Current industrial system of agriculture and food

Local Food for Global Future

Harry Donkers, 2015

Finally, the European Commission sounds the alarm and states that the current industrial agriculture can no longer continue like this. This is reflected in strong standards for nitrogen emissions. But, there is much more to it. Back in 2015 I wrote a book about the need to approach agriculture differently: ‘Local Food for Global Future’. To arrive at a new global paradigm from a local perspective: sustainable food security. The book has not lost any of its current relevance. The book is free to download, here you will find the Summary.



Current industrial system of agriculture and food

Before World War II the dominant agriculture and food system was system of regional/local agriculture both in western countries and in the developing world and in BRICS and NIC countries. After World War II this regional/local agriculture was almost completely ousted in western countries and the industrialised system based on economic growth became dominant, whereas in many countries in the global South and in the BRICS and NIC countries the industrialised system is in a state of development. In Western countries the development of the industrial system took off and subsequently went haywire. We presented an overview of the industrialized agriculture and food system and concluded that this system developed successfully regarding the output of volumes of production and profitability but were detrimental to social and ecological values and did not succeed in bringing the world food problem closer to a solution. The industrial food system has become a system of global monofunctional food chains that is far removed from us humans, with reduction at mega-farms and firms and traditional forms of organization that are outside our reach.


The current system of agriculture and food exerts heavy pressure on ecosystems. It is not only the shortage of food that matters, but also nutrient deficiency. The current food crises create imperatives for change of our current agricultural and food system. To allow the agriculture and food system to provide physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food for all people in a sustainable way the social and ecological values of the industrial system should be recovered so as to develop an appropriate system and prioritise ‘food for all’.


Sustainable food security

We combined the food security concept of Shiva, which consists of three vital aspects - ecological responsibility, food sovereignty (the right of people and nations to determine their own system of agriculture and food) and food safety - with the sustainability concept of Brundtland. This leads to a new paradigm of ‘sustainable food security’ that urges us to reconsider social and ecological values, to develop quality products, to provide better rewards for farmers and to aim for food sovereignty and food safety.


The concept of sustainable food security aims at a fair society, economically thriving inhabitants, well-functioning/healthy eco-systems, sufficient and safe food for every human in the world, through the development of local food systems for global future.


Putting the paradigm of sustainable food security into practice requires a focus on local resources. The best way to achieve this is by means of the local and regional food systems that we see re-emerging globally. The opportunities and challenges of emerging local and regional food systems offer key perspectives on achieving sustainable food security. Manycommunities and regions have started with these small-scale systems to test possible solutions.


Potential of local and regional food systems

We discussed the characteristic features of these local and regional food systems according to the five dimensions of sustainable food security: the social, economic and ecological aspects, and food sovereignty and food safety. The new system is characterised by a system of local and regional, multi-functional food networks which are close to people, where workers operate in small- and medium-sized farms and firms and are rewarded on the basis of their merits, producing safe, healthy, adequate and affordable food for all.


When food products are produced, processed, and consumed within the region, the region itself benefits. This is especially the case when this food system is part of a multi-functional environment where value is attached to other aspects of life such as agricultural tourism, and care for nature, landscapes and eco-systems not directly related to the production of food.


Cooperation between the local and regional parties at different levels is crucial. Serious obstacles may arise on the road to cooperation. It is difficult and it cannot always be flexible, certainly not in the case of a large group of individual entrepreneurs and in the case of groups with different interests. This means that individual interests have to be overcome and leadership is needed to get people to move in one direction. This requires good governance systems.


Even though local and regional food systems face daunting challenges and great opportunities, we argue these can only be confronted successfully with a more systematic approach. Before presenting a clear definition and classification of local and regional agriculture and food systems and discussing the (multi) governance of these systems, we focus on two practical situations at different regional levels: a specific region in The Netherlands, The Vechtdal, and the current position of family farming in Russia, with notes on an empirical example of a local chain in Krasnodar Krai.


