Ultimately, the size of our individual contributions matter much less than the scale of our multiplied efforts. Page 222
Do you ever finish a book and realize that it hits on all of the salient points you feel are important to an issue? Do you ever flip through the pages and realize you have dog eared dozens of pages with statements that you want to go back to ruminate on later?
Well, for me the book that most recently did that was Philip Ackerman-Leist’s Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable and Secure Food Systems. Ackerman-Leist is an associate professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Farm and Food Project at Green Mountain College in Vermont. So, the book has an academic tone throughout but that is more than compensated for by the fact that he just nails the issues confronting the burgeoning “food movement.”
Creating community- based food systems is one of the most intellectually challenging tasks of our age. Page 2
Well, there it is in a nutshell. Creating the local, sustainable, and secure food system that we need to be successful in the future is going to be a challenge. Great. This is a country that has a hard time kicking the habit of soda and Big Macs. How exactly are we going to build a new food system? I digress…
But if we ignore the less obvious and more disconcerting aspects of our food systems, then we certainly cannot begin to understand the full scope of the realities we face. In the end, rebuilding local food systems requires us to connect with the neighbors we’ve never known as much as it does to share the bounty with our comfortable acquaintances. Page 100
This why it’s going to be hard. We are going to have to face the ugly reality that the problem is us and we are going to have to interface with people that we are not comfortable around. It may take a village, but you need to know your village first.
One thing the Ackerman-Leist is very clear on throughout the book is that local, in and of itself, is not necessarily a virtuous thing. I think as the food movement has matured more and more people have come to the realization that food miles, easy to conceptualize but fraught with shortcomings, is not the be all and end all to define food.
In the end, it’s not just about where the food was produced. We must also bear in mind the impacts of its production, processing, storage, distribution, marketing, preparation, and even reclamation. Where matters immensely in the food system world, but so do how, why, by whom, and for whom. Page 23
What this book does supremely well is link the changes in our food system to changes in our patterns of behavior at home. As we cook less in the home, we have outsourced that task to factories and restaurants. This represents energy that is embodied in the meals we consume that we do not prepare for ourselves. Most people do not think of food this way, but the author is very clear that food represents energy. Once you break down food this way it is easier to see the flows through the economy.
The health of the soils that we grow our food in also represents energy because synthetic fertilizers are primarily derived from fossil fuels. The current standard practices in agriculture are too energy dependent to be sustainable in the long run. Ackerman is even more alarmist:
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you are compelled by a sense of urgency for local self-reliance or for national security. Soil fertility is key to both. Page 62
I cannot imagine seeing a right winger bloviate that soil health and fertility is a key component of our national security. But, soil health and fertility are about more because reclamation of those attributes represents an economic opportunity:
…compost can be locally produced under local control with local dollars creating local jobs and resilience. Page 82
This is an argument that is lost when the food movement brings its case forward to a national audience. The creation of these local, sustainable, and secure foodsheds is about our economy just as much as it is about our heath and our environment.
Like all conversations about the food movement, the discussion inevitable turns back to the kitchen. Why? Because this is the one place where there is a tangible connection between our actions and the impact on the food system:
We can’t lose sight of the importance of the kitchen. Hours spent in the kitchen and our time at the table are both critical elements in relocalizing food systems. Page 213
As you can tell, I am a big fan of this book because it brings home so many of the threads weaving through the food movement in a coherent way. Tying it all together is critical to the future of the food movement because it is easy for these efforts to become Balkanized into rival factions that fight for pyrrhic victories. In some ways, this is where I feel the environmental movement has found itself fifty years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
One part of the book that I just loved was the placing of the bicycle at the pinnacle of energy efficient transportation:
Bicycle transport wins the efficiency game in linking local farms to consumers right in the neighborhood. Page 50
Can you just imagine fleets of two wheeled delivery people fanning out to distribute fresh produce across a city? I cannot either, but it’s one hell of a compelling image.
NOTE: I read an uncorrected proof copy of the book, so my citations may not line up with the actual pages in the final sale version.