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For the last few months, I’ve been working closely with three very different groups, each keen to hitch their wagon to a regional food system.

Thanks to Google, I quickly found out that these groups have a lot in common with groups around the world. One report that excited me was by the International Sustainability Unit, a group linked to the Prince of Wales.

They have done a royal good job of proposing city-based regional food systems as the basic organizing unit of a more humane and sustainable food system. They are also well-linked to initiatives and themes that may well dominate the coming season of international conferences.

The topic is likely to be at the center of some key international conferences this year, which, with any luck, will catapult the idea of regional food systems high up the list of ideas most likely to succeed.

Despite my preference for a less city-centric branding (countryside areas have lived in the shadow of cities too long and could resent this term), I think the unit’s report, Food in an Urbanized World has done a terrific job of sketching, as the sub-title describes it, The Role of City Region Food Systems in Resilience and Sustainable Development. In terms of countryside-city relations, we are at the dawn of a new era where the two harmonize by complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than, as so often in the past, they live in parallel worlds, each exporting to distant markets.  

The report identifies 16 benefits of reorganizing food production around self-reliant (as distinct from self-sufficient) and mutually-enriching (symbiotic) regions.

I am going to present the 16 benefits they list in black type, and add my own suggestions in grey.

My proposed addition of 17 more benefits reveals my excitement for what I’ll call “complementary regionalism” where needs of one group are matched by the strengths of another and vice versa, starting with the fact that a city population needs a lot of food and a nearby countryside produces a lot of food.  

Together, if I do say so myself, the two lists add up to a pretty impressive catalogue of 33 strong reasons for food advocates to endorse this “complementary foodshed” direction for a future that’s not-too-distant.

Food security and food rights

  • Organizing food production and supply around “foodsheds” and regions ensures a range of grains, produce, meat and dairy products are always available and accessible
  • Increased livelihood resilience for small-scale and mid-sized producers
  • Reduced food costs for urban consumers, when full costs taken into account
  • Increased resilience of overall food supply against shocks caused by international financial speculation
  • Increased access to culturally-appropriate world foods that can be produced in the region in collaboration with sponsoring community groups
  • Improved communication between producers and eaters, fostering increased food literacy and transparency  

Economic development

  • Territorial and regional organization of a wide variety of foods for local markets optimizes opportunities to imbed multi-functionalism into the food system, thereby creating more opportunities for adding value through culture enlightenment, heritage preservation, and so on – the core magnets of a rich cultural, culinary, environmental and education-based tourism industry
  • Increased variety of rural jobs, including artisanal and other value-adding activities, thereby stemming youthful depopulation in countryside areas
  • Increased vitality, entrepreneurship and innovation as a result of increased options for business organization (co-ops, social enterprises. B corps, and so on), increased options for funding alternative employment (such as prepaid CSA memberships and Indiegogo), and increased discovery of complementary opportunities, as a result of ongoing direct relationships between producers and consumers
  • Increased income and employment in rural and urban areas as a result of multiplier effect of purchases within a more circular economy with many forward and backward linkages (farmer gets a haircut, barber goes to restaurant, restaurant buys from farmer, and so on)
  • Increased jobs in cities resulting from the fact that locally grown food much more likely to be locally processed, packaged, warehoused and delivered, perhaps through regional hubs
  • Increased creative employment in creative industries developing new  small batch technologies for mid-scale farmers, processors and retailers
  • Increased employment from local purchase of alternative (non fossil fuel-based) materials sourced from farms, as farmers expand production beyond food, to include energy, fiber, fabric, cosmetics, supplements and medicines  

Environmental goods and services

  • Opportunities for ‘circular economies’, waste reduction and lifecycle resource management, including return of high-quality composted food waste and returnable/reusable food and beverage containers
  • Increased local agroecological diversity, including world crops and heritage crops
  • Increased recognition and valuing of ecosystem services and farm-produced environmental goods and services, often supported with fees for environmental services financed through carbon credits and other ways by beneficiaries throughout the region
  • Lower greenhouse gas emissions from reduced transportation, food and packaging waste, and increased carbon storage from new perennial and forest growth
  • Local abattoirs, which greatly reduce unnecessary transportation of animals and animal cruelty associated with such travel
  • Higher valuation of and support for countryside- and farm-produced aesthetic and scenic values which increase eco-tourism and “staycation” possibilities, attracting both international tourists and nearby residents
  • Increased city and countryside partnerships to promote pollinator habitat, essential to future food security
  • Increased city and countryside partnerships to use “working landscape” to manage and improve air quality, flood control, water filtration
  • Increased initiatives to foster agriculture with a “regenerative agenda” that can actively reduce harm done by previous practices
  • Increased public appreciation for value of food-producing land reinforces planning efforts to encourage smart high-density growth and prevent low-density sprawl onto precious farmland   

Health and well-being

  • Increased knowledge about food and nutrition amongst urban dwellers, resulting in more healthy diets
  • Increased availability of, and access to, nutritious food
  • Increased food literacy resulting from deepened relationships between food producers and consumers
  • Reduced need for harmful food additives designed to increase shelf life during longhaul transportation
  • Greater opportunities for Netherlands-style care farms supporting health of vulnerable people

Governance and culture

  • Promoting a food culture
  • Integrated (‘joined-up’) policy and action
  • Greater participation in and transparency of food system from increased opportunities to facilitate deep democracy, deliberative democracy and direct democracy
  • Development of new organizations (such as food councils or commissions) which enhance region-wide food citizenship, governance and collaboration
  • Increased opportunities to build in region-wide synergies and mutual benefits that are not apparent when each entity is oriented to a faraway market

The great political economist Polanyi wrote about a “first movement” toward a commercialized and industrialized countryside during the 1700s, and a “second movement” to humanize society through social welfare reforms. Far from being narrow and parochial, a world of more self-reliant regions could have elements of a “third movement” that re-establishes social and economic reciprocity as a foundation of human development.