Agri-food Opportunity in Peri-urban Areas
The challenges of climate change, coupled with several unprofitable years for U.S. farmers and growing economic and social problems in rural areas, provide the political environment for a fundamental shift in farm policy. These changes could have important implications for agriculture at the rural-urban interface or in peri-urban areas. Over the past few years, I have had opportunities to visit with farmers and listen to presentations at farming conferences all across the country. Farmers may disagree about the causes of changes in weather and whether or not they can do anything about it, but they generally agree that they are farming under increasingly volatile and unpredictable climatic conditions. A constant barrage of news stories of climate related disasters seems to confirm their sense that the climate is changing. Several years of less profitable prices also have left farmers more economically vulnerable to weather uncertainties. This creates a political environment for a basic, structural change in farm policies.
For purposes of clarity and simplicity, I will identify farm policy alternatives with the different political parties and factions. The logical assumption going into 2020 elections is that Republicans will continue to support the same basic kinds of farm programs that both Democrats and Republicans have supported since the 1970s. They will rely on increased funding of federally subsidized crop/revenue insurance to help farmers cope with the risks associated with climate variability. Congress will fund disaster payments for farmers in cases where crop insurance is insufficient to mitigate losses. Public research and education will focus on “agricultural intensification” to reduce natural resource and environmental impacts by producing more per acre of land farmed or animal raised. The public research agenda will feature genetic engineering to make crops and livestock less vulnerable to climate extremes.
Some of the Democratic candidates see climate change as an opportunity to differentiate themselves not only from Republicans but also from previous Democratic farm policies. The “moderate” Democratic candidates seem to be approaching climate change as they would any other environmental issue. They propose increased funding for existing and potentially new farm programs that incentivize adoption of farming practices to cope with climate variability and mitigate climate change. The policies of moderate Democrats might be characterized as incentivizing and supporting “climate smart management practices.”
The USDA currently has two major programs that could be used to help mitigate climate change: Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Assessment Program (EQIP). Farming practices approved for these programs can be used individually or collectively to improve soil health, increase carbon sequestration, and build more resilient rural landscapes. Some candidates have also proposed new programs that would focus specifically on paying farmers for carbon sequestration—including “carbon trading,”  or carbon markets, to secure corporate funding to augment government programs. The practices listed below are listed among the USDA Building Blocks for “Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry.”
● Cover crops and reduced/no tillage to increase the carbon content of soils, increase water and nutrient retention, water infiltration, rooting depth, microbial activity, and decrease soil erosion.
● Nutrient management practices for cropping systems, especially involving the use of nitrogen, to reduce energy use—practices include source, rate, timing, and placement.
● Farm energy conservation and efficiency practices to reduce GHG emissions
● Proper management of manure to reduce production and emission of methane and nitrous oxide and to increase carbon sequestration.
● Agroforestry—integrating forestry with climate smart farming to sequester carbon.
Other climate smart land use practices that involve the use of perennial grasses to sequester carbon and reduce soil erosion:
● Planned grazing or management intensive livestock grazing systems
● Permanent grass buffer strips along waterways and streams
● Contoured strips of prairie grasses integrated with row crops
The leading Democratic candidates have voiced varying degrees of support for a U.S. congressional resolution called the “Green New Deal.” However, only the more “progressive” Democrats seem committed to making the fundamental changes in farm policies that would be needed to create a Green New Deal for farmers. This would require a fundamental shift from commodity-based programs that focus on productivity and individual farming practices to programs that incentivize and support farmers in transitioning to regenerative, sustainable whole-farm systems.
A sustainable farming system is fundamentally different from a collection of individual farming practices that might help cope with or mitigate climate change. Sustainability is defined most broadly as the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. Sustainable farming systems are designed not only to conserve natural resources and protect the environment, but also to provide domestic food security and restore the economic viability of rural communities. Like the Green New Deal, sustainable agriculture treats the ecological, social, and economic challenges confronting farm families and rural America as inevitable consequences of the current profit-driven, commodity-based approach to farming and food production.
Regenerative agriculture is an approach to agricultural sustainability that focuses on restoring past resource depletion and degradation as well as providing food security for present and future generations. “Regenerative Agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities. The system draws from decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic farming, agroecology, Holistic Management, and agroforestry,” Regenerative farming increases biodiversity, enriches soil health, improves functioning of watersheds, and enhances ecological and agricultural benefits for rural communities and society as a whole.
Policies supporting authentic organic farming, agroecology, holistic management, and agroforestry would create new agri-food opportunities for farmers, food entrepreneurs, and consumers—particularly for those in peri-urban areas. Agroecology perhaps provides the clearest conceptual framework for the development of ecologically sound, socially responsible, and economically viable local, community-based agri-food systems. Agroecology has gained global prominence in scientific, agricultural, and political discourse in recent years. The concept is increasingly important, but less widely known, in the U.S.