Vechtdal Food Community

The Vechtdal Food Community, established in 2004 and organized in the Cooperative Association Vechtdal Products in 2014, is gearing up to realize common goals of production and sales of tasty and high quality food products combined with production of nature and landscape, along the network of regional production of agricultural goods and services (arrangements). The community shows that a better embeddedness of agriculture in the region is profitable for all partners and provides an economic boost in the region. The community provides artisan agriculture, producing pluriform typical food and specialty products for the local market, with good prospects to earn a better income. This idea of regional agriculture meets the needs of consumers as observed in recent trends, like authenticity, taste, known origin, quality and experience.


With the Vechtdal case as an example the challenges of regional community food systems grounded in regional agriculture are emphasized. In the Vechtdal situation partners in the agricultural and food chain and area oriented partners work together – on the basis of their own core competences – to increase value of agricultural products and services ánd of the region itself. Several aspects of regional agriculture are discussed, like co-operation, organization structure, marketing approach, regional branding strategy, the competences, tasks and functions that should be carried out, and must link up with the market demand.


Results of a feasibility study, based on the Vechtdal Case, show that it is possible, that regional community food systems  – after a certain inception period – are able to operate without subsidization. A charge on the cost price of the products enables building equity, paying interest costs, executing marketing tasks, chain management, financial management and administrative organization, including the accompanied material costs. Moreover there is room for executing nature and landscape embellishments. That makes top-down levying systems, with connected high transaction costs, superfluous.


Family farming in Russian regions

Based on an overview of Russian agriculture the position of family farming is illustrated. We conclude that the potential role of small-scale Russian agriculture and food is underestimated. In Russian agriculture small-scale farmers produce more than half of the agricultural production. The small-scale farmers produce over 50% of the potatoes, vegetables, milk and wool. Grains, sugar beet, sunflower seeds, poultry, livestock and eggs are for the larger part produced in large-scale farms.


The potential of small-scale farmers goes far beyond agricultural production and food and relate to realizing simultaneously economic, social, ethical and ecological values. Output levels per unit area of small-scale farms are higher than those of large-scale farms. Small-scale agriculture, however, is more labour-intensive than large-scale agriculture. Stimulating small-scale agriculture could therefor increase employment, strengthening active vital rural regions and building new relationships between urban and rural areas. This contributes to stopping the migration from the countryside to the city. Tourism has undiscovered potentials, both in cities and in rural areas. Small-scale farms in general do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Apart from this, ecological values can be gained via cooperation with local organizations in the field of landscape, nature, water and ecosystem health. Small-scale agriculture is best equipped for developing own type of Russian agriculture and food and Russian food culture.

Climate, soil and growth conditions differ to a large extent between Russian regions: Central, Volga, Southern and Northern regions. Many food communities play a role as precursors of the large potential of small-scale farmers, taking account of the specific conditions in the different regions. We present a number of examples of how people are active in local and regional agriculture and food in these regions.


To stimulate small-scale agriculture and food five recommendations are proposed:

- Stimulating a chain approach;

- Stimulating a network approach;

- Modernization of small-scale agriculture and food;

- Increasing regional capacities;

- Governance.


The improvements of SME’s capacities rely not only on on-farm capabilities, but also on the general enabling economic and institutional environment, both on a regional, national and international level.


A Case study in Krasnodar Krai shows a private organic/natural chain operating that distinguishes itself through excellent quality products.

The chain consist of producers/farmers and processors of organic/natural products in the vicinity of Krasnodar city, an organic shop in the centre of the city of Krasnodar, a web shop, a catering business, a cafeteria and a restaurant. This shows that basic principles of working in local chains and networks are already practiced in Russia. Moreover it shows that there is a good breeding ground for application of the recommendations to support small and private farmers. This could bear a huge impact on agricultural development in Russia.


Classification of local and regional food systems

In defining regional food systems, geographic and cooperation considerations are requisites. A region is defined as an inseparable entity of (parts of) one or more cities and countryside environs. Rural-urban linkages are thus characteristic features of regions. It can be seen as a further specification of the term ‘city-region’, where we take account of the number of cities involved and the population density of the region.


