Food Systems and Distances Traveled

Food is an essential requirement for life. A certain degree of psychological preoccupation is prompted if there are risks associated with getting the need for food met. As a result, securing food is one of the fundamental building blocks in Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”

Distance from the source of food is a sticky wicket for food consumers. We are left in the hands of government regulations, enforcement agencies, businesses, and various special interest groups in between us and the food we need for survival, health, and well-being. Questions range from plant and animal genetics to methods of production, processing, and preparing foods, to the logistical systems that transport, store, and stock what we eat as it moves from the point of production to the point of consumption.

So how far is it from the point of production to the point of consumption? According to a 2003 study, “Checking the Food Odometer: Comparing Food Miles for Local versus Conventional Produce Sales to Iowa Institutions,” by Rich Pirog at Iowa State University it can be further than one might think. For a synopsis of Pirog’s study, please read Consumers Prefer Locally Grown Foods published by the WK Kellogg Foundation.

Drawing from Pirog’s report, Jane Black offers the following analysis in her article in Slate entitled, “What’s in a number? How the press got the idea that food travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate:1

All statistics, of course, are based on a series of assumptions. And Pirog is quick to point out that whether or not the 1,500-mile figure applies to everyone and everything—or how it’s been misused—it has raised consciousness about where food comes from. It sends a message: It matters what you buy, and where you buy it.

The graphic below illustrates some of the critical relationships in the current, globalized food system relative to distances food travels.

Essentially, the diagram is a continuum from local to global with regional and continental “zones” setup to offer arbitrary hash marks at the 100, 1,000, and 10,000 mile intervals in between. Clearly, the distribution of distance favors production, processing, and preparation encompassing more than 1,000 miles. Also, the interplay of production, processing and preparation, and consumption is embedded within a logistical system that supports the movement of plant and animal materials from one location to another while transferring from one production / processing stage to another.

This diagram does not attempt to quantify the complete distance traveled, but offer a way to visualize the approximate distribution of mileage when looking at the overall food system. While Pirog’s report focuses solely on fresh produce and excludes various stages of processing between production and consumption, if one included the distances incurred by these additional steps the total mileage traveled would be considerably further. Also, due to the economies of scale favored by globalized operations, processing and preparation are centralized in specific locations that enjoy advantages of lower cost labor or closer proximity to large scale production operations. This adds to total distance traveled when completing the cycle to the consumer.

In his book, PERMACULTURE: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE, Graham Burnett offers a diagram entitled, “The Industrialization of Tea” that captures the notion of distance in the globalized food system and its consequences. When the total costs of fossil fuel consumption is treated as an externality and there is relative assurance that globalized food sources are secure and can provide safe food at low cost the food system functions effectively. But what if the formula changes due to increased fuel costs? What if we cannot assure food security and safety? What is an alternative? Mr. Graham begins to explore this question by providing a second diagram, “The Permaculture Cup of Tea,” posted on the same website.

In carrying the philosophy of a “permaculture cup of tea” further, the diagram below follows the same general format as the previous graphic, only the food system is more localized than globalized.

Now, 60 % of the food system functions within an area under 1,000 miles of the point of consumption. While this stops far short of 100% under 1,000 miles, it does suggest that simply moving a mere 30% of the total food system output from over 1,000 miles to under will have a profound impact on the issues like fuel consumption, food security and safety, and community sustainability, health, and well-being. But how much difference would this really make?

While there are no data to tell us for sure, there are reports from studies in related fields that offer some insight. In The New York Times article by Matthew Wald published December 30, 2006 entitled “Travel Habits Must Change to Make a Big Difference in Energy Consumption,” the author states,

…picking a large sport utility vehicle that goes two miles farther on a gallon of gasoline than the least-efficient SUV’s would have an impact on emissions of global warming gases about five times larger than replacing five 60-watt incandescent bulbs. The dollar savings would be about 10 times larger. And the more-efficient light bulbs would have a negligible effect on oil consumption.

This suggests that shifting the 30% of the current food system activity to under 1,000 miles from the point of consumption would make a substantial difference.