Agroecology is promoted by its advocates for its potential to contribute to transformative change in agri-food systems by applying the scientific principles of ecology to agriculture. Agroecology, like ecology in general, includes the science of human ecology, of human relationships with nature as well as relationships within nature. The first principle of ecology is that everything is integrally connected—farms, farmers, agroecosystems, communities, and societies. Thus, healthy agroecosystems would ensure the equitable distribution of food as well as sustainable food production. Authentic organic farming, holistic management, and agroforestry all fit under the conceptual umbrella of agroecology.
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has endorsed agroecology as a key strategy for mitigating future climate change as well as for coping with the consequences of climate change, stating: “The biggest and most durable benefits will likely result from more radical agroecological measures that will strengthen the resilience of farmers and rural communities, such as diversification of agroecosystems in the form of polycultures, agroforestry systems, and crop-livestock mixed systems accompanied by organic soil management, water conservation and harvesting, and general enhancement of agrobiodiversity.” Agroecological research confirms that traditional farming systems embody a wealth of ecological and social principles and proven farming methods that can help future agricultural systems become more resilient to climatic extremes.
The concepts of agroecology and agricultural sustainability also underpin the concept of “food sovereignty”—which has evolved into a major global agri-food movement. Food sovereignty is a term coined in 1996 by Via Campesina, an organization of 148 international organizations advocating family farm–based, sustainable agriculture. An international conference held in Nyéléni Sélingué, Mali in 2007 defined food sovereignty as: “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”  Food sovereignty also addresses agri-food sustainability specifically in that “It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation.” Food sovereignty reflects a realization that neither food security nor agricultural sustainability can be left to the impersonal discretion of global food markets but are basic human rights that must be ensured through the actions of governments.
The Green New Deal calls for a fundamental change in agri-food policy because it would make the U.S. government responsible for ensuring “food sovereignty.” The following is an excerpt from the 2019 Congressional Record of House Resolution 109. “It is the duty of the Federal Government… to secure for all people for generations to come— (i) clean air and water; (ii) climate and community resiliency; (iii) healthy food; (iv) access to nature; and (v) a sustainable environment.” Public attention thus far have focused on the Green New Deal’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to jobs and economic security for all. However, the most important commitments is its multigenerational commitment to agri-food sovereignty, including ecological and social agri-food sustainability. A commitment by the U.S. government agri-food policy to the core principles of food sovereignty could literally transform the local food movement into an agri-food revolution—creating new opportunities for farmers on small and mid-sized farms and local food entrepreneurs to revitalize rural communities—economically, socially, and ecologically.
To understand the potential of the local food movement to fundamentally change the food system, it’s important to understand it’s coevolution with the modern organic food movement. Both are rooted in the natural food movement of the early 1960s. Following World War II, the mechanical and chemical technologies developed for warfare were adapted to facilitate the industrialization of agriculture. The “back to the land” people responded by creating their own natural food systems. They produced their own foods, bought or traded food with each other, and formed the first cooperative food buying clubs and natural food stores. The natural food movement clearly was a rejection of agri-food industrialization.
The modern organic movement evolved from the natural food movement. Concerns about health and the environmental risks associated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were not the only concerns of early organic consumers. They were responding to and nurturing a sense of interconnectedness through a commitment to taking care of each other as well as caring for the earth. An organic philosophy was deeply embedded in early organic farming communities. Organic was as much a way of life as a way to produce food. The early organic movement was deeply rooted in the principles of agroecology.
Organic foods and farming remained on the fringes until the 1970s, when scientists began to confirm the environmental and public health risks of chemically-dependent farming systems. Organic foods then grew in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s and eventually moved into mainstream supermarkets. Organic food sales grew at a rate of 20%-plus per year from the early 1990s until slowing to 8% to 10% annual growth rates following the economic recession of 2008. Organic food sales have continued to grow faster than overall food sales, reaching $50 billion in 2017 – nearly 6% of total food sales.
The original small organic farms and different regional organic standards didn’t fit well with industrial systems of food processing and mass distribution. Organic farmers were pressured to move toward larger, more specialized farming operations. The implementation of national organic standards in the early 2000s opened the way for corporate consolidation of organic production into large operations. Organic foods eventually began to seem like just another niche in the industrial food market. Some organic consumers began to look to local farmers to ensure the ecological and social integrity of their foods. Many farmers who marketed locally continued to use organic production practices but didn’t bother with USDA organic certification. Their customers knew them personally and trusted them. They shared a commitment to the principles of agroecology—although they may never have heard the word.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, organic food sales and numbers of farmers markets followed similar upward trends.  However, the number of farmers markets continued to grow after the recession of 2008, reaching 7,864 by 2012—50% more than in 2009. Growth then slowed, increasing by less than 12% between 2012 and 2020, with 8,790 markets by 2020.  Farmers markets are only one indicator of the local food movement. CSAs, roadside stands, on-farm sales, and internet transactions are alternative means of connecting local farmers with local customers. Food hubs also have become an increasingly popular means of allowing farmers to pool their production to access local markets. Local food sales would be a better indicator of the local food movement, but little sales information is available.
