A society’s humanity and unity rest on the extent to which its people demand good food and can expect to receive it.
How our food system came to be and what it means to create a system that meets the challenge.
Understanding the hierarchy of food, what “local” means, and the value of good food in a new system.
A physical and operational description of a local food system that would strengthen society and be sustainable in all ways.
What it will take to carry local food into the mainstream of commerce and society.
What are your thoughts about the system described? Who should take part in creating it?
Food is more than human fuel. Over time, for societies of hunters, farmers and industrialists, food has been a natural, foundational ingredient of social recipes. In families, communities, and countries, to the extent that people have participated in eating good food, society has created a foundation for being humane and unified. But most people have become separated from growing vegetables and raising livestock; they have become consumers who have no interaction with producers. The have lost touch with how the various colors of plant foods signal the rich variety of vitamins and minerals required by the complex functions of the human body. They don't think that when they abandon the natural fibers of plant foods to eat factory foods, that they are inviting obesity and diabetes.
Two conditions must be met for everyone to eat good food. First, good food must be accessible locally every day, and second, individuals must predominantly choose to buy good food instead of bad food. This means that the food system should prioritize markets that offer a variety of fresh plant and animal foods as well as promote consumer preference for such foods. In more pointed terms, advertising and supply of factory foods must be overcome by actively renewing taste for fresh foods.
The US is far from having a good food system. Supermarket shelves abound with processed, preserved, branded, advertised, packaged, labeled foods. Fresh plant and animal foods are sold generically and relegated to smaller sections of most grocers. Sales of factory foods are heavily advertised by large participants in the supply chain, with no large counterparts for marketing fresh foods. Meanwhile, a large part of the population lives in neighborhoods or rural areas that have no grocer, where people buy factory foods in a convenience store. This is the retail face of industrialized food in the US. Worse, US commerce and agricultural policy strongly affect food systems in the rest of the world, and in the wrong direction.
For most people throughout the developed world, industrial producers, processors, and distributers dictate what foods are accessible for consumers to eat. The industrial food system is not meeting the basic need for tasty, nutritious, natural foods; it continues to expand in scope with new products and services that compete within the arena of factory food. Despite widespread but partial efforts to offer consumers fresh foods, the great volume of perishable food remains imprisoned within a system designed for factory food, and will not be fresh for consumers until released by a system that prioritizes them, one that can only be local. Note in particular that controlled environment agriculture is so far applied to certain parts of the existing system in ways that will not broadly transform the system.
The supply side of the challenge must be met with a system that delivers the widest possible variety of fresh foods, where fresh means local in every sense, every day of the year, every place where people live. And since tastes formed in childhood are habits that resist change, the system must also actively influence the demand side toward better food choices. More generally, costs and prices, private and public, are easy to count but not to reassign, adding to the complexity of effecting change. Finally, a system that serves individuals and society justly must also respect nature and operate sustainably. All this strongly suggests that if we’re serious about this subject, only total solutions to food system problems need apply here.
The temperatures of the ocean and the atmosphere are rising above the comfort level of life on earth. Flocks of bluebirds in the afternoon field and swarms of fireflies on a summer evening are no longer known to most people. Aggressive action is reducing climate effects of energy production but has not yet begun in food production despite the knowledge that the existing food system is just as hard on nature and much harder on humans. Government policies, investments, and public/private cooperation must all shift from mitigation for consumers and opportunity for big producers to paying attention to human health and nature by transforming the food system. We cannot expect to recover from our long onslaught on nature and our self-inflicted harm unless we reimagine our food system to make it broadly beneficial and practical to implement. We have to ask: "What does a good food system look like and how does it work?"
Consider that plants synthesize food from natural elements, while animals eat plants and each other, transforming foods to their purposes. Humans, not content to domesticate and process plants and animals, manufacture and package artificial foods, give them creative flavors and long “shelf life,” and market them with branding and advertising. We centralize manufacture of artificial foods and their ingredients and distribute them worldwide. Artificial foods are not merely poor substitutes for natural foods, their long distribution system ruins natural foods, and their flavors subvert taste for natural foods. Consider further that just as plants grow structurally in ways which bear nutritious fruit, so should our thinking about the food system. Humans have evolved a system that bears bad fruit and trashes good fruit.