There is a business case in this for sure; but how would one go about putting the business model together that leads to viable business plans and startups in localized agriculture? The key is in designing a framework that ties the critical elements of food production, processing and preparation; renewable energy and environmental remediation; logistical systems; and community sustainability together into a set of dynamic, interactive, and adaptive relationships. And that will be the topic for subsequent postings…

Wishing you all the very best in 2007!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Tuesday, January 2, 2007

  1. The original article, “The Issues: Buy Local,” is no longer available online

Riff on Michael Shuman

For thousands of people around the world each day the Google News Alerts service deposits the results of key word searches among the thousands of news sources in Google’s global network in email inboxes, mine included. Among the terms I have setup for searches is “community currencies.” This morning the following item appeared:

Candidates for Ward 1

Raise the Hammer – Canada

… His ideas of how credit unions, commercial banks and thrifts with community ownership structures, and local currencies can keep community wealth circulating in …

The content trailer was intriguing, leading me on a two-hour surfing odyssey. The results are logged below in the event that others might be interested in some of the touch points I encountered along the way.

First, click to the article on the Raise the Hammer website; then, click to learn more about the Raise the Hammer community action initiative in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, which, according to Wikipedia is the 8th largest city in Canada with a population of slightly over 700,000.

Municipal elections are coming up and one of the candidates is a person named Brian McHattie. In a response to a request from Raise the Hammer, Mr. McHattie stated the five most important steps he would take if elected; his fifth and final point was as follows:

5) Develop a Community Economic Development Strategy. ‘Recently, Environment Hamilton brought U.S. economist Michael Shuman to Hamilton to talk about a strategy where communities adopt a strategy of self-reliance with local production for local consumption.

His ideas of how credit unions, commercial banks and thrifts with community ownership structures, and local currencies can keep community wealth circulating in and working for the community must be investigated as a basis for Hamilton’s economy, along with import substitution and directing City purchasing power to locally owned businesses, thereby keeping money circulating within the city – plugging the leaky bucket.’

Enter the name, “Michael Shuman.” So who is this Michael Shuman person?

A Google search found several listings one linked to a biographical article in The Nation. The next click goes to the homepage for The Nation and more background on the publication.

Another link in the search about Michael Shuman referenced “Community-based Economies1 at a forum on August 3, 2006 sponsored by the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center and partners.

No journey is complete unless some inviting by-ways are explored 😉 One side-road was a closer look at the terms “Sustainability, Entrepreneurship, and Local Economies.” A click in a Google search led to the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland and its Institute for Economy and the Environment. One of the faculty members, Dr. Rolf Wüstenhagen, co-authored a paper, “Structure of Sustainable Economic Value in Social Entrepreneurial Enterprises” that can be downloaded as a PDF file. Any research that can find better ways to determine value of such endeavors is worth its weight in gold and Dr. Wuestenhagen’s study is certainly a useful approach!

Another trail through the woods led to a startup originally named “Chesapeake Friendly Chicken,” funded in part by USDA grants, but now grant-independent and listed as “Bay Friendly Chicken.” There are several write-ups about this company from a wide range of perspectives including CNN Money and Animal Liberation Front. This represents an “educational process” from which many with a similar entrepreneurial spirit in agricultural production and process can learn.

But I digress, back to Mr. Shuman. His bio in the The Small-Mart Revolution—How Local Businesses Are Beating The Global Competition he is listed a Vice President for Enterprise Development with the Training & Development Center (TDC) based in Maine. The founder and president of TDC is Charles “Chuck” Tetro. Mssrs. Tetro and Shuman team as co-presenters and co-facilitators. One of those collaborations was to deliver a course at Whidbey Institute in Clinton, WA. The flyer announcing the session exploring!2 read as follows:

“Exploring Local Living Economies and Community-based Business” with Michael Shuman and Chuck Tetro Sunday, July 17 to Sunday July 24, 2005, A Residential Course at the Whidbey Institute in Clinton, WA: Michael Shuman is the author of GOING LOCAL: CREATING SELF-RELIANT COMMUNITIES IN A GLOBAL AGE and Vice President of Enterprise Development for the Training & Development Corporation. Among his current projects are a poultry company in Eastern Maryland financed through local stock, a small-business venture fund in New Mexico, and a local debit card in Maine. He speaks and consults around the country on strategies for strengthening local and regional economies, and he is one of the founding board members for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, a network of, by, and for community-based-businesses.”

