There has been rising debate as to whether local food systems as opposed to lengthy commodity chains would substantially reduce the high reliance of food systems on oil and carbon footprint. As part of the heightening debate on peak oil and global warming, the concept of reducing food miles (distance covered by food from the farm gate to the plate) has been of critical consideration for movements that seek to promote ecologically sustainable food systems.
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There has been escalating concern on long-term debates about climate change, which has been caused by man, as well as on policies aimed at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
These concerns have encouraged both academic researchers and activists to localize food systems. Peak oils have also been a debatable issue questioning the unsustainable dependence on non-renewable resources, oil, of conventional globalized food systems (Holloway 2007, p. 1-19).
How Localized Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) differ from Conventional Globalized Systems
Localizing food systems, also referred to as the shortening of supply chains, represents the apparent obverse of globalized food systems or lengthy commodity chains. It entails the shortening of food supply chains that link producers to consumers. Local alternative food networks (AFNs) unlike globalized food networks have re-embedded food production within the local context.
Thereby, entailing a repeated return to artisanal methods and bringing about a reaction by certain consumers against standardized processed fast foods. As an alternative, traditional cuisines-slow food-are preferred based on the assumption that local food is of higher quality with more nutrient content than industrialized foods (Winter 2002, p. 23-32).
The numerous human health scares reported in industrialized countries in the last ten years have been related to widely-present food bacteria, amounts of antibiotics used in intensive grain-feeding of ruminants, BSE (mad cow disease) associated with animal-sourced food wastes to feed animals and battery poultry production.
As a result of great consumer-driven and state regulatory pressures, there has been rising concern on the traceability of foods and its local origin. Localized food systems are not associated with food scares about plant and animal diseases, animal welfare and pesticide but, this is the case of globalized food systems (Dixon, 2002).
Localized food systems reduce inputs of energy and petrochemicals in food production. Marketing organized foods from a local level will achieve this. This is because; a lot of energy and petrochemicals are substantially used due to increased food-miles, thereby retailing food products through conventional food systems such as supermarkets.
Nutrition related disorders are associated with food products that are based on the conventional style of food production. Sydney is one of those cities where public health problems like obesity are a clear indication that conventional food products affect one’s biological and physiological make-up.
Localized foods are natural as they are derived from their natural setting and have prepared through natural means. Therefore, they do not have components that alter one’s body composition (Pederson & Robertson, 2001).
Localized AFNs are associated with a connection of food consumers with their food while taking note of how and where it is produced. In a variety of ways, localized AFNs place much emphasis on re-connecting individuals with food supplies and reconstructing trusted, rather than feared food chains.
The direct connections between suppliers and their consumers enhance food security in socially disadvantaged societies. Localized AFNs aim at assisting communities address food insecurity with regard to access to nutritious food. Local AFNs offer nutrition education services aimed at improving people’s abilities and facilities useful in food preparation.
Local AFNs unlike conventional globalized food systems provide individuals with home-cooked meals as a way of guiding the community on appropriate food consumption behaviour (Kneafsey 2008).
There is no spatial reference of product in globalized food systems. The customer relationship is weak as there is no assistance in trying to comprehend food origin. As a result, products under the globalized food systems are referred to as space-less products. Localized AFNs on the other hand offer variable consumer information on the place, product, production as well as the spatial conditions of production.
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The relationship with customers is diverse ranging from face-to-face contact to distance purchasing. The processing and retailing systems under the conventional globalized food systems are traceable but privately regulated.
They are not transparent but are highly standardized. On the contrary, the local/regional processing and retailing outlets are highly variable, transparent and traceable. They are spatially referenced and possess high quality designs (Kneafsey 2008).
The local alternative food networks place emphasis on quality. Producers are focused on coming up with appropriate strategies that would capture value-added, new socio-technical specialization areas for development and new producer associations.
Globalized food systems on the other hand focus on intensive production, which is associated with reduced farm prices and bulky supply input to corporate processors and/or retailers (Hines, Luca & Shiva 2002, p. 38-40).
Local AFNs unlike conventional globalized food systems support the local farmer. This they achieve by increasing direct sales and permitting farmers to by-pass centralized food distribution systems where supermarkets dominate.