The industrial food system has been selling us food preservatives and artificial taste additives for generations, and now is selling us capsules containing powdered plant food. How about selling us more of the natural foods to which humans have adjusted over centuries? The foods that automatically maintain healthy nutrition and metabolism. The foods that attract us with their colors, textures, and tastes, and give us the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that make us function. We need a system structured to bear less artificial food and more natural food. We will not be fully human for so long as natural foods have not won this battle.
The existing food system causes major problems for humans, society, and the environment that are common among rich and poor countries worldwide. A central threat is the monolithic expansion of industrialized and centralized production and distribution. The monolith treats natural foods like factory foods, reduces jobs to menial tasks, poisons and destroys nature, and robs local owners of a stake in equity. It does this not only in modernized countries, but increasingly in developing countries and everywhere it can profit. Worse, despite growing dialogue on goals and visions for future food systems, funding and subsidies are supporting the one we claim to be opposing. The challenge of better food is a serious test that humans will fail unless broad public and private interests coalesce around the best ideas for new systems and redirect resources to developing them.
However, we do know some essential things that will lead us to an answer. We know that we
need controlled environments for growing plants and raising animals if we expect everyone everywhere to consume fresh natural foods every day. We know we want local ownership of production, processing, and retailing of fresh foods if we are to have healthy communities. We know we want less handling, processing, packaging, labeling, and transport of fresh foods because we want to eat them at their best. And we know we're challenged to use less water and energy to get what we want while creating less waste. That's enough to get started.
So let's begin by stating a goal for transforming the food system that is more ambitious than is being pursued by any organization in the world and yet is minimally ambitious to achieve if we are serious about accepting the challenge. The goal is that every person every day eats fresh plant and animal foods chosen from a wide variety available where they live. This goal is loaded with issues of changing consumer tastes, overcoming seasonal climates, minimizing the sum of private and public costs, and implementation in rich and poor countries. But most of all it addresses the architecture that has been missing in pursuit of the kind of new food system we all need.
Prior to transatlantic transport, there were no tomatoes in Italy, no potatoes in the British Isles, and no corn in Spain. The western hemisphere had no wheat, no oranges, and no bananas. Global trade introduced people everywhere to the variety and abundance of natural food around the globe. Since then the industrial practices of the world have been heavily applied to food production, distribution and retailing, and have outweighed the counterbalancing efforts and influences that favor consumer and social needs.
The food system in the US captures markets with low quality food produced in high volume and sold at low prices. It hurts the many small farmers who once served local markets. Local food movements like food cooperatives, farmers’ markets, community-sponsored agriculture, and farm-to-school programs operate on the fringe of this system, but all together they influence only a small fraction of the food people eat.
We’ve been living for generations with food systems that inflict hurt upon humans, society and nature worldwide. Observations around the world reveal varying degrees of what we see in the US, but global trends are not favorable. We're concerned about the control existing systems have over what we eat and alarmed about the resulting adverse effects. The supply chain of the existing food system is too long to deliver fresh foods, with too many hands to hold any one accountable. Its negative effects on society are not being stopped by current policies, nor are they being reversed by agricultural technology. Government support at all levels aims largely at assisting participants in the existing system and aiding its victims. The results of investments in big data, robotics, cultured meat, and vast greenhouses are being incorporated into the existing system, not transforming it.
It’s become apparent that the outcome we seek will derive not by fixing what we have, but from a new concept that transforms structure and operation at the heart of the system for fresh food. It’s now time to consider, given where the business of food has taken society, how to dedicate policy and resources toward our stated goal. We need an idea that’s comprehensive about food, consumers, and producers; an idea that’s practical to implement; that treats people and nature with respect; that’s motivated by societal need, derived from fundamental understandings, and full of value; that lays ground on which institutions can cooperate and entities can create business plans.
For that, we need to be a bit creative. We need to overcome a variety of societal problems related to industrialized food and agriculture. We’ve forgotten what fresh, natural foods taste like and we've learned to settle for less. We’ve become accustomed to advertised food products, looking for labels, buying packages filled with factory food, and throwing away much of what we buy. We live with obesity and diabetes as common conditions. We produce more trash than our parents did. Some of us work at boring jobs in large farming and processing operations. Investments in food and agriculture are largely strengthening the existing system. The bulk of public spending under farm bills is to mitigate, not eliminate, the bad effects of the existing system.
The solution is nothing less than a new system that eliminates problems for the general public, system participants, and the environment. To get there we need system architecture that combines the best local traditions with the best use of technology, creates a new economic model for local food, and redirects resources toward holistic results. We need to convert our understanding of history and our vision for the future into a workable proposal for today. Note one thing that simplifies transformation and reduces opposition from entrenched interests: The goal can be met without changing production/distribution of commodity crops (corn, wheat, soy) for feed or factory food.
