Toward an age of agro-communities: the third food revolution
As energy is experiencing a deep mutation from centralized production and distribution to decentralized small scale production and smart distribution networks, agriculture is following the same path: after a huge movement of concentration and intensification, a new revolution is coming up. Still silent for now, it grows slowly, in people’s gardens and food hubs driven by small scale communities. People organize themselves together to build local distribution networks, and new technologies enable now those local initiatives to scale: they can easily connect with one another and exchange goods and services in a decentralized though efficient way, leading to the emergence of a new, and more sustainable, food system.
Symptoms and root causes of a sick food system
A third of all food produced is wasted. 842 million people are starving. We have lost 75% of our biodiversity. In the US there are 8 times more antibiotics sold for industrial farming than to hospitals. Cancers and other health issues are booming. There are less and less nutrients in food. Climate change threatens the future of our planet. There are 400 dead zones in the ocean, with no marine life left. Food packagings contribute to that 7th continent made of waste, in the middle of the ocean. 370 000 farmers commit suicide every year using pesticides. … So one must ask the question: isn’t the food system broken?
We can mention two major root causes for all those negative externalities:
- Physical and psychological distanciation: with urbanisation, globalization, and the centralization of the food distribution system, there are today a lot of middlemen between us and our food. Physical distanciation has brought mental distanciation. If you go to a supermarket, you don’t know who has produced the food, how it has been made, you don’t realize all the effort and energy that are necessary to produce it. We don’t value our food so much, because we have lost awareness about how it’s grown. So we throw it away very easily. On average in Europe, most of the food wastes comes from the households (42%).
- Centralization, concentration and integration: All along the food system, there has been during the past decades a movement of mergers and acquisitions, horizontal as well as vertical integration, that has concentrated the power in the hand of very few big corporations. Half of the food consumed on the planet is produced by 15% of the farms, industrial intensive farms. The number of farmers is dramatically decreasing, -30% in Norway over the last 10 years, -50% in France over the last 20 years, the farms becoming bigger and bigger through acquisitions. The Berne declaration, a Swiss NGO, has published a tremendous report, Agropoly, showing how the global food system is in the hands of a few big corporations, and how this high concentration and integration produces those negative externalities. To give just one example, the same companies make the seed and the pesticides (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, DuPont), so they make sure the seeds need pesticides, like GMOs for example. The seeds don’t reproduce reliably, and the firms own intellectual property right on them, so farmers are forced to buy seeds each year, they can’t save nor exchange them. This situation has not only consequences on health and environment, but also on the survival of the farmers, who find themselves totally dependant of those big corporations. Regarding distribution, the situation is not better: in 2011 in the EU, the largest five retailers in every country had a combined market share of more than 60% in 13 member states, with market concentration exceeding sometimes 80%. In most countries, however, market concentration among two or three major retailers is the norm: 2 supermarket chains control over 70% of the market in Australia in 2013. 3 groups hold 55.5% of the market in Canada in 2011. Their huge power as buyers gives those big retailers the ability to set the terms under which the food supply chain operates.
How did we get there and where could we go?
Around the neolithic period, the first food revolution marks the shift from a pre-agricultural model, where people from the paleolithic age were hunters-gatherers, to agriculture, sedentarization and self-production of food, mostly for personal consumption. Brought by the industrial revolution in the 18th century, the second food revolution drives us to the agro-industrial model, predominant today, where the system is controlled by profit-oriented big companies, and which induces all those negative externalities on health and environment described above. Now people are becoming aware of the insanity of this agro-industrial model and start to organize themselves on a peer-to-peer mode. A new shift is emerging, toward an age of agro-communities, based on small scale local food production and multiple distribution hubs and nodes, connected to one another.
Relocalization of production and smart distribution networks
With the third industrial revolution theory, Jeremy Rifkin foresees a relocalization of production, every building becoming a small production facility. Energy still needs to be distributed in the most efficient way from where it’s produced to where it’s needed, so you need efficient networks and “smart grids”.