A 2012 USDA special Report to Congress estimated total local food sales of $6.1 billion. This was less than earlier industry estimates, suggesting a possible downturn in local food sales. However, a 2015 USDA Census Update of “Direct Farm Sales of Food” estimated local food sales at $9 billion, 50% higher than the earlier estimate. Both estimates included local sales to supermarkets and institutional buyers, as well as direct sales to consumers. The 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, for the first time, provided data for “direct to consumer” sales. Previous Censuses had reported only numbers of farmers selling direct to consumers. The 2017 census indicated a decline of 10% in the number of farmers selling direct to consumers since the 2012 census and a 10% drop in direct to consumer sales since the 2015 Census Update. It’s unclear whether the drop in “direct to consumer” sales might have been offset by increasing local sales to supermarkets or public institutions by fewer, but larger, producers.
The available data suggests there has been a significant change of some kind in the local food movement. One possibility is that local foods, like organic foods, are being co opted and integrated into the mainstream industrial food system. Many supermarkets now advertise locally grown produce in season. “Local” often means produced in the same state or within several hundred miles. There is less incentive to visit the farmers market or join a CSA if consumers can buy local foods at the local supermarket. Some farmers who once sold directly to local schools and hospitals now sell to mainstream food service providers, such as Aramark or Sysco, who are attempting to accommodate preferences for locally grown foods. In both cases, the products may be sourced through food hubs or directly from large-scale, industrial producers.
If the local food movement becomes co opted and corrupted, I believe many consumers will again seek other means of ensuring the ecological and social integrity of their food. A realistic possibility for a resurgence in the local food movement is through online sales. Online grocery sales in the U.S. were estimated at more than $28 billion in 2019 and forecasted to reach $59 billion by 2023—about 6% of the total food sales. Amazon has entered the online market with a number of options for online grocery shoppers. Increasingly, local food hubs are using similar online platforms to make products of local farmers available to local customers.
Online retailing coupled with home delivery would bypass mainstream distribution and retailing. Home delivery resolves the inconveniences associated with farmers markets and CSAs. Online ordering also accommodates a growing preference for online purchasing among the post-boomer generation, who will soon be the dominant consumers. Adding small-scale, local processing facilities would completely bypass the industrial agri-food system, which has coopted previous agroecological food movements. There are no readily apparent economies of scale in online aggregation and distribution of food. For perishable food products in particular, online sales, assembly, and delivery linking local farmers with local customers could well be more efficient than are current regional and national initiatives. In addition, customers would have an opportunity to connect with local farmers of their choice, ensuring the integrity of their food through personal relationships of mutual trust.
There are also ways of networking out, rather than scaling up, which can increase efficiency without compromising agroecological integrity. Riverford Organic Farms in the UK, for example, delivers about 47,000 food boxes a week by filling customers’ online orders with products from farms in their area. Riverford has also been able to accommodate the needs for both small farmers and larger independent growers while maintaining the confidence and trust of their customers.
New government farm programs designed to meet the challenges of climate change could provide valuable support to entrepreneurial communities that are willing to take the local food movement to a new level. Climate smart policies would provide financial assistance for farmers who adopt management practices that mitigate the threats of climate change. However, the greatest potential for revitalizing rural communities, particularly in urbanizing rural areas, would be policies that incentivize and support farmers in transitioning from conventional commodity production to sustainable farming systems. Sustainable farming systems that reflect the principles of agroecology naturally evolve toward a diversity of crop and livestock enterprises that produce smaller quantities of a diversity of food products. Perhaps most important, agroecology is rooted in a sense of interconnectedness of farmers with their soil, crops, livestock, neighbors, and customers. In peri-urban areas, the abundance of “local” customers provide unique opportunities to “scale up” local processing while “networking out” distribution to avoid compromising ecological and social integrity.
Regardless of whether the Green New Deal is ever encoded in public policies, its political popularity reflects a public appeal for the basic principles that it expresses. These principles reflect growing support not only for fundamental change in farm policies but also for policies that support the concept of local food sovereignty. The resolution reframes sustainability in terms of the rights of all people: “It is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal… (D) to secure for all people for generations to come— (i) clean air and water; (ii) climate and community resiliency; (iii) healthy food; (iv) access to nature; and (v) a sustainable environment; and (E) to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression” It includes people in rural areas among the historically oppressed.
These expressions are similar to those expressed in the American Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. The fundamental purpose of government is to secure the God-given, unalienable, basic human rights of all—including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
If we have a right to life, we have a right to clean air and water, and healthy food—the very essence of life, and the liberty to pursue happiness. People, young people in particular, are demanding a fundamental change in farm and food policies. Demands for change create both risks and opportunities. The policy changes being demanded today create new agri-food opportunities, particularly in peri-urban areas. We have an opportunity to create a new and better agri-food system for the future. We have a right and a responsibility to seize this opportunity.
 Prepared for presentation at “Defining our Local Food System,” sponsored by Will County Regional Sustainability Network, Joliet Junior College, Joliet, IL, February 21, 2020 .
 John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia MO, – USA. He is the author of six books, which are available on Amazon.com: Books and Kindle E-books, and dozens of presentation papers, blog pieces, and other website posts at http://web.missouri.edu/~ikerdj/ and http://www.johnikerd.com. Email: JEIkerd@gmail.com. The professional opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Missouri.
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