Mr. Shuman is a busy person! A search for Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) uncovers an active North American network. The search results also show a connection to the specific term “Living Economies” and a link to which proves to be the home page for, aka, BALLE. At one time, Mr. Shuman was on the BALLE board. His former BALLE bio mentioned a website under development named, “CommunityFood” (no longer functional) that is intended “to support marketing by family farmers.” The website layout is an excellent framework / template to utilize in moving the localization of agriculture across North America. And in looking at all the blank states on the BALLE homepage map of chapters / members it appears there are thousands of opportunities 😉

Mr. Shuman’s latest book, THE SMALL-MART REVOLUTION: HOW LOCAL BUSINESSES ARE BEATING THE GLOBAL COMPETITION, published in 2006 by Berrett-Koehler and distributed by Amazon and others, continues to expand his theses in a powerful, yet engaging and entertaining manner, according to the reviewers. But see for yourself.

And this is wonderful place to stop for a while. I’m sure the odyssey will begin anew when another compelling news blurb pops into the inbox — happy reading and exploring!3

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Saturday, October 21, 2006

  1. Information about Michael Shuman’s forum at the University of Wyoming referenced in my original posting is no longer available online. 
  2. Links to the flyer and related information about Charles Tetro and Michael Shuman are no longer available online. 
  3. Much of the information about Michael Shuman and the terminology, projects, organizations, and source materials referenced in my original posting evolved over the intervening years. I attempted to keep as much of the original text as possible, except in several instances where deviations became inevitable. Mr. Shuman is still “living the dream” helping others develop local economies as this January 27, 2019 post to his website attests: Why Local Economies Matter. I will pick up the topic of localization in a separate post at a later date.

Localize – Link – Globalize

In the 17 July 2006 issue of Newsweek International, an article by Ron Moreau and Sudip Mazumdar entitled, “Bigger, Faster, Better: India’s top tycoon hopes to kick the country’s nascent boom into hyperdrive by remaking its stores, farms and even its biggest cities,” provides a compelling twist in corporate social responsibility. Earlier this year, Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, Ltd, announced the creation of a new, major business venture under the Reliance umbrella, Reliance Retail, Ltd. This is only one step in Mr. Ambani’s far-reaching vision in retailing that seeks to bring broad-sweeping changes in agricultural production and retailing across India as well as how people live in urban areas:

…Ambani, 49, has finalized plans to invest more than $11 billion over the next decade to build two new satellite cities outside creaking, overcrowded Mumbai and Delhi. He foresees these metropolises emerging within just four years, each with a population of 5 million people making $5,000 a year, on average (or seven times India’s norm), and hosting top multinational companies. And that is all pretty simple – a development on steroids – compared with the idea that really gets Ambani going.

Ambani’s favorite scheme aims to revolutionize in one swoop two of India’s largest but most backward sectors: farming and retail. Despite boom times, India is still a nation where 100 million mostly small farmers work with ox and plow, where 96 percent of retail stores are mom-and-pop shops and most of the roads between farm and store are mud tracks. Ambani plans to invest $5 billion by 2011 to put both the farms and the stores on the road to modernity, connect them through a distribution system guided by the latest logistics technology, and create enough of a surplus to generate $20 billion in agricultural exports annually.

I don’t have a clue whether Mr. Ambani will be successful in achieving what he envisions. Actually, that is not the point. What is significant, though, is that he apparently understands the connections between the circumstances surrounding those who produce food, and food production, logistics, and retail sales to consumers; he is willing to challenge the inadequacies and deficiencies in the current system; and even more, he is taking no small risks in making a significant play to install an alternative system that is more respectful, efficient, and sustainable for those who participate at the “ground level,” so to speak.

Basically, Mr. Ambani is addressing the problem by taking an approach that runs backwards from the conventional wisdom of a globalized model. He is, first, raising the capability and capacity of the farmer / producer, establishing an infrastructure to move productive output swiftly and safely to downstream stages in the value-chain, and providing fair compensation for the farmer / producer to assure sustainability:

To transform Indian farmers into quality suppliers for his new retail chain, Ambani plans to create 1,600 farm-supply hubs across India, providing technical know-how and credit, selling seeds, fertilizer and fuel, and buying produce.

Then, he is scaling the output of the farmer / producer to exceed local demands for food stuff and move the overage into the global market:

He also plans to build some 85 logistics centers to move food to retail outlets and to ports and airports for export. Reliance is gearing up to train tens of thousands of new employees in the next six to eight months to do everything from erecting prefab warehouses to transporting fresh produce. Even Reliance’s admirers note that with little experience in farming or retail, Ambani is taking his biggest risks yet. “There will be mistakes,” Ambani admits. “But we are not scared. We will correct our mistakes fast and move on.”

