New Equations of Regions, People, Nature and Food Chains

March 10, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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We usually think of geologists as going deep, but when it comes to working through the layers of meaning behind local food, geographer Terry Marsden knows how to dig very deep.

Marsden sees food as a uniquely human enterprise because it, more than anything else we do, relies so much on the relationship between humans and nature. Food is inevitably a product of our social nature, and always different from products, artifacts and commodities that can be isolated from direct relations with nature, he argues.

I appreciate someone who sees that as a starting point of understanding and appreciating food, even though my special interest is food and cities, which are often seen as far removed from nature.

But Marsden’s work is as important for city as countryside dwellers, because cities and countrysides are going to be working together more closely than ever in the food system he predicts to be on the way.  

Marsden sees the  local food trend that’s developed in Europe and North America over the last 30 years as a sign of a new relationship between food producers and consumers — both of whom are co-producing a new regionalism that puts a high value on food quality, the environment and the human relationships that come to the fore when food is localized.

Unlike some writers who warn of the “local trap” – wherein local food merchandisers masquerade the same old/same old industrial food in a charming new local bottle – Marsden sees local and regional food as an exercise based on integrity on the part of city and countryside people. Both producers and consumers are looking for a way out of reducing food to a commodity, and in the process, reducing themselves and their own relationships to the same lowly status.

Indeed, relationships are so much at the centre of this emerging food regime that Marsden refers to it as Short Food Supply Chain (SFSC). By describing it this way, rather than as local, he emphasizes that the closeness comes more from direct human relationship than from the short physical distance between a region and its city centre.

In my view, Marsden helps people understand where regional food projects fit —  in both time (relative to the neo-liberal times we live in) and space (the space or region they are studying). Marsden also helps us understand the kind of infrastructure and policies that will be needed if an alternative food regime is to succeed.

My job this week is to present some of Marsden’s ideas, spread over several decades of writing in specialized and dense geography journals, to local food advocates. I’m going to organize my presentation in terms of key ideas, rather than particular articles. Some of the articles I draw from will be identified at the end.

Terry Marsden, together with his collaborator Henk Renting, foresaw the future of the food movement as early as 2003, when the two wrote an article on alternative food networks and short supply chains in a journal called Environment and Planning. This was likely the first time the words “alternative food networks” and “short food supply chains” were used, a good 3 years before “locavore” was identified as the “word of the year.”

Until that time, regions were known for specializing in one crop that was ideal for mass production and export, such as apples or cheese or wine. It wasn’t until the rise of the local food movement that regions tried to be known as a centre of many crops and foods – a cuisine and food culture that were special to a region. That full sense of terroir is a development of the modern food movement and of a regionalism that includes the full range of food producers (including processors and chefs) and consumers.

Marsden and Renting also anticipated that alternative food networks would have a special environmental ethic and uniquely entrepreneurial orientation. Rather than define the new movement as “local,” which smacked of parochial, they named it for the directness of its supply chain, which means that it could (as indeed it did) feature fair trade products. The issue was not the physical distance of the trip from farm to fork (which, as I have explained in an earlier newsletter, is only one of the 8 two-way trips that food requires, and not usually the longest), but the social distance between producer and eater and the mentality difference between producer and nature.

As an article predicting and outlining a future food scenario, this article is hard to beat. With some 800 citations by other academics, it is probably the best known of Marsden’s articles.

The new regional agriculture arises from countryside efforts to find an alternative to the low farmgate prices, low job satisfaction and degraded relationship with nature that is the lot of farmers caught in the web of monopoly-style supermarkets, processors and distributors.

The emerging countryside economy is creating a richer and wider range of relationships between city and countryside than has been the case over the last hundred years.

If one word were used to describe the products of this change, it would be multi-functional. Rural farms are called on to provide more fiber and fuel products (building materials, textiles and ethanol, for example) and more ecosystem services (scenery, flood management and water filtration, for instance) on top of the food they have long focused on. Industrial agriculture assigned them only one task – food production – but the fuller range of services associated with agriculture is now returning.

If one word were used to describe how farmers look at multifunctional possibilities, it would be agency. Farmers now have options they couldn’t imagine when giant supermarkets, processors and distributors were the only organizations interested in what farmers had to provide, and had lots of other farmers to bargain with if local farmers didn’t like the terms of trade. Farmers had nothing indispensable or even unique to sell.

In a regionalized system, by contrast, farmers have customers they can sell food directly to, and they have other indispensable and non-substitutable offerings. Distant farmers may sell similar wheat or milk, but they can’t provide similar scenery for weekend outings, or similar flood management in the event of regional storms.    

If one word were used to describe the capacity new farmers must exercise to take advantage of such opportunities, it would be entrepreneurial.

Shit happens, as the saying goes, but markets don’t; they have to be created. Farmers, Marsden says in a 2010 article about “mobilizing the regional eco-economy,” are recapturing value that used to go to corporations, and they recapture that value by pro-actively creating new eco-services and finding new niches.

Unlike products that came from many rural areas – oil or coal would be typical – that had no particular local identity or quality, the new products are definable by their locality. Once rural areas were “spaces of flows,” one academic has put it, but they are now “spaces of places.”  

Moving oil or potatoes was about “resource mobilization,” Marsden argues, but the new business opportunities require the creativity of “resource reconfiguration.” This is what happened to the Shetland area in Scotland as the former oil centre shifted “from simple resource mobilization to territorially embedded resource reconfiguration.”

