Reclaiming food systems – Local food systems and access to markets linked to territories

  • Dr. Michel Pimbert, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, United Kingdom

Local food systems and access to markets linked to territories

Evidence from all continents suggests that agroecological intensification is more successful when it is based on re-localizing food systems and short food supply chains. Local food systems and short food webs help valorize farm-level agroecological methods and their wider environmental benefits.

For example, a growing number of initiatives in the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia aim to reconnect producers and consumers and re-localize agricultural and food production. These innovative efforts to reorganize food and agriculture include short supply chains, alternative food networks, local farming systems and direct sales. The following forms of economic organization have been particularly effective in providing new market outlets, income and livelihoods for agroecological farming and land use:

‘Local Food Systems’ are those in which the production, processing, trade and consumption of food all occur in a defined, reduced geographical area (about 20 to 100 km radius).

‘Short Food Supply Chains’, on the other hand, describe a situation in which the number of intermediaries is kept to a minimum, the ideal being direct contact between the producer and the consumer.

According to a recent study commissioned by the European Union​*​, short food chains generate many social and economic benefits throughout Europe. They create a sense of community and of ‘living together’ by building trust and social bonds. They generate jobs and strengthen local economies because a larger share of the added value is retained by producers, with profits being potentially re-distributed to more people.

Taking a global perspective, the majority of the world’s 570 million farms are small in scale, and most of them are operated by families.​†​ According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, smallholders supply 70% of overall food production.​‡​ This involves some 470 million farmers, artisan fisher folk, pastoralists, landless and indigenous peoples. Smallholders in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in developed countries, often sell their goods and labour, or buy inputs in markets that are in close proximity to their farms. Trade includes non-monetary exchanges, as well as sales to smaller or larger scale informal traders. These markets are part of everyday life and are rooted in the local institutions, culture and values of the local society and environment. They often constitute a complete local food system in which all stages in the food chain, from planting to final consumption, take place locally.

In this context, innovative marketing systems have been emerging in recent decades in some parts of Asia and Latin America, which enhance the economic viability of agroecological farms. These are usually based on voluntary standards and labels such as organic, fair trade, mountain products, farmers labels, geographical indications and quality linked to origin labels. Newer, community-supported models of agriculture have also emerged in which smallholder farmers organize themselves to supply directly to consumers through local food systems and short food webs.​§​ Thus, with the construction of novel institutional arrangements that directly involve consumers as active participants, new local market outlets are created for agroecological products. These serve to remunerate, support and scale up agroecological intensification pathways in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in developed countries. These arrangements often reflect a strong commitment to re-localizing food systems and sustainable, territorially based development.​¶​

However, it is important not to make facile assumptions about the social, economic and environmental benefits that short food chains and local food systems may deliver for agroecological farming and land use. For example, the evidence on environmental impacts shows that shortening a food chain will not necessarily reduce its carbon footprint. Other factors must be taken into account, including production methods and logistical issues. Indeed, Plassmann & Edwards-Jones​#​ have questioned just how ‘local’ such food actually is, when many of the inputs even for unprocessed seasonal food, such as fuel for farm machinery, are sourced at considerable distances from the farm. Realizing the potential of agroecology therefore calls for wider systemic changes such as those discussed below.

A transformative agenda for agroecology and local food systems

Circular agroecological models of production cannot be made to fit in the linear, and increasingly globalised, structure of dominant food systems which assume that the Earth has an endless supply of natural resources at one end, and a limitless capacity to absorb waste and pollution at the other. Nevertheless, recent reductionist attempts to align ‘agroecology’ with ‘sustainable intensification’ have sought to incorporate agroecological methods into the linear extraction system of corporate-controlled industrial agriculture (e.g. see Arrignon and Bosc​**​ for an analysis of mainstream development of agroecology in France). Agroecological innovations can be designed either to conform with or to radically transform the dominant agri-food regime.​††​ The imperative is now for transformation rather than reforms that leave the basic economic, political and technological structure of current food systems unchanged.

An alternative to the current linear paradigm is to develop productive systems that minimise external inputs, pollution and waste (as well as risk, dependency and costs) by adopting a circular metabolism that is inspired by nature. There are two principles here, both or which reflect the natural world. The first is that natural systems are based on cycles, for example the water, nitrogen and carbon cycles. Secondly, there is very little waste in natural ecosystems. The ‘waste’ from one species is food for another, or it is converted into something useful by natural processes and cycles. These ideas are, of course, central to agroecology and the design of sustainable agriculture. But they now need to be extended and applied to the design of entire food systems as part of a transformative agenda for agroecology and food sovereignty.​‡‡​

Circular systems that mimicnatural ecosystems can be developed at different scales, from individual farm plots to entire cities, by using functional biodiversity, the ecological clustering of industries, reuse, recycling and the re-localization of production and consumption within specific territories. Reintegrating food, energy and water systems in locally embedded, circular models is a priority. To date, most sustainable food, water, energy and waste systems have been implemented in isolation. However, greater synergies are possible when ecological agriculture, local food systems, renewable energy systems, and sustainable water and waste management systems are all integrated from the outset and developed simultaneously within a circular economic model. Circular systems do not consume large quantities of fossil fuels and other finite resources; at the same time they maximize the possibilities for recycling and reuse. In the process, greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, and outputs of solid waste are minimized.​§§​ ‘Re-localizing’ and ‘re-integrating’ food and energy production with water and waste management in circular systems is also gaining credence as a means of enhancing quality of life for urban dwellers. This improves public health, supports adaptation to climate change and secures more reliable supplies of food and energy. Furthermore, in rural and urban contexts alike, circular systems that reduce people’s dependency on external suppliers and distant markets have also been shown to promote local citizens’ control over the means of production. As such, it therefore also enhance inclusive governance and direct democracy.​¶¶​

If the full potential of agroecology to transform the dominant agro-food regime into one that offers greater food sovereignty is to be realised, it is important for organized citizens and policymakers around the world to act, in order to redirect investments towards integrated, resilient and locally controlled circular models, and at the same time to remove key obstacles that limit the spread of these systems in rural and urban areas.​##​


Agroecological models of production based on functional biodiversity can benefit society, the economy and the environment in many ways. However, achieving the full potential of these multifunctional benefits largely depends on the spatial scale and structure of the food system and markets in which agroecological farms are embedded. Access to and distance from local markets for purchasing farm inputs and for selling farm produce is particularly important in realizing the potential of agroecological models of production. Similarly, to secure multifunctional benefits from agroecological farming and land use, the extent of the farms’ integration in re-localised, circular economic models is also of key importance.

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