thinking.  You make a good comment regarding the goal is to nourish.  One of the primary problems is finding our how nourishing our food is as many production soils around the world have been stripped of their minerals.  It would be great if there was a way to easily assess what level of nutrition the produce you are buying holds.  Growing our own gives us some confidence as we know what we are feeding our soils but it is still hit and miss.  Any ideas on this would be great.    
Comment by Pete Russell on January 11, 2011 at 8:09pm
Great to hear from you Graham.  Yes, the Green Valley Grocer is a prime example of a community led response that proves a model that so many other communities could engage.  In fact, the Green valley Grocer was a large part of the inspiration behind the Ooooby Box.
Comment by Graham Mitchell on January 11, 2011 at 6:57pm

Like the post Pete. As you know from when you were in the UK a couple of summers ago, here at the Green Valley Grocer we are in tune with your thinking on food systems. For those that don't know about us, when our local privately owned greengrocer was on the verge of closure - which would have led directly to many more people being forced to travel to supermarkets for their daily basics, with the concomitant negative impact on our local shopping street - a group of local people came together and created a consumer cooperative to run the business. In 18 months we've taken a run down shop that was turning over probably less than 1000 a week (sterling) and built a well supported community owned greengrocer that will turn over 250,000 this year. We champion locally grown and produced food, and working in collaboration with our local artisan bakery The Handmade Bakery and other local community organisations, we are working to encourage people locally to grow their own food, trade their surplus with us, be aware of the impact of their purchasing behaviour, and to develop our whole local food economy.

It won't happen overnight, but it is happening, and it can happen anywhere on the planet on a similar basis if local people want it and are willing to put in some time, energy and a little money to make it happen.

Comment by Sheri on January 11, 2011 at 6:19pm

I agree and I've been reverting back to many of my older books from the 60's and 70's for valuable ideas, resources and inspiration to turning my life back to a more simplistic way of living locally. I've also been trying to connect with local people to form a co-op of buying local grown foods from local farms and trying to get other's involved in food preservation and canning with me. So many are NOT interested but they have given me ton's of unwanted canning jars that they no longer want. 

I hit the farms in October and November when they put their produce on sale at 50% off for the end of the season and I have been creating mostly winter soups and stews and fruit butters.  When I prepare a meal I make a huge batch, serve my evening meal from this then pack the rest into awaiting Mason jars and pressure can them up. So far, with each prepared evening meal, I'm able to put away 7 to 9 future meals. I'll use these when the weather gets to hot in the summer for cooking and these veggie verities are not readily available in the garden or on the farm.  I love a cold squash soup in the summer topped with fresh diced green onions and homemade crutons! At my age I have pretty much determined what types of meals I like to eat the most. Example: I love "Black Beans" so to save money from picking up that over priced can of black beans at the grocery store, I opened up two .79 cent bags of black beans, soaked them over night and cooked them up and canned them the next day. Do you know how many jars of beans that made? I would have had to buy 20 cans to make the amount I canned up. There about a dollar a can in my store, and mine were way better! Start taking stock of what you grab the most and plan on canning that during your farms growing and selling season.

Get out those cook books and rattle those pots and pans.  If you haven't gotten that big O'l pressure cooker now is a good time to invest in one and learn how to use it. Maybe your Mom has one she doesn't want to use, see if you can borrow it from time-to-time and give Ma a few canned meals for helping out. Start asking your friends for unwanted canning jars and hit 2nd hand shops for them, they should only cost about .25 cents a piece but they pay for themselves because you can use them over-and-over and they don't wind-up in the landfills like cans do.

You have to learn to follow your local farm growing season and eat and preserve from that season.

If you can get a friend(s) involved in doing this with you, then you can split and share the goods with each other. Nothing better than eating someone else's cooking! Life is uncertain and having a stocked pantry can be a very good thing. I like freezing stuff but with the high winds we get here we can lose power for over a week so canning is a safe way to go.