In the case of Shetland, it required a return to old products – what Marsden calls “retro-innovation” based on the unique communities that produced the unique wool products of the area – as well as innovative products, such as electrical power from wind.

This process is not as simple as “add place, and stir.” It requires two kinds of social capital, Marsden says in the same 2010 article – “bonding” (based on tight relations within families or schoolmates, for example) and “bridging” (based on reaching out for new partners). Bonding was good enough for the old economy, since relations outside were strictly impersonal and economic. But new relations with new customers require bridging – with food activists, food enthusiasts and policy wonks many rural people didn’t feel automatically comfortable with.   

The quality of food produced in newly-configured countrysides replaces the quantity that defined earlier relationships with supermarkets, an issue Marsden explored in a article he wrote in 2000 about quality and nature.

He spoke then of an “alternative geography of food” that was “forcing itself on the social science agenda”  with its new product – “quality food production” that dared to be known as “embedded in local ecologies.” The farming world was going full circle back to the direct relationship between people and nature, as was once the norm before the 1950s and the full-blown era of industrial agriculture.

Farmers were now allowing nature to reassert itself, rather than outflanking and circumventing it, as big machines and powerful chemicals had allowed farmers to do. Food production was re-embedded in nature instead of a strategy in which “nature is squeezed out of the production process.”

Local food does not only reduce the distance between farmers and consumer, but between farmer and nature. The “struggle over quality, especially as it is linked to nature, will become more and more central in determining the future economic geography of food,” he wrote in this same 2000 article on quality, nature and embeddedness.

By loosening control over nature as a way to produce unique quality products, farmers gain new stature and meaning for  customers who value such qualities, and this is pivotal to the new power of farmers they could never exercise in a supermarket-dominated regime. “The concern for quality must be seen as enabling the exercise of a new kind of power in food networks,” Marsden says. Thus, local economic development an become an “effective counterforce” to the economic vulnerability created by globalization.

In Terry Marsden’s words, local is no longer just about physical location, but a “space for rearranging possibilities which attempt to counter the prevailing forces in the agrarian landscape,” a place for new networks and relationships. Producer-consumer food relations can be both re-rooted and rerouted, he says.

In another article of 2000 on food supply chain approaches, Marsden and his team actually defined the Short Food Supply Chain as central to what happens in what is called local food.
Such a chain covers relatively modest distances, but over and above that, relations are often based on personal trust and a common meaning linked to what people are doing when they buy and sell locally. The knowledge about where the food comes from, and how it is produced, is a central aspect of what makes local food special.

The short food supply chain is as much about human relations as it is the logistics of moving physical products.

The easiest way to sense this is to think of coffee and chocolate.  Fair Trade coffee or chocolate come from a short supply chain that provides as much knowledge and meaning as food from down the road. This may explains why local food enthusiasts are more likely to buy fair Trade coffee than swear off an imported hot beverage, and why no-one has ever campaigned for dandelion roots as the perfect grind for a new localista coffee.    

Marsden puts new relations in historical perspective in this same supply chain article. He goes back to 1947, when the UK established its agriculture and town and country planning acts. These acts basically defined food as centring around nutrition, safety and adequacy – the Big Three questions that still define production-oriented ag and food policy in most countries to this day.

The new relationships around food challenge this old way of defining the big food issues by raising such matters as taste, quality, heritage, culture, meaning, relationships and sustainability. This gap between new and old food assumptions creates what Marsden and his colleague Kevin Morgan call a “new equation” that separates advocates of the old and emerging food systems.

Marsden sees several places as centers of that new equation. Toronto and the experience of its food policy council (which I managed from 2000-2010)  loom large in his writings, because the Toronto Food Policy Council championed the full gamut of new issues – from local to sustainable to cultural to a more holistic understanding of health. Marsden also identifies areas in Scotland and The Netherlands where similar efforts are underway.

In Marsden’s view, the emerging food relationship is in the process of discovering a “third nature.” Third nature is not the same as first nature, when raw nature dictated what humans could do about food, nor is it one with “second nature,” the industrial system which attempted to either subjugate Nature, or substitute for it with synthetic chemicals and flavors.

Third nature is now as essential to cities as to countrysides, he argues, because the price of trying to subjugate nature is coming home to roost – witness global warming, the endangered status of pollinators, the destruction of fisheries, and a long list of second nature projects that have gone haywire.

The food crisis based on this havoc “will only be overcome by developing far more spatially-connected as well as ecologically grounded solutions in building the adaptive capacities needed,” Marsden argues. We now know that second nature methods have backfired, he argues in a series of more recent articles, and that technologies and infrastructure for “third nature” approaches must be high on the agenda – so we can produce in both the quantities and qualities that are necessary.

Marsden’s work is based on his studies in food systems of the Global North, and needs to be complemented by work that is based on food systems of the Global South. His work also needs to be supplemented by work on new business and technological strategies for collaborating with “third nature” and cooperating with empowered food producers and consumers.

But I think the food agendas many of us are working on have a lot to learn from Terry Marsden’s work. He has identified city and countryside areas of regions as partners and logical collaborators, which is central to the partnerships that must be formed in the future. He has identified the countryside agents of change that urban food advocates need to work with and support, in ways that are meaningful and helpful to them. He has identified local as a word that has composite meanings —  including short physical distances but also short distances from nature and in human interactions. He has put the need for short supply chains and infrastructure at or near the top of the to-do list of an emerging food system. And he has put the need for a new relationship with nature at or near the top of the to-do list.

A geographer has helped un interpret the world. The task, however, is to develop workable programs that can change it.      

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, local food, regional food systems