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Opportunity Knocks When It Comes to a Local Food Economy

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Community-based agriculture has the potential for creating jobs, developing small business entrepreneurships and keeping precious dollars in the community. 

“As manufacturing jobs decrease, food jobs are increasing,” said Dr. Kami Pothukuchi, associate professor of urban planning at Wayne State University in Detroit. 

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This is especially good news for a state like Michigan whose economic engine has been dependent on the declining automobile industry. 

Out of a total GDP of $381 billion, agriculture is the state’s second largest industry pulling in $63.7 billion annually compared to $68.4 billion from manufacturing, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

However, the present “industrialized food system” is made up of a handful of “mega-corporations” that control food production, processing, distribution and preparation, said Pothukuchi.  Change to a community-based system is difficult because these corporations have a lot at stake in keeping the current system.

The U.S. industrialized food system was designed in the 1950s to increase production in order to provide the nation with cheap and plentiful food that was easily accessible.  As a result, the United States became a top food producer in the world.   

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A variety of food-related jobs in processing, marketing and distribution also emerged even though the number of farmers declined.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture Census (USDA) reported that farms increased in size averaging 155 acres in 1935, a peak year when the country had 6.8 million farms, compared to 2002 when farms averaged 441 acres and numbered 2.1 million farms.

It is important to remember that the industrialized food system was developed at a time when most American businesses were creating systems for mass production and economies of scale.  Because volume is critical to the profitability of this system, farming methods developed to support a large-scale, energy-intensive monoculture that uses huge amounts of water and chemicals for herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers.  Tons of animal waste products also accumulate and pollute land, water and air because factory farming methods keep animals indoors and free of disease instead of allowing them to graze in pastures. 

Actually, the cost of the industrialized food system outweighs its benefits.  For example, most food in the industrialized system ends up in supermarkets after traveling an average 1,300 miles to get there.  Fruits and vegetables may spend seven to fourteen days in transit.  So freshness and taste are sacrificed for the products’ ability to travel.

Transporting products has been possible through cheap fuel.  However, when oil reached over $100 a barrel last spring, the expense incurred over such long distances proved problematic.  For example, world food prices averaged an increase of 43 percent over the past year, which inadvertently created a global food crisis that is causing political and economical instability and social unrest in both poor and developed nations. 

Unseasonable droughts in grain-producing nations also affects high food prices just as falling stockpiles, the increased use of biofuels in developed countries and increasing demands for meat products in Asia’s middle class, according the BBC (May 2008).  

The Consumer Price Index estimates that U.S. retail food prices increased in 2007 by only 4 percent, but this is the largest spike in 17 years—with more expected to come. 

Industrial farming practices were developed when world population was only 2 billion.  While these practices increased the carrying capacity of the earth then, they are slowly destroying the earth’s long-term carrying capacity for today’s population, which is 6.7 billion and climbing.

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Over the past two decades as the industrialized food system has expanded to the global level, concerns over food safety have emerged, like the recent tainted food imports from China.

The industrialized food system has had a detrimental effect on the local economy, said Pothukuchi.  Our food system should be a community-based system that revolves around small, polycultural farms that practice sustainable agriculture, preserve regional biodiversity and help build local economies.  This is already being done in many ways. 

First, local food networks like community gardens, food co-ops, Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), farmers' markets, and seed savers groups keep money in the community. 

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Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...)

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