This is opposite to the typical globalizing business model that strips output from agricultural producers for a pittance and pumps it into the global market at the outset without regard or interest in the sustainability of the producer’s business or preserving the sanctity of the local community. The consequence of the more typical approach is farm consolidation, loss of livelihood and location, and dependence on globalized agriculture for local food supplies – not a good position to be in if supply chains are disrupted.

The critical path is to stabilize the producer / provider at the individual / family / community level; link producers / providers with others through flexible and dynamic networks capable of moving information, goods, and services in response to demand AT A LOCAL LEVEL; and lastly, scale the operations to match output with fluctuations in demand on a global level. This simple three-step formula – localize, link, and globalize – is a useful scorecard to measure the validity of any strategy aimed at utilizing natural resources or leveraging human resources in particular areas. If it strives to globalize first or prematurely, the approach is exploitative at best and unconscionable at worst!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Sunday, August 27, 2006

Ground Truth and Multiple Truths

In Ross MacDonald’s last entry, “A Richer Concept of Ground Truth,” he discussed issues surrounding claims of truth and grounding as a way of opening up discussion about the concept of ground truth. In this entry Ross further explores the concept by discussing the related topics of multiple truths and their benefits, subjectivity and objectivity, and differences between open thinking and permissive processing of multiple truths. To help illustrate the ideas presented he will refer to the example of a developing ecotourism project in the spectacular mountains of Uttarakhand, Northern India. Take it away, Ross!

Uttaranchal Project

Uttaranchal, which translates as “Northern Mountains,” is a small state in the far north of India, bordering Tibet and Nepal. Site of the Ganges headwaters, the region has attracted many Hindus on annual pilgrimages, but, despite its alluring mountains and interesting culture, it is far less known on the international ecotourism scene. I am working with Manor Bhatt, currently a Ford Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs while on leave from his senior position with the nongovernmental, environmentalist organization Shri Bhuvneshwari Mahila Ashram. Mr. Bhatt is a life-long resident of Uttaranchal.

The goal of the project is to support a sustainable, locally-owned and operated ecotourism industry based on a complicated formula of (a) building needed infrastructure of roads, water, sewer, reliable power; while at the same time (b) developing local capacity to provide eco-tourists with an enjoyable and stimulating experience; so as to (c) catalyze and support strong environmental and cultural protections; while (d) generating local income. Creating this synergy is expected to result in a sustainable tourist industry, reduction in resident’s out-migration for income, a curtailing of deforestation, maintenance of existing cultural practices and identities, and increased social and economic opportunities for residents of the region especially including women. My task is to design an on-going evaluation of the project and enhance local capacity to gather data related to project goals, to make sense of that data, and continuously improve the fledgling industry.

Multiple truths

A key part of the evaluation effort will be to recognize that multiple and conflicting truths will be abundant in the data — especially regarding some facets of the project, such as tourist satisfaction and awareness, changes in opportunities for women, and local’s assessments of tourism’s impact on local culture. Paradoxically, accepting the presence of multiple realities, even as they conflict, will actually contribute to the objectivity of the analysis. How can this be true? Aren’t individual truths each highly subjective?

That is exactly the point. Our impressions and experiences are obviously subjective, but in their collective and when considered intelligently, they yield insights and perspectives not available otherwise. In effect, because we are working in the realm of the social sciences, not in the physical sciences or religion, one more appropriately seeks truths with small “t’s.” Indeed, seeking these small “t” truths is not imprecise thinking, but actually a necessary precondition for the pursuit of objectivity. We strengthen objectivity by intelligently seeking and thinking about the many subjective realities present in the situation under study and especially by considering the perspectives of those who have been excluded or marginalized by a majority. For more detailed discussion see: Harding, Sandra. “Rethinking Standpoint Theory: ‘What Is Strong Objectivity?'” Feminist Epistemologies. Ed. Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Petter. New York: Routledge, 1993. 49-82.

Three benefits of the pursuit of objectivity through multiple truths

Seeing objectivity as a pursuit rather than a stance has several advantages for the Utteranchal Project. Three of these benefits are introduced and briefly illustrated.

