Do you know where your food comes from?
Have you considered the many steps between the food you buy at the shops and the farmers who produce it? These food systems play an essential role in food security.
If you’re like most consumers in the global economy, you’re used to buying what you want, whenever you want it. But did you realise the food in your supermarket comes from many different countries? For example, in season, South Africa exports avocados. These are sent to Europe and North America. Out of season, South Africa imports avocados from Spain to feed local demand.
This extended food chain links producers and consumers thousands of kilometres apart (and lets us enjoy guacamole out of season). However, it comes at a cost. When food is shipped across the world, pollution (especially CO2) rises along with transportation costs.
It’s wonderful to be able to enjoy avocados from Spain, kiwis from New Zealand and mushrooms from China. However, we’ve grown so used to eating a variety of products from all over the world that we’re no longer connected to where our food comes from and what this means for the planet. Our globalised economy and supply chain have created a lack of resilience – the ability to “withstand damage and recover from disasters or crises in a timely, efficient and sustainable manner.”
With rising concerns about climate change, price fluctuations and our inability to adapt to shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic, food systems must become agile. We need a decentralised food supply chain where local farmers produce and deliver food directly to the consumer (or with minimal steps from farm to table). This would mean less opportunity for disrupted supply and greater ability for the system to adapt to shocks.
Here’s how local food systems can build resilience in times of crises.
1. Increase diversity
Local farmers who practise sustainable farming methods tend to grow a variety of crops selected for nutrition and taste. This is unlike most commercial farmers, who must choose varieties that are uniform and travel well. Crop diversity contributes to biodiversity, which creates habitats for animals, plants and microorganisms; encourages pollinators and beneficial predators and parasites that control pests naturally; and promotes healthy and beneficial ecosystems.
Local food systems also help protect land from the industrial and commercial development that can lead to deforestation. Besides contributing to climate change, deforestation can drive wild animals out of their natural habitats and closer to human populations. Crucially, this creates the opportunity for diseases (such as Covid-19) to spread from animals to humans. Recent research suggests that, by protecting biodiversity and banning the global wildlife trade, we can help prevent zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans).
Many African organisations and non-profits, including Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA), help local farmers to grow a variety of crops. At FTFA, we support local farmers to increase availability of local produce and eliminate dependency on chemicals. We do this through educating them on natural farming, crop rotation and climate resilience. We help them to become less dependent on external inputs such as chemical pesticides and fertilisers, which are subject to global price fluctuations. By sustainably producing a range of crops that do not need these products, local farmers can reduce risk (especially if one crop fails) and keep their prices stable.
Research shows that a wide variety of freshly harvested, naturally farmed produce has nutritional and environmental benefits, tastes better, is more accessible to informal markets and leads to better public health – the cornerstone of disaster resilience.
2. Provide better access to food
Farmers and growers with large processing and packing operations that transport produce to retailers through centralised warehouses often have “just-in-time” distribution systems. This means they need to get their produce to market within a very short timeframe, but this is only possible if every step in the system works. Any crisis that disrupts the supply chain (such as Covid-19) will prevent some of this produce from getting to market.
Local farmers, growers and producers have developed many successful ways to get food directly to local consumers securely and sustainably. Many small-scale farmers sell their produce directly to communities, through schools, community groups, street hawkers or spaza shops. At FTFA, we work with our partners to help local farmers in various ways. We train them in bio-intensive cultivation; supply food-gardening resources such as compost, seeds and seedlings; and provide infrastructure such as water tanks and irrigation. Together, all of these resources help to improve yields for sale to local markets. We know that this system of decentralised farming builds resilience into the food system, creates jobs and keeps money within communities. Direct access to fresh, affordable, seasonal and nutritious food supports the local food economy and improves food security.
During Covid-19, many aid organisations have had restrictions placed on their usual activities. For example, FTFA has been unable to hold training workshops. Fortunately, we’ve been able to support local farmers by providing resources such as seeds and seedlings. This means that they can continue growing and harvesting to put food on the table through schemes such as FTFA’s Community Market Gardens.
3. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
By reducing the physical distance from farm to fork, local food systems limit carbon emissions. Food production is responsible for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This means that reducing food transportation costs can decrease air pollution and emissions as a whole, helping mitigate climate change.
The small-scale farmers who work with FTFA are part of community or ECD gardens that contribute to local feeding schemes. Members are often inspired to start their own homestead gardens. These have proven crucial during Covid-19 restrictions, allowing many low-income households to feed their families. This food is available at the heart of the communities that need it, with zero or limited transportation costs.
4. Enhance safety and security of food systems
In countries where a lot of fresh produce is imported, the Covid-19 pandemic is placing the usual supply routes under strain. As a result, shortages of fruit and vegetables may become widespread.
Local farmers can alleviate this issue by providing food where it’s needed. Many of the food-garden projects supported by FTFA contribute fresh produce to local feeding schemes, such as soup kitchens. Some farmers also deliver in-person or partner with companies that can help with delivery or online shopping.
In South Africa for example, local consumers in urban areas can order farm-fresh vegetables in box schemes. This connects local farmers (who might not have access to permits for delivery) to consumers (who cannot otherwise access their products). Some farmers source additional products from external suppliers, further supporting local economies and supplying speciality foods to health-conscious consumers, restaurants and caterers.
5. Forge connections
Supporting local farmers – whether through neighbourhood or informal markets, online pop-up shops or food-delivery schemes – forges connections between communities and farmers. This creates direct links in the food supply chain, allowing consumers to learn where their food comes from and shortening the distance that food travels.
Whether you have direct contact with your local farmer or connect through a box scheme, informal market, or virtually (by visiting a farm’s website, online shopping portal or social media page) you can start knowing where your food comes from. You can ask how the food was grown and harvested and how long it took to get to you. You might even learn your local farmer’s name.
Ultimately, we need our food systems to become more resilient – in good times, but especially during uncertain and challenging times. Local farmers that increase biodiversity, improve access to fresh, healthy ingredients and allow us to reconnect with our food can transform how we produce, distribute and consume food – enabling real and lasting food security.