Published by Island Press, 2021
Ken Meter is a US food systems analyst who has worked with community food networks across the US. The book starts on a positive note, listing the foods – from grass-fed beef to grains, cheese and vegetables - that he can now purchase from nearby farms food choices that weren’t available 50 years ago. He goes on to describe eight projects in different US states that he has worked with, where people are trying to build community food systems. Some projects developed from organisations that were providing food to low income groups: rather than simply giving out food they moved into creating businesses to provide food and jobs and in the case of Hawaii reconnecting people with indigenous food cultures that had been destroyed by plantation agriculture. Others started with getting farmers together to find ways they could produce food more sustainably, to sell to their local communities rather than distant markets, and went on to set up local businesses processing that food. All involve people collaborating and building relationships.
Meter prefers the term community food systems, or webs, to the term local food. What is local, it too often turns out, can be defined so broadly by commercial food businesses as to make it meaningless. Meter tells a story of an Indiana farmer who found out that the supermarket to which he was trying to sell his tomatoes defined ‘local’ as anything they could truck within 24 hours or less. This would cover two-thirds of the US. Whether something is local, say Meter, is simply a matter of how far it has travelled and a focus on this obscures more important questions: “What type of food system brought food to us? Who wins through this prevailing system? What food system do we deserve? How do we build it?” (p.229) Meter says we need to localize our food supplies to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and to obtain the freshest food possible, but he says he has “come to realize that reducing the miles food travels is more of an outcome of making better choices, rather than the purpose of food work.” (p.229, emphasis in original).
In his introduction Meter sets out what he thinks a food system should accomplish: health, wealth, social connection and capacity (‘of community members to make smart choices and take effective action on their own behalf’). Healthy food – food that is nutritious and free from pathogenic microbes and toxic chemicals – is perhaps an obvious requirement but Meter points out that food systems should also provide healthy work.
“…. Raising food should also involve physical labor that makes us stronger. A successful food system cannot be built on the backs of farmers or farmworkers who contract cancer from exposure to chemicals, or who must shoulder repetitive, boring tasks that deplete the soul.” (p9.)
By wealth, Meter means wealth in communities, particularly farm communities, whose members trade with each other and those nearby; not wealth of distant corporations. The failings of the current system in this regard are set out in Chapter 2 of the book. This contains a series of graphs which show how, despite huge increases in productivity, real net income from farming activities for US farms was lower in 2018 than it was in 1932, during the Great Depression. Production costs have risen faster than cash receipts from selling crops and livestock as farming has gone from more or less self-sufficient to being dependent on inputs from outside of farming communities. Meter looks at the returns per acre between 1996 and 2017 from growing the four major cash crops grown in the US: corn (meaning maize in UK terminology), soybean, wheat and rice, taking into account the full costs, including costs of land and machinery. Returns for all these crops were very variable from one year to the next, but cumulatively there was a loss for corn and wheat, a small gain for rice and a more substantial one for soybean ($544 per acre). There have been some periods of relative prosperity for farming over the past 100 years: the period before and after World War I; during and immediately after World War II (until European agriculture recovered); the OPEC crisis in 1973-4 when the US sold grain to the USSR, and the financial crash of 2008-11 when speculators bid up grain prices. During these brief periods farmers were encouraged to borrow to increase production. Meter discusses how in the earlier part of the twentieth century that borrowing was most often from other people in their community, so interest payments stayed within that community, but from the 1960s farmers increasingly took on debt from commercial lending institutions, leading to interest payments on that debt leaving the rural economy. These payments, and all the payments for inputs into agriculture that come from outside of the rural economy (from agrochemicals to migrant labourers who send their money home) mean, argues Meter, that since 1910 at least $4 trillion has been extracted from the US farm sector. This is more than the current value of US farm assets, of $3 trillion.
The descriptions of projects that are trying to rebuild local food systems include accounts of the barriers faced by those projects. Chief among them, it seems, is farmers’ lack of market power. Meter devotes a whole chapter to discussing attempts to overcome this: through farmers selling directly to consumers, or through working together to build relationships with grocery chains. Too often, the latter develops a relationship with a farmer, encouraging them to invest and expand, and then ask them to lower their price. Meter discusses a group of organic growers in Iowa to whom this happened and who, because they had done the work on building loyalty from local customers, challenged the store to display their products at the original price next to the cheaper alternative, imported from a different state. Fortunately, the store’s customers kept buying the Iowa produce. That was a short term win, but in the longer term the pressure on local stores from the central management of the grocery chain won out: they preferred to go for the cheapest available product rather than supporting local farms. Meter concludes that, whilst much can be done to build collaboration and trust between farmers, growers, processors and buyers, there is a need for significant reform of public policy and infrastructure to give food producers more options and thus market power. The problems come when “bean counters who have been duly trained to focus solely on the profitability of a single firm, rather than prioritising the economic health of their community” (p.260) make decisions which mean that they withdraw from local food networks and instead buy the cheapest inputs they can get and sell wherever they can. He thinks that the New Deal policies that “combined supply management and fair pricing with favorable access to capital” were the best farm policies the US has so far come up with, but the conditions required for them to be effective no longer exist today (p.222). However, he does not really set out what policies could work today to build and sustain community food webs.
Meter is clearly used to writing reports, not journalism, and this is reflected in the writing style: it is clear and functional, with good summaries at the start of each chapter, but not eloquent. As a UK-reader I probably did not understand all the case studies as well as someone more familiar with the way things work in the US, but nonetheless I thought it an interesting read. The US may be further along the trajectory of industrialised farming but many of the basic features of the food system, particularly the lack of market power held by farmers, are also features of the food system in Europe, and probably wherever the global food system spreads its tentacles.