  1. Accepting the value of multiple realities helps groups transcend the tendency to engage endlessly in debilitating arguments over whose truth is more true. Such arguments can only be “won” by invalidating other points of view. These arguments shut down any consideration of our commonality expressed in different ways. If, for example, 90% of eco-tourists report satisfaction with how they were treated by ecotourism providers, then aren’t the 10% who report being uncomfortable just plain wrong?
  2. Compensates for the effects of more dominant personalities or more privileged participants disproportionately influencing an analysis. If, for example, the mayor of a village and a number of villagers claim that that local residents are economically benefiting from the project, but one segment of the population disagrees, then we need to ask who disagrees and why? Or consider the possibility that only 10% of the eco-tourists are women of color but, in comparison to the other 90% of eco-tourists, they report feeling much less comfortable in their interactions with trail guides, guest house hosts, and travel coordinators? While any process of averaging responses would bleach out this important information, consideration of it as a truth, even though it doesn’t fit with other truths, gives it a more important and preserved relevance.
  3. Multiple realities means that it is possible to see common themes. Beyond the particular details of people’s stories about their experiences, are likely elements that recurrently echo each other. Identifying these elements and attempting to understand them involves respecting the different forms these elements take across stories. In this way a person’s individual experience is preserved, while at the same time people’s connections to each other are reinforced. An obvious outcome might be a recurring theme among eco-tourists of deep appreciation of the spectacular beauty of the region coupled with a deep awareness of the vulnerability of the ecosystem. The ways in which each individual experiences this conundrum will vary but the common humanity of the sentiment binds people together — a necessary basis for working for change.

Openness and permissiveness

This form of truth gathering is an open process but not a permissive one. Open means that one consciously remains in a state of “willing to consider” experiences, perspectives and ideas different than one’s own. Being open also means that we are aware that no matter how broad-minded we think we are, we still must recognize the limitations of one’s own views. Bringing other perspectives into our view broadens the horizon of possibilities. It is common to presume that openness means permissiveness — the blind acceptance of all perspectives or ideas as equally valid. Many presume that thinking critically about perspectives somehow violates the principle of openness. In fact, permissiveness is a type of poor thinking (presumption of equal merit) which actually short-circuits more beneficial analysis. Blind acceptance of all experiences shuts down, rather than opens up, understanding. For openness to have value, it must be accompanied by an acute mindfulness.

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Introduction to Social Agriculture

In his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond posits that agriculture is the foundation upon which civilization is built. Nonetheless, this association is not without certain complications. Some activist authors such as John Zerzan take an extreme stand that agriculture is the bane of true civilization. On the other hand, historian and author Fernand Braudel brings a less judgmental perspective in his trilogy, Civilization and Capitalism: 15th-18th Century. He focuses his historical inquiry on the everyday experiences of those whose daily lives were lived at the crossroads of a burgeoning agricultural society and the rise of capitalism. Yet again, there are other writers such as Heather Pringle who, in her article, “Neolithic Agriculture: The Slow Birth of Agriculture”,” softens the view further by holding that the birth of agriculture occurred in the Neolithic Age prior to the large-scale cities and far-reaching civilizations. Plant and animal domestication during this period did not bring with it the adoption of a social dominance model which appeared later. The range of these three suggests that the association of agriculture and civilization has considerable room for further exploration!

The application of strategic frameworks facilitates the exploration of ideas and intellectual spaces. This is certainly the case in the association between agriculture and civilization. As the convergence of technology, energy, environment for life at the point of human equivalence draws nearer, agricultural practices will change dramatically.

In the diagram above, the combination of technologies that are faster, smaller, more integrated, and more intelligent fuels a bifurcation in production agriculture. Agricultural practices that yield what people use in petroleum, fiber, and industrial applications take advantage of economies of scale and promote globalization and commoditization. Meanwhile, those agricultural practices that result in what people eat such as nutraceuticals, place-based specialties, food with specific qualities (organic, faith-based, ethnic), and livestock, leverage economies of place and tend toward localization and customization.

The dichotomy prompted by the bifurcation of production agriculture feeds a creative tension along the continuum of fossil-fuel energy —and renewable energy that if usefully applied, has the potential to bring the association of agriculture and civilization into a more favorable balance than at any time in human history. As condition reports are received through different media about changing conditions and circumstances in production agriculture they can be tied to the “strategic framework” suggested by the diagram and organized into meaningful actions on the continuum in response. And given the advances that are on the horizon this topic of agriculture, civilization, and technology will provide ample fodder for future consideration!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by –Steve Bosserman on Tuesday, August 30, 2005 and updated on Saturday, September 24, 2005