The local AFNs appreciate the efforts of the local farmer, which are not governed by hormones or related enhancers aimed at increasing production. Instead, they promote safe, nutritious and healthy food without looking into convenience (Coley 2009, p. 150-155).
Localized AFNs protect local land for food consumption. This is very important in preserving the urban biodiversity and open-space for peri-urban fringes. The localized ATNs are considered to have potential ability in improving animal welfare like in the case of range egg production.
Food localization is an appropriate approach to employ in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supporting energy sustainability (Nichol 2003, p. 409-27).
The institutional frameworks in globalized food systems have got highly bureaucratized public and private regulation. There are hygienic models involved aimed at enhancing standardization of food products. National CAP support (Pillar I) is realized.
On a different note, localized food systems do not have standardization regulations for products as the food products are acceptable for human consumption since they are produced through acceptable and human friendly means.
Instead, regional development together with local authority facilitation forms a network that is involved in infrastructure building. Local and regional CAP support-Pillar II-is realized (Hines, Luca & Shiva 2002, p. 38-40).
The association frameworks in localized AFNs are based on trust. These networks are both competitive and collaborative. On the other side, globalized food systems are highly technocratic. The association frameworks involved are for commercial purposes only as they lack trust. It is therefore apparent that AFNs place great emphasis on food quality and not price.
This enhances the establishment of relationships between food suppliers and producers, and consumers. The aim here is to capture better returns compared with the locked in contracts with supermarkets chains. Brunori (2007 p.20) demonstrates that re-localizing food at times involve combinations of symbolic, relational and physical aspects.
The symbolic aspect emphasizes on trust, quality and transparency while the physical aspect entails the designation of a certain area as ‘local’ and the ‘relational’ which entail the development of a variety of relationships between consumers and farmers.
Limitations of Localized AFNs
Globalized food systems are changing to local alternatives that are already taking effect in most developed countries including Australia. It is true that localized AFNs importance in providing food from local areas has increased as seen in some developed countries where organic fruits and vegetables are found in box-schemes as well as on certain stalls in farmer’s markets.
Despite the fact that AFNs have increased in popularity since the late 1990s in developed countries, and that academic and activist literature is continuously growing out of proportion with regard to the contributions of localized AFNs to food provision, there are various issues which limit the actual role of the AFNs in food provision (Nichol 2003, p. 409-27).
Localized AFNs cannot be entirely separated from conventional food provision systems. Large supermarkets largely control a substantial share of food supply, delivery of information about food, and marketing. Supermarkets offer reduced prices to foods due to centralized distribution systems and economies of scale on paperwork, administration and advertising costs.
Irrespective of the fact that supermarket chains stock a range of fair trade products with the brand name ‘local food’, which are imported instead of being sourced locally, consumers continue to be highly influenced by such trends (Morgan, et al. 2006).
Localized AFNs emphasize on quality, trust and safety with regard to their food systems. However, the global market trends influence consumers to the extent that most of the consumers buy food based on price or convenience.
Dixon, an ANU-based researcher has presented significant research findings on consumer attitudes where convenience and price are first priority despite expressed interests by consumers desiring for social justice, higher levels of animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
An example is the intensively farmed chicken in Australia. Most middle-class consumers were very much aware of the fact intensively farmed chicken were raised under poor conditions and were associated with negative long-term health effects due to the widespread usage of growth hormones.
However, fast-food chickens were highly appreciated as they represented value for money. It was a convenient means through which one could provide a desirable meal for the family against tight family budgets (Dixon 2002).
There is a highly held posit that localized AFNs are ‘trendy’ due to the fact that they mostly supply families with high income and who reside in the gentrified inner city suburbs or on the large outer lifestyle blocks in suburban rural areas.
The actual relevance of the AFNs to low-income suburbanites has been contested through academic literature. As a result, the low-income suburbanites visit local and regional shopping complexes that are characterized by fast food outlets and supermarket chains (Renting, Mardsen & Banks 2003, p. 393-411).
There is limited public awareness on the range of localized AFNs and their importance in as far as improving system sustainability is concerned. Limited information on localized AFNs affects the rate of acceptance by individuals. Individuals are not fully aware of the essence of quality, trust and safety compared to convenience and price (Renting, Mardsen & Banks 2003, p. 393-411).