Analogically, food production and distribution starts to follow the path of decentralization and relocalization: people grow food in their gardens, and organize themselves independently to buy food to local producers, creating a diversity of hubs and nodes. They want to limit the carbon impact of food transportation, as well as support their local economy and the resilience of their community. Even if over the past decade, the trend has been to concentration and centralization, we see now some signals moving in the direction of relocalization and decentralization: community supported agriculture, buying clubs, cooperatives, urban farming, family gardens… producers and consumers are taking back control over their food supply, they are taking back their food sovereignty.
The first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives started in the 1960s, in Japan, and Europe, and then spread to the US in the 80s. Since then it kept propagating to the rest of the world. The principle is that a group of individuals organize together and sign a contract with a farmer, buying the whole production in advance, the farmer usually committing on certain quality requirements (organic, etc.). In 2013, there were approximately 5,267 Community supported agriculture (CSA) farms and 413,947 CSA consumers in Europe, and in the world, 13,779 CSA farms and slightly over one millions supporting consumers in the world (source: Urgenci). "Local food is rapidly growing from a niche market to an integrated system recognized for its economic boost to communities across the country," says US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tells. Community supported agriculture projects reconnect consumers and producers, and support sustainable farming practices: organic farming, agroecology, permaculture, biodynamic farming.
People also want to grow more food themselves, as exemplified by the emergence of new platforms like Growstuff, or Prete ton jardin. Queues are long to get a spot in community gardens (7 years on average in Oslo for example). Initiatives like Incredible edible are spreading all over the world, proposing to use public spaces to grow food in the city.
Community-based initiatives have until recently been pretty isolated and driven by groups of activists who were ready to sacrifice convenience for their values. To democratize those new “prosumption” patterns, and enable those hubs and nodes to scale, we need to make P2P exchanges of food easier, we need to make it convenient for people both to manage hubs, and buy through hubs. We need to build “smart grids” to enable people to grow, sell, move, buy food easily in a decentralized mode.
New technologies for a new agricultural age
Online platforms and infrastructures are an enabler for the circulation of food in a community-based food system.
Some platforms have a specific focus on a certain type of alternative distribution models. For example,The Food Assembly offers an online marketplace, as well as marketing support, to local entrepreneurs who want to distribute in their neighborhood local products directly from the producers. They just raised 9 million$. Farmdrop in UK is a direct sales platform that plays the role of a distributor, through pick-up or home delivery services. They bring back transparency about where the products come from, and open a new form of distribution channels to producers, taking in charge the logistic aspect so that people receive their products in a convenient way. They raised 750 000 £ in 2014 and plan to raise 3 million £ this year. Those platforms are alternative distribution channels that enable people to buy directly to local producers in a convenient and easy way. They both are license-based and propose a prescriptive model to the producers and consumers (i.e. you can’t choose whatever business model for your buying group on The Food Assembly platform, it must follow their model).
On the contrary, Open Food Network, the project to which I have chosen to contribute, is an open-source web-infrastructure that enables any actor, people, community, to create their hub and operate it the way they want, so that it fits their local context. More than a platform, Open Food Network is a web-based infrastructure that cultivates “eco-diversity”. It allows local food startups, non-profit buying groups, cooperatives, etc. to use it for their operation, but also to cooperate with each other when it makes sense, for example, on logistics, while remaining independent. The deployment of the platform is supported by local democratically governed non-profits which build and protect together this particular “common” .
All those web-platforms and infrastructures accelerate the shift toward a new food system, more decentralized, transparent, sustainable, reconnecting producers and consumers, and giving back the farmer its independence and dignity.
We won’t solve the problems generated by the agro-industrial food system by waiting for those who benefit from this system to change. If we want a more sustainable food system that cares for the earth and the beings living on it, we need to take our responsibility and roll up our sleeves. Like any other area of our economy, the food system can be disrupted by a new DIY culture and P2P platforms. It has already started, now it’s up to us to be part of this transition.