Your book highlights the importance of trust within food webs. You also give examples of rare networks that can survive over generations. How can a budding food web ensure its longevity when so much rests on trust between individuals?
The key is to build a culture of collaboration that allows it to survive across generations. This is what Indigenous cultures mostly do so much better than ours. In our extractive economy, a culture of collaboration often flourishes within the cooperative movement, in some nonprofits and universities, and among some exemplary private firms or business clusters that take a long-term view. This culture waxes and wanes over generations and through business cycles. So often the skills in collaborating get passed down from grandparent to grandchild, sometimes skipping one generation as youths rebel from their elders. Still, the values persist.
The extractive economy was created by public policy, you point out, and can be undone by it as well. What are the policies you most want to see rolled back or implemented?
What I would most like to see implemented has not been picked up on in policy circles yet, but it is major grants, drawing on an allocation in the $500 million range, that support the growth of community-based food systems initiatives. We want to think about a food policy more than a farm policy because we can’t answer all the problems we’ve created simply by making farming better. But federal policy can compensate for the extraction of wealth. I would like to see dedicated funds that communities can leverage to strengthen the food systems they are creating.
Many have commented on the phenomenon of the COVID-19 pandemic driving consumers to seek out local foods because they’ve realized the importance of local food systems and want to supporting local farmers. How lasting is this change?
I think people will tend to go back to whatever has been convenient in the past, so I’m concerned. But, from all the evidence, we can expect more pandemics in the future. As that awareness sinks in, we have a much better chance of developing long-term plans that are more resilient. I was heartened to get a call from an area in the Midwest I had done work for eight years ago. We got a meaningful but small response then, but farmers had a hard time convincing local policy makers to invest in food systems. This time, one of the partners in that effort contacted me because local officials were expressing strong interest in doing food planning. People realize how vulnerable we all are, especially as they see meat processing plant workers and people harvesting strawberries getting ill.
When you see community food webs coming up against global markets and large-scale investors, do you ever wonder whether working at the community level can make any real difference? Do small food webs stand a chance against the power of extractive global agri-business?
This is a question I wrestle with often. As difficult as this work can be, I don’t see any better alternative. Extractive mechanisms are inherently large-scale, based on political decisions that are large-scale. My work in food systems also tells me that there is no path to creating healthy food systems simply by focusing on farm policy in isolation from other issues such as consumer policies, health care, or tax policies. Agriculture by itself cannot solve the issues that plague agriculture.
Our society is so large and complex, yet ironically, I think the initiatives that best take this complexity into account happen at the local level—at least at first—where people can take a holistic view and build personal trust. Until we have a constituency of people operating from that foundation, it is very difficult to write effective farm, food, consumer, or tax policies. Part of the work of food systems is to build community support, so the system can survive shifting political winds. We’re getting better food and soil policy now because of food webs that went unrecognized in the 1970s, which in turn drew from food webs of the 1930s, and even earlier cycles. And now, we have a whole new diverse generation rolling up their sleeves.