Localized AFNs may be situated in distant areas thus increasing transport costs for individuals who prefer to travel to urban fringes instead of the local supermarket.
The increased personal food miles contrary to systemic food-miles make it difficult for individuals to embrace localized AFNs. In addition to perceived high costs of products, increased transport costs makes it more difficult for people to visit the localized markets (Steel 2009).
Food farmers are sceptical. In addition, they are not aware of how they should go about direct selling or getting into the localized market. Instead, they prefer the relative stability of supplying the supermarkets chains’ centralized logistic systems. The farmers also lack marketing and horticultural skills which are imperative for survival away from the conventional food systems.
Research is limited in critical areas such as local embeddedness, which continues to prevail in food agriculture and industrialized globalized systems yet food agriculture and localized AFNs can be subjected to disembedding forces of technological change, money and capital (Morgan et al., 2006 p. 191).
Localized AFNs lead to personal-household exploitation because low income families spend long hours of work on the AFNs. In addition, community- enterprise volunteers spend long hours during distribution and coordination of the AFNs.
The many long hours spent on localized AFNs pose as a challenge because conventional food systems are fast and convenient; one does not need to spend too much time in production as there are systems put in place to help ease the workload (Pederson & Robertson, 2001).
Local biophysical factors such as soil quality, climate and loss of agricultural land due to urbanization are a huge challenge to localized AFNs as it becomes difficult to produce food within 100km of cities and industrialized regions in developed countries. It therefore becomes difficult for city dwellers to be locavores. Government regulation at the local, national and regional levels can greatly affect the AFNs.
This is through local land use zoning and varied food industry regulation. These have a negative effect on localized farming. Such a situation can be observed in Sydney where 70% of high quality arable land has been found to be zoned for rural lifestyle (Renting, Mardsen & Banks 2003, p. 393-411). The figure below illustrates this:
Small-scale farmers face the challenge imposed by industrialized farming through unsustainable cost burdens for national hygiene inspection systems that ensure food safety.
Such costs involve compliance costs in accordance with regular food inspections and global regulations like quarantine and trade rules stipulated by World Trade Organization (WTO). These regulations have come about due to a need of promoting health and safety in industrialized farming where handling of food to enhance production is obvious (Steel 2002).
Political factors are also a huge challenge to the localized AFNs. There is an apparent lack of political consciousness with regard to inhibiting the operation of the AFNs because of over-regulation. This inhibition is a reflection of political interests in industrialized agriculture in addition to lack of knowledge.
As reported by Holden, pressures realized from globalization are a crisis for the local farmers. Changing trends in industrialized farming unconsciously affect the small scale farmer who is not part of the mix up and competition that is evident in delocalized networks (cited in Lawrence 2004, p.137)
Case study of Sydney
There has been growing debate over the implications of climate change and related climate change policies. Attention is now on the vulnerability of large populations in principal food-producing regions within Sydney such as the Murray-Darling Basin. Environmental degradation, drought and soil infertility have taken a huge toll on these food-producing zones.
A region that once enjoyed the surplus of rice production has not made substantial rice production for a season but instead, has resorted to imports so that it can cater for its import and export needs. There is current debate on social histories and politics of the driest continent holding a top position as a great rice exporter.
Sydney (Australia) could also accomplish this despite the fact that climate and environmental changes were apparent. Appropriate strategies would take the country there. In addition, there is debate on peak oil amidst a declined domestic oil production in Sydney, thus, heightening the issue of food security in Sydney (Steel 2009).
The Sydney Food Fairness Alliance and the Australian Conservation Foundation endorsed a campaign aimed at reducing food miles travelled so as to meet the consumption needs of Australian cities. Globalization has been associated with tremendous increases in volumes of traded foods.
Imported food from rich countries like the U. S., Italy and France are cheaper hence, the reason why imports in cities like Sydney have grown relatively faster compared with exports for the last 20 years. Sydney is not only involved in the importation of luxury food such as Roquefort cheese; supermarkets have been involved in increasing the stocks of processed vegetables like Italian tomatoes, Vietnam prawns and China’s garlic.
These foods are grown in Australia but globalization has made importation cheaper despite the great food miles involved (Hines, Luca & Shiva 2002, p. 38-40).
