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Bigger than Both of Us

The basic math of food advocacy is to put two and two together, and come up with at least 5.

The secret of effective policy is to turn the solution to 2 + 2 problems into at least 5 benefits. That way, any quantitative efficiencies we lose by not binging out on scale and specialization, we more than make up for by qualitative efficiencies from redesign.

Laura Lengnick and her colleagues show their knack at this kind of math (could I get away with calling them polymaths?) in a November 2015 issue of Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences called “Metropolitan foodsheds: a resilient response to the climate change challenge?”

The problems are a food system mired in excessive specialization (at the cost of biodiversity) and scale (at the cost of industrializing natural processes), which leads to problems of unsustainability (in terms of resource use) and lack of resilience (inability to respond to abrupt changes such as climate change).

It’s a tall order to counter that mess of problems.

But the authors lay out how it can be done with a food system that puts a premium on sustainability and resilience, achieved by dint of a turn toward diverse production and local marketing.

That’s not the long tour of long-distance food, but it’s a tour de force.

By putting “metropolitan foodsheds” in the headline, they may well be defining a new school of food analysis. I’d love to be invited to join!

I’ve been stumbling in the same direction myself over the last few years, as I have come to realize that local can get too local to be relevant (as in, supplying enough food for a large city) or meaningful (as in, being environmentally and economically counterproductive).

I’ve heard too many stories of smallhold farmers driving one goat to and from a slaughterhouse, and then to and from a farmers market, to think we’re really lowering the amount of embodied energy or increasing the wealth of the world by going overboard on local.

You can go too far with anything, and you can even go too far with local.

The region, or foodshed, is the right level of analysis for self-reliance (which the authors wisely distinguish from self-sufficiency. It’s big enough to foster some scale and small enough to reduce too much need for inputs

I won’t say much more. It’s a good read by academic standards, and has many insights that will be appreciated by practitioners — including a good chart of indicators for resilience, a sound appreciation of the importance of infrastructure, and a really good capturing of all the social benefits that flow to a region when country and city people mix it up (there’s a good chart including that too).

I was in a mood for this because I read it after going to my local farmers market, and learning from a shy farmer selling eggs that big eggs often come from old chickens, so smaller eggs might have more of a youthful kick — another case of more is less. I learn food literacy and the farmer learns the social skills of selling. I gain respect for rural people, and they gain awareness of what urban people face. It’s symbiotic.

Or, to put it in terms of math and economics: farmers markets double the social efficiency of a regional food system.

By the way, the picture of me at top is me wearing the costume of an 1840s farmer selling at a farmers market at Montgomery’s Inn

Here’s the link; go to your library to download it for free:

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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