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|(to be released 5/30) American Pedaler: Building the Food System for a “Small Farms Future” in the United States

PART II: (r)evolutions in society
In pre-capitalist times, cities formed complex economic food networks with their smallholder rural periphery. In a world where food systems must be radically altered to comport with a carbon-free future, what if anything can be learned from the past, and what innovations lead us into the future?
by Peter Fink |
May 30, 2022
When we think about food systems and food security in the United States, the first thing that may come to mind is a grocery store: aisles of produce, and pyramids stacked high with shiny apples and oranges for year round consumption. Today’s modern world of abundance can seem like the pinnacle of development, offering unlimited choice in supermarkets full of hungry consumers. But at the same time, our world and national food system is at the precipice of crisis as the built-in assumption of human lives and even cheaper fossil fuels upon which it heavily depends, catches up.
Today, headlines in mainstream outlets like the . With 800M people who depended on the food exports from Ukraine and Russia now facing even greater food insecurity, the UN Secretary General a world at “the spectre of a global food shortage.” But, as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen reminded the world, there is always a political factor to hunger and shortage. In the same decade that , and the lodging of the ironically named have caused massive disruptions of world food systems, the invasion of Ukraine has exposed the vulnerability of a reliance on international trade to ensure food security. Wheat imports are not a given, and Russian gas products and fertilizer is not forever. Yet for too long a world food system lead by the United States’ food system has set the stage for tacit acceptance of this precedent.
We must act now. Urgently. Frankly, we should have acted decades ago. Yet we didn’t, and now millions of lives are in jeopardy today. phenomenon, and has Unfortunately, the work of systems change takes slow, multiyear transitions—its not something we can just make up for in a single year. But as we act with palliative humanitarianism to respond to the “world food crisis” of the 2020s, we must accelerate the so we no longer breed such crises in the first place.

Envisioning Anew

In this series we have taken a look at these major crisis which we face in our economic system and our society, and begun to present a viable alternative—or rather, knit together various successful alternatives which are already underway. Today, mainstream economics is predicting the with the development of AI, , and as the future of employment. Yet, while to some it may seem peculiar or antiquated, I approach the future of our nation’s socio-economic development from the lens of the food system; agriculture being the for up until very recently. Today, barely working in the food sector and only 1.4 percent are employed on farms, overall contributing to about five percent of the economy. In part this is because farming is viewed by much of society as undesirable: physically demanding, low-pay, dirty, and reserved for only the most desperate. On the other hand, corporate agribusiness has consolidated the food system to “achieve economies of scale”—as they put it—through industrialization. But as I wrote in part I., we cannot ignore the fact that for the time being, all humans have to eat food: the food system is fundamental to the very existence of society. In the previous article of this series, I argued that by turning towards peasantry for the first time, the United States could see major benefits to the health and well being of our economy and society. However, I identified three major barriers to achieving small scale agricultural needs. Part II is focused on another major barrier: integrating these large-scale agricultural changes into a broader food system. What would our food system need to look like in order to live in a peasant society and rely on peasant agriculture?
On a Saturday in May 2022, I woke up at the crack of dawn and spent the morning biking a 150lb bike trailer full of groceries to leave at community fridges and deliver to food-insecure neighbors. I chatted with my family back home as they prepared our back garden (which we recently turned from grass into a productive plot) for spring planting. Riding through the city, I passed sporadic lawns and verdant p-patches—Seattle’s exclusive community gardens. That afternoon, I stopped to gather produce scrapped by a grocer to be cooked into a community meal the next day at a neighbor’s kitchen. We don’t have to imagine another system and what it would look like, we can just fit the pieces together.

Commodification, and the battle against time
Food is like no other traded commodity in its temporality. Leave out at sea for an extra week, and its value and use will generally be the same—maybe even higher. But wait just

Adding a single bus or public transit vehicle of similar capacity for every ten thousand residents in an area was found to r, with the greatest effects seen by poor and Black households.

Existing Challenges in the Food System:

I start with a normative claim: the foremost purpose of our food system is food security.
In an ideal system, this is resilient, sustained, and culturally relevant food security. It is food production dictated by and for the people within it: in other words, food sovereignty which guarantees that none go without. There may be other goals which other actors in the food system may prioritize: profit, or to make a living, for example. Because regardless of our ulterior motives, as human beings with hungry stomachs and cultural interests, we are all actors within the food system, and depend on food access to continue to live nourished and content lives.
Worldwide, of course, do not have consistent “physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food” which is needed for a healthy life (this is the ) and 9% of the world does not on average consume enough calories and nutrients to maintain their healthy bodyweight. They are undernourished. They are hungry.
In the United States, only , yet this still amounts to more than 5 million households. They make up part of the one in ten Americans who lack food security. Food insecurity affects households which are , single-parent families with children, and which are located in the South. So as a nation, our system is already failing. Add to this other crises: today, the food sector accounts for about one third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the heavy dependence on fossil fuels is costing the food system its integrity and the lives of the poorest in society: the global isolation of Russia following the invasion has made this acute.
So there is perhaps no more urgent structural change for the food system and the eight billion people who depend on it than decarbonization: quickly and starting now. Without offering a vision of a carbon-free food system, those in power will never act. Not only will we only fail if we don’t try, we’ll fail if we don’t know what to try.
The first hurdle is food production. As the largest source of emissions, this has remained the central focus with climate pariahs like CAFO beef and monocropped corn taking center stage. To this hurdle comes the answer of peasant small scale farming, explored
. The second hurdle is essentially transportation. Part one calls for decentralized food producers feeding dispersed people: so how do we get our food from point “P” (producer) to point “C” (consumer)? And how to do it without fossil energy to zip us around? Nestled within this is a third hurdle: preservation. Project Drawdown, the leading non-profit on writes that and poor used to keep us and our food cool are the greatest threats to a carbon budget. So how do we keep our food from being wasted before it can even make it to our mouths?