Literature and activity in the name of “food systems” are large and growing, but we’ve not been putting our money where we should. Investments are all going into new products and services that make the existing food system more efficient and secure, thereby extending the problems it causes. We urgently need architecture for a comprehensively new food system that can redirect interest away from the easy profits for the few and prolonged problems for the many. Further, because the need is ubiquitous, meaningful relief must necessarily be global and lasting, so any new architecture must be versatile around the world as well as receptive to technical changes in components and expansion of food varieties over time.
New York State is a relevant example to illustrate the magnitude of what "local food" means in terms of the existing gap between where food is produced and where it is consumed. The areas of the two maps shown here represent relative dollar values of food. The large map represents food consumed within the state, and the small map represents food produced within the state. NYS will not have a meaningful level of local food until production of fresh food increases by an order of magnitude and its residents strongly shift their eating habits toward far greater quantities of fresh foods.
Most important for nutrition and health, and also most perishable, are natural foods like leaf vegetables, seed vegetables, berries, herbs, fish, poultry and meat. These taste best, look best, have their best texture, and are most nutritious when they are fresh. To eat them when they retain all these qualities requires direct delivery to grocers, restaurants and institutions from nearby producers on the day of harvest. Less perishable are vegetables and fruits like potatoes, onions, apples, oranges and bananas that retain taste and nutrients over reasonable distribution and storage times experienced in the existing food system. Understanding the hierarchy of food focuses us on freshness for the most important, most perishable, natural foods. Embracing the need for direct delivery of those foods from producer to retailer leads us to a better food system.
The table below tells us that, over time, perishable natural foods available to residents in most places have been turned on their head and need to be turned upright, not just seasonally but year-round. The table helps to clarify the goal stated above at the end of The Challenge by highlighting year-round local production of the most important natural foods as the driver of a food system that would be better for both consumers and producers. The table also shows simply but sadly that in 1950 we were closer to our goal than we are now.
Perishable Natural Foods in NYS
Fresh Local Year-Round
(for consumers) (for producers) (not seasonally)
1950 Yes Yes No
2000 No No No
2050 Yes Yes Yes
The primary challenge to the food system is therefore to make a wide variety of perishable food available fresh every day of the year wherever you live. "Available" means at competitive prices, otherwise the opportunity is curtailed for both consumers and producers. Meeting the challenge flies directly into the face of the existing system by suggesting that a local system of moderate scale can compete successfully with an industrial system of large scale. It means that efficiencies of design and operation in the new system must match efficiencies of scale in the present one.
And keep in mind that a centralized food system produces, processes, preserves, packages, labels, ships, brands, advertises, and delivers "fresh" food like factory food. A local food system produces and delivers fresh food; that is the strength of local.
Past considerations of local food systems for crops and livestock have suffered from unfavorable comparisons of production efficiencies at moderate scale relative to large scale. That has discouraged efforts to develop better local food systems for the mainstream of commerce and relegated fresh foods to marginal and high end retailing. But specializing in high-volume production of one or a few foods has ignored the large public costs incurred by the existing system. These costs include public monies for dams and pipelines to access water; for building and maintaining highways; to mitigate damage to land, air and water; to subsidize producers; and to treat people whose health is adversely affected by what they presently eat. People are paying taxes and health insurance premiums for all these large public costs that are not charged to the existing food system. If food production and distribution were taxed for all the public costs incurred in the present system, prices would be higher by perhaps 2x or 3x. A better food system will be a superior value proposition that will be realized by comparing it with the existing system through total cost accounting for every effect on humans, earth, and society.
Large-scale control of grain once concentrated great wealth in the hands of the pharaohs; today’s pharaohs, with the help of subsidies from the governments they lobby, have expanded the scope of food control to include wide varieties of perishable plant and animal foods. That outcome hurts farmers and consumers, and the industry structure that supports it with the help of government is strong. But the industry rests entirely on economy of scale to control private costs at the expense of public costs, and that is a weakness that causes high total cost, does not deliver fresh foods, and hurts society in multiple ways. For a local food system to succeed, it must meet prevailing market prices (for everyone, everywhere, every day) with the higher value proposition that the existing food system cannot match. Herein we describe a local food system that can deliver fresh food, reduce total cost, and help society.