Producer-consumer interaction takes place in short chains, with rural, urban, or rural-urban reaches. Local, (inter- and cross-) regional food systems arise when producers, consumers, and governments cooperate in one form or another. A workable classification of local and regional food systems has been presented, which enables a more systematic approach to the various initiatives observed throughout the world. The classification of local and regional food systems is as follows:

  • Short chains;
  • Local food systems, divided into rural and urban food systems;
  • Regional food systems, divided into:      
  •          Metropolitan and cityside region food systems;
  •          Corridor and connected cities region food systems;
  •          Conurbation and countryside region food systems;
  • Interregional food systems;
  • Trans (cross-) regional food systems.

For each level of classification, definitions, general information and examples were provided.


Governance for local and regional food systems

At the level of short chains, various initiatives have taken smart forms, and associated developments are at times so strong that some believe they have become irreversible. Regional initiatives, though varied, include producers, consumers, and governments taking on formal roles in the development phase. Examples can be found in collaborations between slow food communities, convivia, transition town initiatives, and food policy councils.


Many food initiatives are taking place in various countries; however, connections with national/interregional food systems are still in their infancy and deserve national government support. At the level of global/cross-regional food systems, most interactions take place at the policy level of various institutions. In many cases, confrontations are observed between established institutions and societal movements.

For each level of classification the appropriate food governance approach was discussed. We presented the following examples:

  • Short chain governance: Raw milk production and consumption;
  • Rural food governance: Impact of small and private farmers on rural development in Russia;
  • Urban food governance: Food provision in the rapidly growing city of Dar es Salaam;
  • General example of regional food governance: Regional (typical) products in bids for local and regional governments;
  • Metropolitan region food governance: Food security in Belo Horizonte;
  • Cityside region governance: Eindhoven cityside region;
  • Corridor region governance: Twin cities Local Food Initiatives Minnesota/Saint Paul;
  • Connected cities region governance: The Area Cooperative Oregional in the Corridor Arnhem-Nijmegen;
  • Conurbation region governance: Randstad region;
  • Countryside region governance: Boerenhart;
  • Interregional food governance: Towards a regional food policy in Europe;
  • Transregional food governance: Rio + 20 and beyond.


The various initiatives have taken smart forms, and associated developments are at times so strong that some believe they have become irreversible.


The strength of all parties involved within a system may improve considerably when more forms of cooperation are undertaken at different levels; however, this does not prevent severe obstacles from arising. Co-operation is difficult and often inflexible, particularly in the case of a large group of individual entrepreneurs or groups with differing and often conflicting interests. This means that individual interests must be overcome: leadership is required to orient people in a single direction. The careful selection of partners in the governance process and structure is therefore critical.


Knowledge and innovation system

There are a number of arrears in our knowledge system to accommodate the sustainable food security paradigm. A new kind of knowledge development is needed to stimulate local and regional agriculture and food systems. In western countries both government policy and knowledge development, which after World War II were put at the service of the industrial agriculture and food system, now have to be turned towards the needs of local and regional food systems. We present a coherent system of knowledge and innovation to reduce the backlog. The knowledge and innovation system is a key resource; it is a knowledge and innovation quintile, combining application areas, sciences, technology and organization, policy and aid, and implementation.


Starting with an outline of the global historical context we present an overview of challenges and issues related to the different sustainable food security features. Social issues deal with a number of values: Awareness of food, with recovery of producer – consumer links and partnerships based thereon. Economic issues deal with transitions from long, global chains to short, local network co-operation. Ecological issues deal with chemical (fertilizers and pesticides) -free agriculture and food, with recovery of biodiversity. Sovereignty issues deal with the right and access to food for all with measures of local and regional accountability. Safety issues deal with building resistance, nutrients and health.


Within science we distinguish between basic disciplines and aspect disciplines that are needed for the development of local and regional agriculture and food. The relevant basic disciplines could be used to develop the aspect disciplines. As aspect disciplines we distinguish between: ecology and environmental sciences, food sciences, health and nutrition, soci(et)al sciences, and business and economics.