The 20th century was a time when Sydney enjoyed diverse food supply but, the people here took this for granted. Food security has occasionally been conflated with bio-security for the last 30 years to ensure that plant and animal diseases do not enter Sydney from elsewhere. This action was part of Sydney’s international relations and trade policies with major concern on those that related to developing counties in the Asia Pacific.
The recent climatic changes has affected Australia’s principal producing regions thus, food security has been of focus by the Australian government’s foreign aid and trade policies. As a result, this has affected Sydney as it is part of Australia and everything that affects Australia, affects Sydney too. Water and soil management are other sustainability issues which have made the issue of food security in this region worse (Holden 2004).
In Sydney, localized AFNs are different from globalized food networks as they assist the local farmer to get returns for his or her efforts through directing. They connect consumers with suppliers contrary to what happens with the globalized conventional food networks. The most successful local AFN scheme is the Food Connect. It is aimed at connecting 800 consumer-subscribers with 80 farmers.
The community supported agriculture scheme also aims at connecting consumers with the local farmer but as of now, it is at its infancy stage in this region.
The localized AFNs are mindful of the local farmer in the same way they are concerned about quality food provision in the region. Localized AFNs are a direction towards a healthy population without nutritional disorders that are mostly attributed to industrialized food products (Steel 2009).
Localized AFNs are not associated with wastes and inefficiencies as is the case with industrialized food products in Sydney.
Wastes and inefficiencies are associated with the surpluses and large stocks evident in supermarkets. Around 40% of stocked food in Sydney’s supermarkets has been discarded when it passes its ‘use-by’ date. Households have also been found to waste up to one-third of bought foods (Gaballa & Abraham 2007).
Globalized conventional food systems are more popular among the people in Sydney due to challenges associated with localized AFNs. The localised AFNs in Sydney face huge challenges due to various reasons. To start with, overall farm incomes have been falling. This has been attributed to the squeeze between rising costs of production and falling prices.
As a result, farm debts have escalated and the returns on food products have been very little. Thereby, agriculture has remained unattractive to most farmers. Anticipated fluctuations in oil price are expected to have a negative effect on the localized AFNs by affecting on-farm production costs and transportation of food.
The uncontrollable rise in food imports has affected localized AFNs in Sydney as farmers have lost confidence in food sovereignty, in a nation that is susceptible to carbon footprint (Renting, Mardsen & Banks 2003, p. 393-411).
The popularity of localized AFNs in Sydney is continuously gaining momentum but is currently facing certain limitations. Since it is impossible to single out AFNs from globalized food systems, supermarket chains in Sydney continue to control 70-80% of retailed food.
Localized food systems are considered to be more expensive thereby; the supermarket chains are a great competition to the AFNs due to reduced costs of food (Morgan, et al. 2006).
Food farms are mainly a venture of small-scale families and mainly specific migrant groups in and around Sydney are involved.
Therefore, it becomes such a big burden for families to engage in such an involving task when they can easily obtain cheap food from the supermarket chains. The farmers lack the motivation required to engage in local AFNs due to time and changed customer attitudes as they prefer the conventional food stuffs (Adam 2002).
Sydney continues to be the most productive region in Australia because of local climate and soil quality. The fact that increased urbanization has made agricultural land to be scarce hence challenging localized AFNs. However, this has been counteracted by the presence of two outer peri-urban fringes within the city.
There is one which is within the vicinity of Hawkesbury River, northwest of Sydney’s city where fruit-growing extends west across the river up to the upland country. The other one is southwest of Sydney’s urbanized area on the edge of a wide rural transition region that leads to the grazing lands in the southern highlands, southwest of Sydney.
Despite the fact that peri-urban districts exist to support localized AFNs, the future is uncertain due to climatic change ad environmental degradation. Agricultural land use has not been given much consideration due to the dire need of finding a balance with competitive uses for the peri-urban land.
About 30% of land in Sydney is used for productive agriculture and transport systems that link suppliers to their consumers (Nichol 2003, p. 409-27).
The case of Sydney is one that requires great strategic interventions so as to improve the local AFNs since peak oil may affect the globalized conventional food networks with regard to increased prices. Sydney has all along relied on conventional food networks and because of this human activity has affected the environment.
The government needs to put appropriate policies in place that will preserve the available arable land to enhance localized AFNs which have got more advantages than disadvantages as discussed in this paper.
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