The genetic code, periodic table of elements, and electromagnetic spectrum underlie the importance and rich variety of materials, energy, and information in our lives and particularly in our food systems. Human understanding of the fundamentals of life on earth continues to expand, developing technologies that grow organic materials to reduce deforestation operations and industrial livestock farming, convert natural energies to electricity to displace combustion of natural materials, and use data/software to reduce handling of materials and thereby reduce demand for energy. It is hence vital for humans to avoid the trap of focusing on how technology makes existing food systems more efficient or diverse; we must be creative in designing and building new food systems that anticipate and accommodate the full benefits of technology.
The versatility of CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture) is central to building local food in a wide range of conditions. Configurations exist for multi-acre greenhouses, automated vertical farms, urban rooftops, and restaurant dining. CEA has a history of operating in Canadian winters and is attracting large investments in desert countries. Indoor farming in its many forms and locations grows vegetables and fruits in expanding varieties with increasing yields. Digital tools for design, operation, and financial management of CEA facilities are commercially available. The capabilities of CEA will continue to expand because it is the technology of choice to bring local plant food into the mainstream, and demand for it will rise due to pressures from climate, public health, and local economies.
Visualize yourself sitting in a restaurant, your back to the street, looking toward the rear at the kitchen and bakery behind a dividing half-wall. To your right you see, through a glass wall, the interior of a state-of-the-art vertical farm or greenhouse where vegetables, herbs and berries are growing, like the ones included in the lunch you just ordered. To your left you see, through a glass wall with an entrance from the restaurant, a grocery store where some of the produce that grew on your right is displayed for sale. Your neighbor, who just finished having lunch at the table next to yours, is shopping there for vegetables and fish, poultry or meat for tonight’s dinner at home.
The indoor farm is a local version of CEA growing many varieties of leafy greens, seed vegetables, root vegetables, herbs, and berries in compartments that control temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide content of the air, the nutrients in the water, and the spectrum and intensity of lighting, to optimize conditions for each variety. Schedules for harvesting the right batch sizes of each variety are controlled by orders for delivery to the restaurant, the grocery store, and local institutions. Less than one hour’s drive from this complex are farms and processors that raise and deliver fresh fish, poultry and meat as well as other vegetables and fruits directly to the grocer, the restaurant, and the institutions.
Greenhouse/grocer/restaurant complexes of the type described would be sized above an economic minimum to serve both rural and urban populations, with vertical farms in lieu of greenhouses in dense urban locations. Farms and processors scattered among these complexes would each supply multiple such complexes with foods delivered on the day harvested. Less–perishable and non-perishable foods would be purchased by the grocer, restaurant and institutions through existing distribution channels. The resulting network, in which each complex is a sizable customer for a wide variety of fresh plant and animal foods from nearby producers and processors, is thus designed to prioritize fresh local foods for consumers and provide a sizable, concentrated market of steady, year-round business for all owners and employees in the network.
This system constitutes a vertical and horizontal integration of production, processing, preparation, shopping and consumption that creates a robust local food system. It is a moderate-scale network of better food for consumers and renewed opportunity for producers. It can work for complexes located in rural communities and in cities, with configuration differences that adapt to differing populations and real estate situations. It can also work around the world for the choices of fresh foods that vary widely with culture.
Local network producers in this system can offer better product choices than producers in large-scale production. The system will encourage healthy grains, fresh water fish farms, poultry production and processing, and a range of livestock meats, all grown and raised locally. Over time, food science will expand the variety and quality of CEA-grown plants and farm-grown fish, and technology will continue to reduce production and processing costs at moderate scale. In this respect, local CEA plant farms together with local animal and fresh water fish farms are a powerful combination for year-round supply of a robust range of fresh food. Expansion of the number of fresh water fish farms alone, enabled by the system, would be a major opportunity to increase local production of food, shift consumer eating habits to tastier/healthier food, and gain relief from over-fishing oceans.
Local food systems as described would make excellent sources for local educational and healthcare institutions to contract with the grocer, farmers and processors for fresh food supply. They would serve as fertile training grounds for agricultural and culinary students from local trade schools and community colleges. They would be ideal as incubators for entrepreneurs who wish to launch careers and businesses. And they give agriculture and food investments a framework for better environmental, social and governance outcomes.