Transportation: From bike trailers to ocean bailers

“…but we must also act powerfully at the local level because that is where people live and eat. They do not eat in global markets.”— José Graziano Da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in “
Transportation in today's system operates on two assumptions: long distances and fossil fuels.
In order to imaging a food system without the later, we have to consider a food system without the former. Many of us are familiar with this idea already through the mantra “Eat Local” which is becoming evermore popular. In food system policy circles this is more often referred to as regional food systems.
For the constraints of geography and technology crafted food systems that resembled these dense metropole-periphery relationships from the to the and of . Of course, predating the colonization and establishment of the United States, fed thriving communities from the land we now inhabit today not by shipping across the continent but by developing regional networks of production and consumption.
offer many benefits. Currently, aggregate transportation accounts for a mere , with 6% coming from freight. However, as diets approach more plant based and sustainably produced, the percentage rises to more than half. In those cases, reducing food miles becomes an important goal, and having the onions you buy travel 20 miles instead of 2000 matters a lot. In a rebuke of in which regional specialization and world trade are king, regional food systems operate on the regional self sufficiency model and greater assumed food sovereignty. Here, instead of one region producing all the apples and one region all the carrots, regional food systems develop networks which yield similar diversity by diversifying production. The
has also highlighted an integrated concept of which recognize the dependent nature of urban populations and emphasizes the development of of production.
Of course there are certain items that will have to see some transport. Good luck growing oranges in sub-zero cold of the Rocky mountain states. Or getting a tomato plant to produce fruit in the wet and dreary winters of the Pacific Northwest. But regional food systems also begin to explore how we might live without—or maybe just bend the rules of time. Having a mandarin orange was once a cherished treat, reserved for consumers of opulence or . Today, halos® and Cuties® are cheaper than a bunch of carrots from down the road, and as ubiquitous as a box of apple juice in the lunchboxes and lunch trays of the average American kindergartener.
While making cultural and dietary shifts which accept the constraints of regional food systems

Distribution and Aggregation

But producing in urban contexts or more regional small scale networks as proposed in a small farms future presents greater challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, getting two tons of food from a location 3 miles away should require less energy than 300 or 3,000 miles away. On the other hand getting 20lbs of food from one of various locations all over a city to various other locations around a city of dense traffic might require more vehicles and energy than simply aggregating; bring a few tons of one product from a single production area like a tomato hothouse to distribution center like a Safeway warehouse or storefront. In other words: at face value, regional networks may have the intranodal low-carbon advantage, while industrial food systems have the internodal advantage.
In today’s world produce and raw food distribution primarily occurs at one entity: the grocery store (or wholesaler marketer), with food banks and pantries as the secondary supramarket provider. However, by turning towards small scale and dispersed farming you suddenly generate a challenge that is absent in a highly centralized model: how to aggregate food from all the numerous dispersed producers into the single distribution point recognized by consumers in today’s world. One solution that has been explored has been co-ops, which offer small scale producers the option to be competitive with large scale production by aggregating their produce with other small scale producers to match the large volume which they offer.
Organic valley grocery mark-up
Of course, this is only a problem insomuch as we take the assumption that food is to be procured from a single point. In other words: who said we need supermarkets?
In a hyper-localized food system, food would skip the grocery store middleman with his stringent standards and significant mark-up

In order to think more realistically, we have to come back to some of the assumptions baked into the modern agricultural system. Let’s return to the example of cherries which we began in It is because cherries have become a fruit which is shipped to Asian markets and trucked on two-week cross-country voyages, that they must be picked with the stem, and gingerly lowered into buckets so as to elongate the shelf life. And because cherries have become a “product” one buys from the store, consumers (or at least grocery stores) have come to expect stems. On harvest days when we picked stemless for a local maraschino factory, it halved the time it took us to clear a field. Change some of the assumptions of our food system and labor is suddenly freed up to achieve more. This is something explored in more depth in
of this series.

Box 4. & 5 Processing and Storage

Why were oranges once Christmas gifts? Why is it possible to buy asparagus in December? How come strawberries are in fruit salads year round?
How to manage food with a lack of economies of scale
Public transit food busses
Community Fridges
Seasonal produce
Community free vending machine

This is Part II of II in a series on transforming our food system. Part I was released May 25 and covers the “small farm future” concept in the United States

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