From the ploughing of the fields to the weekly supermarket run, food travels along a global supply chain soaked in fossil fuels. Fertilizers, pesticides, manufacturing, and machinery of all kinds, pumps for water hungry irrigation schemes, processing, plastic packaging, all the way to the energy-sucking open freezers of Big Box Food-Mart - all are links in a chain supplying the global cafeteria.
The food system has also delivered something many of us in our every day lives take for granted - cheap food. In the U.S .today only 9.6 % of income is spent on food, 10.2% in the U.K. and 10.4% in Canada. 70 years ago 25% of income went to food, about the same percentage as a Mexican spends on food today.
While the low cost of food is good news for consumers, it has not necessarily benefited producers. On average, farmers get less than 20 cents of every dollar consumers spend on food. In 1950, farmers received 41 cents out of each dollar. As recently as 1980, the figure was still as high as 31 cents.
Meanwhile, the role in farming played by human labour has declined. It accounted for almost 40% of the value of resources used in farming in 1950, and 9.5% by 1993. In contrast, over that time the value of machinery and chemicals used in agriculture increased from 25% to 43%. Fertilizer use has increased five-fold since 1950. Oil, natural gas, and new technologies have been the key.
Escalating fossil fuel prices are converging with the impacts of climate change (drought, flooding, and severe storms) and related water problems to make the reconstruction of local and regional food systems ever more crucial. This is no easy task, however. Globalization has hollowed out the infrastructure that served local and regional markets. Rebuilding is a key challenge in our transition to sustainable, much more local food systems
A second key transition challenge, especially in Canada and many other northern countries, is preparing for the next generation of farmers. Our aging farmers are often asset rich but cash poor. While ensuring decent retirement for them, we need to learn how to transfer their land, equipment, and buildings affordably to the next generation. Succession that helps us transform the food system will not happen by itself.
To reconstruct local and regional food systems we need to transform the food value chain:
By adding more value to food closer to its point of origin, it will be possible for communities and regions to build a more secure food supply that is healthier for their inhabitants and for the environment. This is what we call a “values added” process, and it has the following primary components: