Localizing Economic Production

The dairy at the Cobb Hill Cohousing community in Hartland, Vermont, that produces award winning cheeses, the bakery in the ecovillage of Lakabe near Pamplona, Spain, that bakes bread for 25 stores in surrounding towns, the herbalist business at the Earthaven Ecovillage that makes medicines from herbs found in the surrounding bioregion—there are countless local businesses employing people from the community, providing a sustainable living, and helping to relocalize an economy that has become increasingly globalized and environmentally destructive. The benefits of localizing economic activity have been well chronicled and can include providing a more stable source of jobs and income, a reduction in use of fuel for transportation, businesses more willing to adapt to stricter environmental regulations (as opposed to closing and rebuilding elsewhere), and a larger percentage of profits circulating within the community instead of being concentrated in the hands of far-off investors.21

One key sector of the economy ripe for localization (in addition to energy production, discussed earlier) is food production. Farming today depends on massive amounts of petroleum-based inputs: fuel to run the tractors and ship food thousands of kilometers, fertilizers and pesticides, and packaging often derived from petroleum. While oil is cheap and the effects of climate change appear relatively minor, this may not seem to be a problem. But with ramped-up efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, potential disruptions of agricultural production due to climate change, and increasing competition over a finite supply of oil, the cost of far-off food will most likely increase, as will its scarcity.

Local farming can address these problems, reducing oil dependency and the ecological impacts of industrial-scale agriculture while providing many other benefits, such as healthier, tastier food, heightened food security, and increased community interactions. Growing food locally reduces the fuel used to ship goods long distances. From farm to market, fruits and vegetables in the United States travel between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers on average—generating 5 to 17 times more CO2 emissions than the equivalent amount of local food. Eating locally produced food can reduce an individual's carbon footprint by about 2,000 kilograms per year.22

A study of 200 residents in Philadelphia found that residents who gardened not only had increased access to healthier foods—eating more fresh vegetables and fewer sweets— but also saved at least $100 a year in food costs. Community gardens often help build social capital as well. In a study of 63 community gardens in upstate New York, people in 54 of these worked cooperatively—sharing tools, work, or harvest. Moreover, having a community garden improved many residents' attitudes about their neighborhoods, reducing problems like littering, while also spurring

Engaging Communities for a Sustainable World broader community revitalization efforts.23 As more local farms and gardens are established, a growing number of farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) operations are sprouting up. In the United States, there are now more than 4,300 farmers' markets and 1,100 CSA farms. These tie consumers and producers together—educating consumers about the source of their food, giving farms a better source of income, and, with CSAs, providing working capital to farmers (because CSA members purchase in advance a share of a farmers' annual production). Being part of a CSA or farmers' market can help reconnect consumers directly to the food cycle, obtaining fresh food straight from a farmer. And farmers' markets help increase community interactions: patrons shopping at these markets typically have 10 times more social interactions than those shopping at grocery stores.24

To cultivate the local food movement, many community groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are creating community gardens and small farms. Some are driven by food security concerns, others environmental worries, and still others simply by the facts that local, organic produce usually tastes better and is healthier than food produced in far-off farms or greenhouses and that local gardens can strengthen community ties and give people an opportunity to exercise and reconnect with nature.

In Chicago and Milwaukee, Growing Power is working to create local sustainable food systems through a combination of training local farmers, supporting farmers' markets, setting up local food processing and distribution facilities, and converting the many underused spaces in these two cities—like the 60,000 vacant lots in Chicago—into gardens and farms. One impressive innovation is that the organization is working directly with the Chicago city government, being paid by the city to set up community gardens and urban farms in public parks. This not only sustains the projects but redirects money that would have gone to for-profit landscape businesses toward providing food and job training to underserviced residents. In 2006, one of these projects—a 1,900-square-meter urban farm in Grant Park—trained 25 young people in farming and produced over $15,000 worth of food that was donated to food pantries and soup kitchens.25

To expand this beyond certain cities or regions, a national grassroots network called Rooted in Community (RIC) is working to help young people set up community garden, local farms, and other local food projects. Since 1998, at least 75 grassroots groups have been engaged with the network, and RIC has strengthened the skills of hundreds of community leaders through national trainings.26 But can gardens and local farms actually supply more than a small fraction of a community's food? Cuba—after reducing annual oil imports from 13 million to 6 million tons in one year because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. embargo—proved that the answer to this question is yes. At that time, Cuba had the most industrialized agricultural system in all of Latin America and even used more than twice as much fertilizer per hectare as U.S. farmers did. But the Soviet collapse and subsequent lack of oil, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other industrial agricultural inputs forced Cuba to localize agricultural production rapidly. Today, after considerable innovation, the country now delivers much of its agricultural produce from small urban farms and community gardens. In Havana alone, there are more than 26,000 food gardens, spreading across 2,400 hectares of land and producing 25,000 tons of food.27

Americans typically have ample space to devote to food gardens. During World War

Engaging Communities for a Sustainable World

II, Americans set up 20 million home and community gardens—Victory Gardens—that provided 40 percent of civilians' fresh vegetables, allowing farms to concentrate on providing for the troops. Today, in contrast, Americans maintain 10 million hectares of lawns, often with assistance from toxic pesticides and fertilizers. These lawns could readily be replaced with gardens, producing a new source of local food and reducing toxic chemical usage. The key to this transition will ideally stem from increased support by community groups, NGOs, and government agencies. Realistically, however, a major disruption in food production, like the one Cuba experienced, will also trigger a return to local farming. Future ecological disruptions may also speed the transition to a new model. (See Box 11-2.)28

Beyond food production, efforts to localize the economy are taking some novel forms. NGOs are taking a lead in reducing dependence on the globalized economy. One— The Relocalization Network—is helping to

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