An owner/operator of the complex can act as grower, grocer and chef, managing an operation that spans purchasing, production and retailing focused on fresh foods. Each employee in the complex can alternate among growing, preparing and serving food in response to ongoing customer demands. Employees have the opportunity to shift throughout the day among tasks, developing a wider range of skills than they do in conventional food businesses. In this work environment, restaurant service can be included in the price of the meal, eliminating tipping. And because food production is community oriented, customer feedback from the grocer, restaurant and institutions can readily alter the food varieties offered.
In winter as well as summer, fresh foods flow through the network with no intermediaries. Food is delivered the same day it is harvested, directly to the complex with minimal handling and packing. Supply and demand are closely joined, with little storage of food. Shortage and waste are minimized, with grocer and restaurant sharing supplies to meet demand without excessive order amounts. Farming and eating are brought together to blend the best traditions with capabilities that continually expand through technology. The system offers a path to better food for consumers as well as new opportunity for farmers, processors, grocers and chefs.
At the complex, consumers are intimately connected to good food in ways not offered by traditional grocers and restaurants. They see the farmer, grocer and chef as one. They taste the results of having production and processing close to the restaurant and grocer. They will understand the nutritional value of accessing local foods of wide variety every day of the year. They will appreciate the direct educational experience offered by such a food system, be drawn to it, and realize the benefits of it. These are all reasons the system can enter the mainstream of business volume at competitive pricing for the general population.
The history of greenhouse growing and ongoing experience in applying alternative CEA technologies suggest that the overall capabilities of CEA will expand robustly with respect to number vegetable/fruit/herb varieties, yield per square meter of growing surface, lighting/atmosphere energy efficiency, seeding/transplanting/harvesting labor efficiency, quick crop changes, year-round scheduling of harvests, and even control of crop taste/texture/coloring. All these capabilities spell success for local CEA of modest scale that offers wide variety and flexibility.
The methods of regenerative agriculture that preserve soil, and with it water and air, are gaining acceptance around the world, and all these methods apply directly to growing and grazing within the local network of farms that are part of building local food. Developments in aquaculture are reducing the cost of growing a variety of freshwater fish in ponds, cages, and tanks. Small scale processing of livestock, poultry and fish is becoming more common and economical. Over time, the appeal of local fish, poultry and small livestock will reduce demand for beef, indirectly further reducing environmental damage done by agriculture.
This network designed for fresh plant and animal food encourages young farmers and chefs to cooperate in the kind of local enterprise that can revitalize communities. It’s a road map for entrepreneurs and investors to pool human and financial resources in a sustainable endeavor. It invites consumers to connect personally with the story of food, worldwide and local, historic and living. It creates a setting that encourages consumers to develop their tastes, improve their habits, choose better food, and enjoy better health.
Discussion of network facilities and operations is limited here because choice in their design is sensitive to location and local culture and will lead to many configurations. But we can say that continuing strong progress in local production of both plant and animal foods will make local food networks more and more robust. For example, hundreds of pounds per square meter per year of various vegetables will be grown efficiently by customized CEA using geothermal or solar energy and automated control systems. The quality of local fish, chicken, and small livestock, combined with improvements in small-scale processing facilities, will enable local producers to win over many consumers with taste and price. The network has the capacity to move tastes toward better health and less burden on nature, for example with consumers who shift from beef to excellent vegetables, fish and lamb.
Emissions of CH4, N2O, and CO2 from production, energy use, transport, waste, and land use in the existing food system are being calculated more comprehensively. Accounting that includes pre- and post-production activities, retailing, and consumption suggests that food system emissions may be about one-third of total human emissions. The food system described here provides strong consumer incentives to shift diets toward more plant foods and less animal foods, as well as more chicken/fish and less beef/pork. Sustainability is built into consumer choices that are made on the personal basis of taste and health.
In communities around the world, urban and school-based enterprises are using indoor farming to provide better access to fresh food, educate people about eating, and create jobs for residents in need. While the number of people helped by these activities is relatively small, this demonstrates sharp departure from dependence on the industrial food system. Building Local Food can be seen as a major step up from such efforts by addressing the general population, the full scope of fresh plant and animal foods, and better local jobs. The food system addressed here acknowledges that we will not resolve the food issue by relying solely on plant food or non-profit organizations; the intent here is to maximize incentives, through profitable local systems, to tackle the whole problem. Building Local Food is a way to create widespread local ownership in fresh food production and retailing, and at the same time, create local access by consumers to fresh food of wide variety every day of the year.
