Organic Sense

Food Sheds: Redesign the System

by Frederick Kirschenmann  on April 12, 2010

Here's an article from Fred Kirschenmann, a longtime leader in sustainable agriculture. It's great to have Fred contribute to Organic Sense. He has a deep perspective that has guided the organic food movement to remember that organic is a philosophy to live up to. — George

Food Sheds

By Frederick Kirschenmann

Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture,

President, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture

Throughout the industrial era we have increasingly organized our food system in accordance with industrial economic principles—specialization, simplification and economies of scale. These are the principles that are intended to achieve the single goal of our industrial economy—maximum, efficient production and short term economic return. Operating by these principles we have focused our attention on developing a uniform, global food system. And the system worked relatively well so long as we had cheap energy, surplus fresh water, relatively stable climates, and reserves of ecological capital (especially a storehouse of rich soil and genetic and biological diversity). These were the resources which subsidized the industrial economy. Of course, its “success” also required us to largely ignore the many unintended consequences of the system:

  • The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that we have lost three quarters of crop biodiversity over the last century, and that we have lost one animal breed every month during the past seven years.
  • We have eroded our population of farmers. As of the 2007 census, we now have only 192,442 farmers producing 75% of total gross farm income in the US, 30% of our farmers are now over age 65, and only 5% are under age 35.
  • We have eroded our soil, polluted our water, drawn down our fresh water resources all across the planet, rendered much of our farmland useless due to salinization and desertification, and decimated our rural communities.
  • Our heroic intent to “feed the world” seems not to have worked out so well. The number of “food insecure” in the world has increased from 800 million to over 1 billion in recent months, and a 1999 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) study indicated that less that ½ of 1 % of our corn exports and less than ¼ of 1% of our soybean exports actually went to the 25 hungriest countries in the world.

These unsettling results are causing a growing number of us engaged in food and agriculture enterprises to conclude that we need to redesign the system, especially in the wake of the end of cheap energy, the depletion of fresh water resources, and the anticipation of more unstable climates. We have become convinced that farming systems need to be redesigned to be more self-renewing, self-regulating, resilient and adaptive, and that marketing systems must be designed to provide food security on a more regional basis.

An increasing number of policy makers, including leaders in the United Nations and former US president, Bill Clinton, are now recognizing that the global approach to solving the problem of food insecurity through technology, trade and aid, has failed us. It now seems apparent that we may be able to address our global food problems more effectively through strategies suggested by Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, president of the 63rd session of the UN General Assembly: “food justice, food democracy and food sovereignty.” In other words our global food security problems could be more effectively tackled “from the bottom up, than the top down.”

In response to these new initiatives, the concept of the “food shed” has begun to gain traction in recent months. The concept of a food shed (analogous to a water shed) has been around since 1929, but it took the “food crisis” of 2008 to make us aware of its relevance. We came to realize that farmers and consumers within a specific region, working together as “food citizens,” are best qualified to determine the type of food system that is appropriate for their own community.

Even politicians, like Scott Stringer, president of the Manhattan Borough of New York, have now become strong advocates of the food shed concept. President Stringer is now suggesting that certain percentages of public funds spent for food in the New York City food shed should go to farmers in the region who produce food for the region.

Organic Valley has, of course, been moving in this “new” direction since its inception in 1988. Networking family farmers within certain regions to produce and process food in the region, and investing in the communities in which they operate has been at the heart of the Organic Valley vision from the beginning. This positions them well to serve the emerging food sheds of the future. Organic Valley serves as one example of a growing number of farmer marketing-networks, which demonstrates that individual farms do not have to grow obscenely large to be successful. Rather, they only need to be aligned with other similar farms to reduce transaction costs and to enter into trusting relationships with their customers.

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Helene from from Oakland, CA on July 22, 2010 at 09:56:39 PM
What about Permaculture? This is a way to make it easier and more efficient to grow food in a foodshed. Also you could have mentioned the word Bioregion. Maybe you could write another article on these ideas.
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