Ecology and environmental sciences play a part on three levels: micro (soil), meso (landscape and nature) and macro (climate). Soil life and soil-plant interactions are the basic. To let plants grow and achieve optimum yield without chemical means we need a healthy soil. Local agriculture and food integrates landscape, nature and agriculture. Large parts of our planet that once were rich and fertile land, e.g. large parts of Asia and Africa, now are degradated lands. To increase agricultural production worldwide a serious option is to (re) turn heavily degradated areas to areas of sustainable agricultural production. That this is possible is shown by the experiences in the Loess Plateau in China and by the small-scale farmer Thomas Loronjo, who created productive farmland out of a totally degradated piece of land. We conclude that it may be possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems that could help restore degradated lands around the world. Humans are increasingly influencing the climate and the earth's temperature. A recent FAO study shows a multiplicity of aspects and impacts of climate change on food systems. We must give priority and special attention to those localities and regions, which will have the most problems: countries in the tropical zones that are least developed and most vulnerable. A number of measures could be taken, like improvement of soil fertility since organic healthy soils can hold water much longer, tillage practices can reduce the exposure of topsoil to the air, reducing evaporation, improving soil moisture characteristics and reducing sensibility to drought and heat. We also want to draw attention to the possibility of reforestation and restoring degradated land in the tropical zones.


Traditional knowledge and skills for Local production and processing have widely vanished. To improve this situation new knowledge is needed about on-farm production techniques learning how to grow and how to produce artisan food and to valorise the local and regional products. In addition to this we must ask ourselves what knowledge is further needed for re-vitalisation of rural communities and achieving a local and regional impact. Interaction between local and regional production, agrobiodiversity and landscape ask for specific knowledge.


How to use food science in on-farm, local or regional production and processing with the goal of enhancing the availability, quality, and safety of our food supply? Knowledge of local production and the relationships with health and nutrition, taste, culture and gastronomic aspects has largely disappeared due to the technocratic structure. Important is building resistance. The health status could furthermore be improved through dietetic and nutritional issues. How to prevent and reduce microbial food safety hazards from pre-harvest to (on-farm) processing and local and regional retail, without using antibiotic means. Gastronomic traditions of local production methods are of interest.


Important is a shift from economic focus to social-cultural values, including ethical and institutional aspects. Insights from sociology, social engineering, etc. must be integrated. Ultimately we need a systems approach to study the complex features of sustainable food security in conjunction with one another. Further development is needed of the notion of ‘nearness’ as the distance between consumer and producer and investigating the effects of ‘nearness‘ on strengthening local economies, transparency, public health, etc. Building relationships and trust in local and regional agriculture and food systems is important but difficult. Experienced people that have traditional and indigenous knowledge and that can build bridges are needed. They can inspire others to develop ideas, stories, actions and entrepreneurship. For food sovereignty democratising science and technology research is needed, enabling social learning and action and involving residents, e.g. by using communication means like films and radio.


For food sovereignty research efforts are important of the effects of family farms with respect to efficiency, competition, economies of scale, both increasing and decreasing returns, effects of technology and allocation of profits, barter markets, etc.


Very little published information is available on sustainable local production and processing. To improve this situation new knowledge is needed about production techniques learning how to grow and how to produce artisan food and about re-vitalisation of rural communities. A dialogue must be instituted between and local actors and experts. There appear to be a number of niche areas of production, processing, and distribution where sustainable community food systems can be competitive with the industrial food system. Small-scale production processes provide employment. Further study is needed of forms to develop on-farm small-scale processing, like individual farmers who join together to jointly purchase processing equipment and storage, washing, and grading facilities or establishing processing cooperatives. Subsequently analysis of markets, outlets, process, costs and return associated with local and regional food marketing is needed. Local food purchasing by institutions, like schools, hospitals, prisons, etc. could help.


Study of the connections between local and regional agriculture and food systems with fields like nature, health and nutrition (including healthy eating habits of young people), lack of access to food, employment, (agro) tourism, and the public benefits of these interactions.


Primary income, earned by keeping relationships with the consumer/end user and by creating more added values at the farm or in local cooperation could improve the economic situation of small-scale farmers. Local and regional agriculture and food does not mean that international trade is not important or even should be countered. Rather international trade of local and regional agriculture and food products is necessary for many reasons. Also for local and regional agriculture and food products the laws of comparative advantages apply. However decisions about these trade aspects should in the first place be made at local and regional level and not by large companies and multinationals which have oligopolistic or even monopolistic power in a world market where there is no honest and open competition. Therefor study of the effects of non-competitive behaviour on markets, like oligopolies and monopolies are important, including study of the possibilities of small-scale farmers to enter global markets for specific products and services.