The concept described is grounded in several essential ideas that together contribute to better food, and none of which is being widely promoted by current developmental efforts. First, two food systems with very different architectures, one local and one centralized, operate side by side; the local one for perishable foods cannot be duplicated within the constraints of the industrial system (which simply continues for less perishable foods), and foods in the two systems are produced and distributed differently, coming together only at the retail end. Second, a wide variety of fresh plant and animal foods is available every day of the year instead of only in season; localized CEA and localized fish farms supplement more traditional farming to make this outcome possible, and their facilities can be configured as needed to accommodate a wide range of sites and situations. Third, the retail end of the system is a place of belonging in which consumers and producers can continually interact over food in ways not enabled by conventional retailing. Fourth, the network closely matches local supply with local demand for fresh foods, offering producers the best markets and consumers the best foods, over time shifting consumer demand from factory and fast foods to fresh foods.
The concept constitutes system architecture that is a basis for design of facilities, operations, and network. It's a foundation for a new economic model of local food. It's a framework to better aggregate new technologies and methods into sustainable networks that can operate profitably while incurring minimal external cost. It's amenable to designs for urban and rural locations with versatile operations to meet local tastes in foods and settings. It encourages regenerative farming within its network, combining it with CEA to develop the best use of both. And it can adapt to disparate regions of the world as well as incorporate changing varieties of food over time. Building Local Food is a direct response to the worldwide need to know HOW we can transform food systems. It combines best practices with ongoing improvements in CEA, fish farming, regenerative farming, livestock processing, and local clean energy.
The evidence for feasibility of the concept is overwhelmingly in favor; it can be implemented with technologies that have been successfully commercialized and are versatile in application. The evidence favoring profitability for various owners within the scope of the concept is substantial but uneven and incomplete because no similar concept exists broadly in practice. Business modeling can be expected to distinguish between opportunities common to all sites and those particular to each. Design work for facilities and operations would lead to a pilot program to demonstrate profitability and guide investment decisions.
Industrial agriculture and factory food have long been abusing public health, nature, and society. Building Local Food is a food system that puts fresh local foods first. We can have it because we can localize all components of it to best advantage, which we’re not yet doing. Introducing year-round daily harvests next door to a grocer and restaurant, within a surrounding network of varied local producers, will offer people everywhere, every day, peak taste and nutrition in a wide variety of plant and animal foods. Building Local Food is decentralized architecture for a new food system that will replace current abuses with ongoing benefits.
It is intended that the level of motivation and description provided here will stimulate experts to refine the concept sufficiently to attract interest in the kind of investment that is needed for demonstration and development. The motivating logic is simple and compelling. We need to transform the food system. CEA is necessary to transform it. Building Local Food is sufficient to transform it.
The concept is an open source that should become reality. Its roots are in broad thinking by many people around the world, not in any one industry or government or organization. Its essence is in respecting food, questioning every aspect of the entire food system, and creating value for every realm of human activity. It does not require invention to be initiated; it is a humane reconfiguration of the food system that arranges and modifies familiar components. The many forms of payoff to be expected from bringing together producers and consumers of fresh foods should not be under-estimated. By starting with an understanding of the opportunities and challenges it poses, society will find optimal ways to adapt it to many places in various forms.
Turning the concept into a design for any locale will include defining the range of crop varieties to cover desired vitamins and nutrients while appealing to local tastes. By this process, the system will give real meaning to what we can achieve wherever we say “local food.” Designs will also consider opportunities such as locally growing more grains for humans to eat instead of for feeding livestock and growing fresh popular fish at competitive prices. Optimizing a particular network will involve whether a crop will be grown at the retail site or elsewhere in the local network, sizing of the retail complex to the community, and configuring the network to the locale. Existing technologies must be applied to moderately sized facilities that can efficiently raise and process livestock and poultry, farm fish, and grow additional vegetable and fruit varieties. Proper operation of a network must enlist skilled farmers and food processors who sort out collaboration and competition in supplying the retail complex and fulfilling contracts with local institutions such as schools and hospitals.
The concept described suggests an important implication for CEA development. Organizations are cooperating internationally to identify new food systems that reduce the total public and private costs of food while delivering higher benefits to people, society, and the planet. Food systems that meet these objectives will locally produce a wide variety of food year-round, giving CEA a role of higher value than it has at present. Industrial-scale CEA currently receives the bulk of attention given to CEA in general by investors, developers, and operators, but if a local scenario for the future of food plays out to its full potential, industrial-scale CEA may have a reduced role. The huge investments being made in large scale CEA will not deliver the higher value to society that would derive from applying ongoing CEA technology and know-how directly to development of a local food system.
