What’s ailing our food system can be partly fixed with locally-grown food

By Guest Columnist DANIEL BACKHAUS, chief marketing officer of Atlanta-based PodPonics

When it comes to food in America, we face a Dickensian dichotomy. Parts of our population enjoy abundance and an unprecedented variety of food choices, while others live in so-called food deserts with no easy access to fresh, wholesome food at all.

Similarly, obesity and related diseases like Type-2 Diabetes have reached epidemic proportions, while a large percentage of our population regularly faces food insecurity or outright hunger. How is it that a society as advanced and rich as ours is forced to deal with such seemingly contradictory challenges?

Well, it’s not due to a lack of food; not yet, at least. Our country continues to set new records in food production, while also importing a record amount from abroad. So, clearly, the problem lies not with the overall amount of food we produce but, instead, with the type of food produced and how and where we produce and distribute it.

Take fresh produce as an example. Consumers have become accustomed to having access to just about any type of fresh produce at any time of year, regardless of season, weather or where they live. As a result, the global produce industry now boasts one of the most advanced logistics and distribution networks in the world.

Walk into any Whole Foods and you will find cucumbers from Holland, peppers from Peru and lettuce from Arizona, Mexico and Honduras. Of course, while many of these products might look impeccable, they often disappoint in terms of taste, texture and nutritional value.

Daniel Backhaus

Growing food in these faraway places and then transporting it by air or refrigerated truck for thousands of miles is not only hard on the food, it also causes pollution, traffic congestion and host of other problems, including lack of access in many parts of our society, such as our inner cities.

Unfortunately, our current food system is geared for centralized production in places far from our urban population centers, making long, complex and energy-intensive supply chains necessary. With the cost of oil rising, however, there is increasing interest in local food production in or near cities.

Urban gardens are becoming increasingly popular and they play a crucial role in building awareness of food issues and helping to educate our young citizens – and those not so young – to make good food choices.

They are also spurring renewed interest in food production and gardening. It is estimated, for example, that up to 10 million people began growing food in their garden when First Lady Michelle Obama planted vegetables in the White House garden.

This sort of involvement by high profile, influential people – and the publicity and attention that comes with it – creates awareness, drives education and fosters engagement. It will not, however, fix our food system or solve the problems that result from its current dysfunction.

Instead, radical innovation – the kind we have seen transform other sectors, including information technology, communications and medicine – is needed to meet the challenges we face. The fact of the matter is that our current approach, with its heavy dependence on increasingly scarce resources such as oil, water, and arable land, has inherent limits; and we are quickly bumping up against them.

Previously, we were able to increase production by simply adding more inputs, primarily in the form of more land by converting more and more acreage (usually in faraway places) into farmland.

Unfortunately, land suitable for farming has become scarce and we are now forced to resort to less-suited options. These tend to be further away from the point of consumption, often involve converting them from other uses such as forestry or wildlife habitats, or have less suitable climate, lack access to water or poor soil quality.

While we can overcome nearly all of these limitations, doing so usually requires a lot of energy — energy for transport, to create synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, pumping water, plowing and tilling soil, seeding and harvesting crops.

Agriculture is one of the few sectors that has not fundamentally changed in over 50 years. Nearly all innovation during this time has taken place in ancillary fields, including logistics and supply chain management, seed technology, and fertilizer and pesticide development.

One side effect of this is that less and less of what we spend on food – our so-called “food dollars” – ends up with the folks actually growing the crops, the farmers and their workers.

Instead, the vast majority is spent on energy, processing, distribution, retail and marketing. And, for all the money spent on today’s well-travelled and heavily processed food, it’s not any better than what our parents ate.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Studies have shown that the average nutritional value of common produce has declined steadily and anyone who has had a tomato grown in Florida in December can attest that the same is true of flavor and texture.

But it is possible to grow food at or near the point of consumption; and there are quite a few innovative companies showing us how. New York-based BrightFarms, for instance, is company that builds and operates rooftop greenhouses right on top of supermarkets and old warehouses in our country’s largest city. Gotham Greens, also a New York company, grows fresh produce in rooftop greenhouses in Brooklyn.

Another example is Atlanta-based PodPonics, which recycles shipping containers into controlled-environment “GrowPods” used to cultivate lettuce, micro-greens, and other produce. PodPonics grows their crops without any pesticides, uses 80 percent less water and vastly less fertilizer, none of which runs off to pollute streams and waterways. Plus they supply some of the city’s best restaurants with produce delivered within mere hours of harvest.

While we face significant challenges in re-engineering our food system, they are not intractable.

But, more importantly, great rewards exist for those innovators willing to disregard convention, think outside the box and re-imagine a food system that works for everyone in a crowded world where oil and energy are scarce.

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8 comments
UrbanTraveler
UrbanTraveler

Thank You for pointing out what is possible if we want to transform our relationship to our food!  Our fifty-year + policy of subsidizing fossil-fuel-based agriculture dependent on vast mono-culture farms far from cities and communities is unsustainable and has cost us dearly in health, environmental degradation, and employment. Some of the best former farmland is now paved over by our suburbs- cities grew up in areas near these desirable agricultural areas, and our "highest best use" thinking has resulted in a disaster.  Apple Computer is resuscitating an apricot orchard on its new Cupertino, CA campus, recalling the world-class fruit-growing area that was there before the boom of Silicon Valley. 