Apart from the science in the basic and aspect disciplines we need to develop appropriate technologies and organizations to serve the application areas. Technology issues deal with the switchover to new decentralized small-scale production systems (including processing and packaging) (micro-collectives). A general problem with modern technology is not so much a lack but rather an excess of new technological possibilities. Since the concept of ‘creative destruction’ that Schumpeter introduced in the fifties of the last century a lot has changed. Innovation speed has increased and technological development is growing explosively, which leads to a complexity that is likely to be out of control. We notice two struggling forces: we need to arrive at a certain weighing of creativity and embedding of new developments in societal systems. That is why we introduced the concept of ‘creative moderation’. This is coupled with a struggle and there are skills and capacities needed to deal with this.


We discussed a number of technological approaches that could help local and regional agriculture and food systems: equipment, robotics,  precision technology and drones, energy sources, animal and plant breeding technologies, alternative farming systems and technologies for on-farm value added. Nanotechnology and biotechnology are not on the wish list of local and regional agriculture and food systems. For the development of new technologies such as robotics Technology Assessments will remain necessary.


Organizational issues deal with transitions from long chains to short chain and local network and/or community co-operation. To contribute to the development of local and regional agriculture and food systems it is important to go back to thinking about meaning, because this underlies the activities of people. The search for meaning has played, and still plays, a large role in the development of mankind and society. We interpret this phenomenon as a natural conviction that tells us that social beings realize that they only can survive in reciprocity. On the one hand we have to deal with the limitations or restrictions of the self with an eye on room for the other, and on the other hand we have to deal with limitations or restrictions of the other with an eye on room for the self. We call this concept ‘reciprocal solidarism’. It can be seen as a form of competition of living organisms that co-exist in the same environment for selfish benefit versus cooperation of groups of organisms for their common mutual benefit. This means that it is important to balance competition and cooperation. Both cooperation and competition is needed and contradictions can be overcome when a dialogue is possible. Competition is an important economic aspect: it is the driver of economic progress. Also within local and regional food communities competition is important, though it could be hampered by skew power in the national and international chains where (very) large companies and businesses are operating. Cooperation between the local and regional parties at different levels is crucial. It is difficult and it cannot always be flexible, certainly not in the case of a large group of individual entrepreneurs and in the case of groups with different interests. In organizations it is important that one shows readiness to balance these interests, so that, that could lead to realizing reciprocal solidarism.


We emphasize the importance of various forms of organization of production, processing and marketing at farm level, network cooperation and communities and increasing regional capacities. Knowledge production is also needed for making value added and strong regions through combining agriculture and food with other related activities.


Policy and aid can have large influences on the development of agriculture and food. Policy issues deal with building regional food strategies with all relevant stakeholders. The main policy objectives of local and regional food strategies relate to providing awareness, achieving food sovereignty and creating conditions for free competition. An important aspect of this policy is awareness of our food and where it comes from. This relates to ecological, societal and economic developments where various values of food remain attention: health, safety, product quality, animal welfare, environment, etc. Other aspects of this policy are the inclusion of food sovereignty and food safety in the local and regional food strategies. To guarantee food sovereignty local and regional parties have a special responsibility. It starts with all partners (producers, processors, governments, financial bodies, etc.) involved in local and regional agriculture and food sitting together and develop a plan to solve the problems. These governance bodies can rely on the governments of a higher level, aid agencies that support community led developments interregional/national and transnational/global food systems (including jumelages with other food communities in the world), that want to step in to help.


Aid issues deal with building a more equitable world. The challenge is to change the one-dimensional flow of knowledge of the traditional model of knowledge transfer from the North to the South, to knowledge production, sharing and dissemination as a two-way traffic of knowledge workers together with the local and regional farmers and bodies.


Knowledge development and innovation are worth nothing when not implemented. Implementation of a new local and regional agriculture and food system requires a holistic approach to address all features of sustainable food security, including food sovereignty and food safety. This approach is based on newly developed elements of knowledge management, innovation methods, ICT, financial and logistics. An example of a financial method is issuing community currencies as an opportunity to strengthen and greening local economies.

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