The present form and function of the US food system are maintained by economic policy pursuing annual growth rates of GDP, Farm Bills that subsidize producers who cause harm and compensate consumers for the harm done, a large role for feed and food in balancing international trade, and widespread but ineffective enterprise programs that pay lip service to sustainability. Comparing the value of a robust local food system to the value of the existing industrial system would include all the public costs incurred by each. It’s fair to say that robust local food holds the promise of far lower public cost that is yet to be accounted.
Food and agriculture comprise fertile ground to transform our largest industry into one that serves the broad goals of society. But don’t expect owners and employees to serve the gods of both profit and society in a meaningful way while operating within the existing system. Give participants in the food system a platform that offers them a better job and inherently produces good outcomes for society when they do their job. Later, when we're compelled to tax the public costs of food (along with other goods and services) to save ourselves, we'll be happy to have transformed the food system to achieve lower public cost.
The described system architecture is the missing linchpin between technical innovations and global vision, and is what motivates Building Local Food. Without new architecture, fresh food will not be universal and investments in agriculture will simply enhance the existing system. The large case in point is CEA. The nutritional value of fruits and vegetables grown hydroponically is being improved, while data analytics and machine-learning algorithms are being used to create produce with special flavors and textures. Growing wide varieties of crops locally makes best use of the capabilities of CEA, contributing greater value to the food system than single-crop farms in either the country or the city. It’s important to promote system architecture that will shape applications and investments in CEA toward the larger opportunities of local fresh food. System architecture should be the glue that unites working parts (academia, business, government) of society in common endeavor and connects pieces (technologies, facilities, operations) of the system for optimal outcome.
Food policy for generations has favored large scale in agriculture to promote high volumes and low prices at the sacrifice of quality. It has abetted a food system in which natural foods perish in transit and unnatural foods dominate the market. It has separated people from good food, lowered their expectations for quality in what they buy and eat, created unhealthy generations of people, and spent enormously on subsidies that attempt but fail to restore health. Fresh foods have been caught in the large-scale system of production and distribution that industries use to export commodities as part of government effort to offset imports. Building Local Food decouples fresh foods from that system to offer people better food and better jobs while reducing imports, and also reduces the need for seasonal labor on produce farms. The concept constitutes a practical way to bring quality food of wide variety into the mainstream for the general population.
We have addressed the significance and means of local production for fresh foods, but its commercial success would attract strong non-local interests. What would prevent corporations and investors from dominating the system, driving out opportunities for local ownership and pursuing lesser goals for consumers and society? There's a way to prevent that and New York State again serves to illustrate. Since the end of prohibition, to encourage a large number of independent liquor store owners, state law has essentially limited owners to one store each. Effective law to prevent monopoly of local food systems would be more complex, but could preserve the intent of local independence in production and retailing.
It is not exaggeration to suggest that participants of every type in food and agriculture should consider this concept and incorporate it into their expectations for future food systems. Broad interest among stakeholders, public and private, would lead to wide collaboration to refine the kind of architecture proposed here and take action to make it reality. Wide participation is needed to model facilities and operations, quantify private and public opportunities, illustrate the consumer and producer experiences, identify business models, lay a path to develop a better food system, and agree that we should take it. The outcome can improve the health of the population, distribute wealth fairly, help save the planet, and contribute to the culture of society.
Worldwide energy production is rapidly shifting from fossil fuels to wind and solar generation of electricity, and thereby revising how energy is consumed by vehicles, homes and factories. Food is more vital to humans than energy and its production has as much effect on nature, but transformation of the food system has not begun because it awaits a practical food strategy aimed at an aggressive goal that can be met only with new food system architecture. We must not settle for refinements of the existing system or the profits from easy solutions to parts of the problem. We have to take the high road, and through broad cooperation, do the harder work of bigger achievement.
Before some concluding dialogue, let's briefly return to a subject only lightly addressed above, the public costs of goods and services, and not only within the food system, but in all industries. It's now practical to account, with reasonable accuracy, for every increment of public cost added at each stage of producing and delivering any unit of manufacturing or service. To develop and maintain the accounting is detailed and tedious, but its application can be fully automated. A tax in the amount of the increment of public cost added could then be collected on each commercial transaction, the price of the good or service increased at that stage by the amount of the tax, and the collective amount of income tax reduced by the aggregate of public cost tax revenues. Human health and nature would benefit far more than they do by energy rebates, green legislation, ESG programs, and consumer voluntary payment of true or truer prices. To implement taxes on public costs is not a technical problem but a political problem both within and between nations, yet it may be the best way to save people and nature. It would shift demand fundamentally toward pricing that represents the desperate interest of humanity and shift policy toward realistically comprehensive corrective action.