 

It's an irony that Georgia, the 10th leading state in agriculture, is near the top of the list of net food importers for human consumption.  Food deserts are not only in our cities, but also in the rural communities producing so much food for export to other states.

 

The answer is that we vote with our food choices, but also that policymakers begin to remove the tremendous financial incentives for the huge dislocated agriculture system we have,  and to incentivize local food initiatives.   In Europe it is difficult to change farmland near the city to another purpose: they recognized long ago there that feeding the populace with locally grown food was a goal worth enshrining into policy. Beyond that, If really good food choices are to be  available and affordable to a broad range of the population, it will take more local production  and ways to access it (distribution).  Large chains, even supporters of local farmers such as Whole Foods, seem reluctant to retail products that don't have a steady and voluminous supply chain.

 

One idea: Perhaps the historic Municipal Market on Edgewood Ave, soon to be accessible by streetcar, can expand its mission to support local farmers and CSA's and offer a comprehensive buying experience for all.  Not just those with a car, not just the upper middle class and the well-to-do. Many local markets already accept food stamps  and that is a start, but having the "public square" access to all would help turn one food desert into a food oasis.

 

Another idea: encourage the use, temporary or permanent, of vacant land inside the city itself for agriculture.  For every skyscraper in midtown Atlanta there is a corresponding asphalt parking lot.  The problem is not that we don't have enough land, it's what we do with it!  The rooftops of our skyscrapers are another opportunity- we have to think outside the box as you point out in your article.

LaurenJanis
LaurenJanis

Don't forget about @bigdaddybiscuit who sources from local farmers in Ga. 

sensuousliving
sensuousliving

When the growth and consumption of our food suppy are  more aligned with nature, so will become our overall good health and positive attitudes.  We are what we eat.  Children and maturing people need quality foods to substain their life force and be productive.  The formular is not a difficult equation.  It's as simple as you so elegantly described. The price is a change in attitude of what constitutes progress and prosperity in America. Until then, the developing minds of our children will die on the vine.  Sunshine, rain, air and thoughtfulness are still free.

Trish S. 

xponics
xponics

I absolutely love the way that this movement is spreading, and totally agree that radical innovation is what it's going to take to get the entrenched food system out of its ways and into the future.  Great article!

DanBackhaus
DanBackhaus

 @UrbanTraveler Wow! What a great, thoughtful, well-written, comprehensive and constructive comment! Nicely done, @UrbanTraveler !

 

A few points of clarification or, rather, amplification: not only do most farmer's markets now accept food stamps but, thanks to the SNAP program, they actually DOUBLE the nominal value of this benefit, making healthy, locally-grown fresh food more accessible to those most in need.

 

Of course, this small step only goes so far and cannot by itself level the badly skewed playing field that so favors large, industrial centralized agriculture whose heavily subsidized mono-cropping practices have caused the current problems. For when you have an entire food system geared around these oil-intensive practices then the previous ecosystem of regional markets, small-scale distribution and local production cannot compete. For not only is Big Ag able to externalize much of the true cost - pollution, congestion, pesticide and fertilizer runoff, exploitation of labor, etc. - the collapse of the previous, local markets forces small producers to take on the cost of making a market, distributing their produce and competing with what appears to be "cheaper" mass-produced and also heavily subsidized supply from faraway places.

 

What gets lost along the way is the local economy that used to provide not only jobs, but also tax revenue, better, fresher food and an invaluable connection between the consumers of the food and farmers, ranchers and artisan food makers who grow and produce it. And, I might add, a fair bit of our culture, history and identity that used to make each region of our great country unique and distinctive.

 

I agree that "voting with your wallet" is the best way to affect change here but we also need information, education and a healthy dose of engagement and advocacy by an involved and vocal citizenry.

DanBackhaus
DanBackhaus

 @LaurenJanis  @bigdaddybiscuit Lauren, I had actually thought of you and your wonderful, all natural pet biscuits made from locally-sourced ingredients. But, given the article was focused on "people-food", I decided to not focus on our furry friends. My bad!

DanBackhaus
DanBackhaus

 @sensuousliving I could not agree more. Luckily, we're seeing a flurry of activity in the Atlanta local food scene, ranging from urban farms like @podponics and @trulylivingwell  to local food artisans like Atlanta Fresh Creamery, High Road Craft Ice Cream or Spotted Trotter Charcuterie, to name just a few.

DanBackhaus
DanBackhaus

 @xponics Thanks for the comment (and the compliments). Change is necessary but will ultimately only be brought about by informed and engaged consumers who vote with their wallet and demand fresh, locally-grown food. The rewards will include not only better food but also vibrant communities, less pollution, congestion and a reduced dependence on foreign oil.

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  1. […] What’s Ailing Our Food System? By Dan, on May 29th, 2012 (This article first appeared as a guest column in the Saporta Report on May 13th, 2012) […]