Comment by Ketana Saxon on January 11, 2011 at 5:21pm
Just reading a brilliant book that illustrates these issues in a wonderful format...really informative as well as practical and so enjoyable to read its inspirational. Recommend to anyone who cares about these issues...its called "Animal Vegetable Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver. Some of the information she presents re the grip by corporations on our food systems is mind boggling but oh SOOO important to know and become motivated to circumvent wherever possible!!
Comment by Kate Flint on January 10, 2011 at 9:52am
Yes, these arguments are all so true and down here in the bottom of Tasmania, things are slowly moving towards some of these goals. I just want to make sure that we can all stay connected because, as nice as self-sufficiency sounds, I want the internet and all it offers! Please tell me how we are going to keep "worthwhile" global technologies, and get rid of global food and junk in packets.
Comment by Pete Russell on January 6, 2011 at 2:20pm

I stumbled across this proposal today.  Makes sense to me.

 

Five key steps towards a food system that can address climate change and the food crisis


1. Move towards sustainable, integrated production methods

The artificial separations and simplifications that industrial agriculture has brought upon us have to be undone, and the different elements of sustainable farming systems must be brought together again. Crops and livestock have to be reintegrated on the farm. Agricultural biodiversity has to become the cornerstone of food production again, and local seed saving and exchange systems need to be reactivated. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides must be replaced by natural ways of keeping soil healthy, and pests and diseases in check. The restructuring of the food system along these lines will help to create the conditions for near-zero emissions on farms.


2. Rebuild the soil and retain the water

We have to take the soil seriously again. We need a massive global effort to build organic matter back into the soils, and bring back fertility. Decades of soil maltreatment with chemicals in many places, and mining of soils in others, have left soils exhausted. Healthy soils, rich in organic matter, can retain huge amounts of water, which will be needed to create resilience in the farming system, to deal with the climate and water crises that are already encroaching on us. Increasing organic matter in soils around the world will help to capture substantial amounts of the current excess CO2 in the atmosphere (see “Earth matters”, p. 9).


3. De-industrialise agriculture, save energy, and keep the people on the land

Small-scale family farming should become the cornerstone of food production again. By allowing the build-up of mega-industrial farm operations that produce commodities for the international market rather than food for people, we have created empty countrysides, overpopulated cities, and destroyed many livelihoods and cultures in the process. De-industrialising agriculture would also help to eliminate the tremendous waste of energy that the industrial farming system now produces.


4. Grow close by and cut the international trade

One principle of food sovereignty is to prioritise local markets over international trade. As we have seen, international trade in food, and its associated food processing industries and supermarket chains, are the food system’s chief contributors to the climate crisis. All of these can largely be cut out of the food chain if food production is reoriented towards local markets. Achieving this is probably the toughest fight of all, as so much corporate power is concentrated on keeping the trade system growing and expanding, and so many governments are happy to go along with this. But if we are serious about dealing with the climate crisis, this has to change.


5. Cut the meat economy and change to a healthier diet

Perhaps the most profound and destructive transformation that the industrial food system has brought upon us is in the livestock sector. What used to be an integral and sustainable part of rural livelihoods has become a mega-industrial meat factory system spread around the world, but controlled by a few. The international meat economy, which has grown fivefold in recent decades, is contributing to the climate crisis in an enormous way. It has also helped to create the obesity problem in rich countries, and destroyed – through subsidies and dumping – local meat production in poor countries. This has to stop, and consumption patterns, especially in rich countries, have to move away from meat. The world needs to return to a decentralised system of meat production and distribution, organised according to people’s needs. Markets that supply meat from smaller farms to local markets at fair prices need to be restored and reinvigorated, and international dumping has to stop." (http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=642)

 

Comment by Jools on January 6, 2011 at 9:33am
Yes I have shared this on my FB page too.  I have united with three friends to grow our food and sell the surplus.  From small acorns mighty oaks grow.
Comment by Pete Russell on January 6, 2011 at 9:13am
Hear hear Earl.  The transition must be done in an incredibly measured manner, and they must be done nonetheless.  And when each step of the transition does happen, it needs to happen swiftly.

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