There is no substitute for freshness. The cucumbers and sweet corn from my grandparents’ garden had taste and texture you won’t find in supermarkets. After dinner in a country tavern in Ireland, my wife Ursula told the owner the roast pork was by far the best she had ever eaten and he said, “It should be good; we killed the pig last night out back.” Fresh food connects people to each other and to nature, it celebrates occasions and creates memories – it makes us more human. If we want individuals to be more human and society to be more humane, we should start with food, appreciate fresh, and demand local.
Ursula has delivered public health services to poor families and done field research on the effects of poor diet in children. She has seen firsthand how low household budgets and heavy advertising of factory foods create lack of concentration in school and early excess body weight. Children don’t know they should be eating natural foods that are not advertised. Before they can choose for themselves, they have learned to prefer the altered taste of junk food that will ruin their health. This was my first clear exposure to just one of the ways our existing food system reaches beyond failure to do serious, lasting damage.
I began with an interest in regional demographics that led successively to focusing on an industry, promoting commercialization of a technology, refocusing on system architecture, and recognizing a need for strategy. Here’s my story in simple steps.
Demographics: Young people get a good education in upstate NY and move south or west to find jobs, where they settle. Attempts to grow new industries have been outweighed by the loss of old ones.
Industry: Food is the largest worldwide industry. NYS natural resources, institutions, legacy and know-how make it an excellent candidate to study food systems and lead their development.
Technology: Participation in a university-industry partnership program revealed that all current commercialization of CEA is directed to application within the existing food system.
Architecture: Exposure to worldwide organizations and activities in food systems showed an unmet need for system architecture as key to system transformation in a reasonable time.
Strategy: Food problems and solutions exhibit much commonality across the globe; strategy based on architecture is the glue to connect participants in a practical cause.
The challenge is not simply to make better food available worldwide. It is for people to choose more plant food and less animal food, and prefer natural food to factory food. It is to play a major role in reducing global warming. It is to reduce the aggregate of public and private costs associated with food. It is for food commerce to contribute positively to local culture. That all these benefits can derive from a practical approach to a new food system is what encourages us.
Building Local Food is a policy issue, not a technical challenge, and to make it happen locally starts with informed dialogue globally.
So how much value does the proposed system represent in terms of the functional benefits it can deliver? A qualitative answer comes from briefly outlining the requirements that I set down in deriving it:
Fresh plant and animal foods of wide variety must become preferred and available every day locally around the globe at market prices.
Benefits must be realized in human health, jobs and the economy, environmental protection, and social enrichment, in significant and fundamental ways.
The system must be versatile for worldwide application in urban and rural settings, industrial and agrarian societies, in cold and hot climates.
Commercializing the system must be realistic by avoiding disruption of the very large and firmly established existing system for all non-fresh foods.
The system must lend itself to promoting policies in true pricing, agricultural support, and international trade that create a level playing field.
The system must exhibit longevity through adoption of technology, skilled job offerings, and ongoing consumer education and interest.
All this is not to say that the rationale and solution given here represent the only reasonable proposal for future food systems, but it does suggest measures to evaluate any proposal.
Early and strong collaboration to refine and assess the system described here is the immediate challenge we face. We must expand our understanding of how tradition and technology combine within local food systems to best serve humanity and earth. We must change thinking on current capital and startup investments with respect to applications and markets. We must impress upon a growing number of entities and individuals that local food is much more than what we experience today. It is a vast new field of opportunity for a better world that opens by coming together on a direct and workable path.
The content of the website is meant to invite critique and refinement of the described food system and to stimulate more thinking about what a good food system looks like, how it operates, and how to develop it. The website's informative value will depend upon you and others who provide feedback to continually enhance it or public commentary related to it, but it's real value depends totally on resulting action to build local food. Should some government/industry/university consortium be formed to assess the concept and make recommendations? Should a version of the system be demonstrated at a university or other institution? Will any world organization take a stance on the merits of the concept or sponsor a contest for competing concepts? Will any of the authors of many books that popularize the need to transform present food systems turn our attention from endless analysis to the braver field of synthesis in thinking about the future of food?
Chuck Hage, Founder