Relocalize the food system to support democracy!

Primary_neg_4colI wrote in an earlier blog “the global food system will always favor large, financially efficient businesses which exploit people, undermine democracy, erode community, and degrade natural resources in order to maximize profits.”  I have argued that for agriculture to be sustainable, we must relocalize our food production and distribution systems.  This resulted in lots of discussion, not all in agreement.


Several of the critics of my “strong relocalization” position focused on the efficiency and effectiveness of non-local food production and distribution systems from an economic and environmental perspective.  And I generally agreed with the criticism.  But sustainability must also include a strong commitment to social justice, and relocalization can support this critical goal by strengthening community and fostering democracy.

My thinking has been influenced by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, who wrote in Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy “the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us.”  Sandel boldly states that today “the public philosophy by which we live cannot secure the liberty it promises, because it cannot inspire the sense of community and civic engagement that liberty requires.”

life-is-goodThe loss of community which undermines democracy is the product of a worldview built on an individualistic understanding of the good life.   This understanding was born during a period of industrialization, fueled by seemingly inexhaustible petroleum supplies, and guided by a political theory that assumed continued economic growth is a moral imperative.

I”m not suggesting that EVERYTHING needs to be grown locally (bananas are difficult to grow in New England)  but rather that we need to move in the direction of relocalization.  And of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the efficiency of regional, national and even global businesses if they are not exploitative. Rather than maximizing profits for the financial benefit of stockholders, even multi-nationals could optimize profits for a network of locally owned and managed small businesses.  This would provide the efficiency and effectiveness of a large organization while supporting a local economy and build community.

So, what’s the problem?

Rapid industrialization in the early 1900’s along with the railroads and national telegraph system was expected to connect the nation more closely than ever before.   However the connectivity created by industrialization and communication was based more on financial dependency than on a shared vision of a common national good.  Interconnectedness in corporations of ever-increasing size and power, is not the same as a sense of community which in fact, diminished rapidly during the first half of the 20th century.

sandelThe progressives of the era were mixed on their response to rapid growth of business and subsequent loss of community.  Sandel wrote: “some sought to preserve self-government by decentralizing economic power and thus bringing it under democratic control. Others considered economic concentration irreversible and sought to control it by enlarging the capacity of national democratic institutions. Theodore Roosevelt sought to regulate big business, increase the power of the national government, and to build a shared vision through his new nationalism.”

Herbert Croly in The Promise of American Life stated that America needed a stronger central government so that people would feel more a part of a national community.  This political theory however, did not promote citizenship or democratic ideals but rather a utilitarian view of continued economic growth as the dominant shared American value.  Economists and political leaders believed that the primary goal for America was to promote a rapidly rising total output of goods and services and full employment.  While this goal is important to the economy, it was not sufficient in itself to prevent the demise of community and the decay of democracy.

Where do we go from here?

It is surely difficult to imagine a return to a strong civic culture at a national level. Sandel wrote; “from Aristotle’s polis to Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, the civic conception of freedom found its home in small and bounded places, largely self-sufficient, inhabited by people whose conditions of life afforded the leisure, learning, and commonality to deliberate well about public concerns.” A national community is just too big to provide a sense of meaning and purpose that lasts.  We need to connect to something that feels more like a hometown.

People frustrated with national government need opportunities to participate in local institutions that allow more civic engagement in order to feel a sense of agency and control of their own lives.  Local government, colleges and community organizations can be instrumental in both building a local food system as well as providing individuals with a sense of meaning and purpose.  However according to Sandel, current efforts to relocalize the economy face the same “… predicament American politics faced in the early decades of the twentieth century. Then as now, new forms of commerce and communication spilled across familiar boundaries and created networks of interdependence among people in distant places. But the new interdependence did not carry with it a new sense of community.”

What railroads, telegraph wires and national markets were to a former time, satellite hookups, cyberspace, and global markets are to ours – instruments that link people without making them neighbors.  While we need local connections, communities cannot be strong in isolation and small businesses cannot survive without understanding global market forces.  We need a global network of local food and farms.

Relocalization must be global!

I’ve written previously about a proposal to create the Food Commons, a national network of integrated local food production, processing and distribution subsystems.  When we connect this idea with the global food movement called Food Sovereignty, we might begin to imagine a global Food Commons network with governance dispersed throughout rather than centralized in a corporate headquarters.  Sandel, writing about political governance, seems to support this idea, which I think can be applied to business as well.  He writes that only a management system; “…that disperses sovereignty both upward and downward can combine the power required to rival global market forces with the differentiation required of a public life that hopes to inspire the allegiance of its citizens.”

The purpose of the corporation is to generate profit for investors at all legal (and sometimes illegal) cost.  When economic power is concentrated in a few multi-national corporations, it not only erodes the other two sustainability objectives (environmental integrity and social justice) but creates a political situation that undermines democracy.

A network of locally-owned food businesses managed collectively would support vibrant communities, enhance democracy, and provide engaged customers with high quality food grown locally as well as from a distance.  I believe a global network of collectively managed and locally-owned food businesses has the best chance of being sustainable.

To move toward sustainability however, we must reverse the direction of industrialization (centralization, specialization and globalization).  We can do this by getting involved in local organizations and government, supporting local businesses, and encouraging public investment in community priorities.

For agriculture to be sustainable and democratic, we must relocalize – globally!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.

7 thoughts on “Relocalize the food system to support democracy!”

  1. You mentioned that the criticism you got was about the efficiency and effectiveness of the global industrial system. One must stop and ask efficient and effective for what and who. We must peel back our blinders and see that while on the surface large-scale systems seem efficient and effective, they have externalized enormous costs to the detriment of all. Factor in these costs and I would bet that the efficiency and effectiveness evaporate.

    As far as I'm concerned, your blog is right on.

    Very soon we will be issuing the 2.0 version of the original Food Commons concept paper. It's called The Food Commons: A New Economy and Whole Systems Approach for Regional Food. Hopefully, we will put forward strong rationale and strategies for an alternative food system that supports all that you write about, John.

    thanks, Larry Yee

  2. What are the implications for this model in terms of individual mental health, jeffersonian or participant democracy, and community economic development? Vast indeed, I would posit.
    Each above individual ramification could form it’s own, singular topic of discussion. Is this a forum for that? I’ll post and see where it goes (literally – on a web page /and/ as others can comment, if that’s how this operates – it does say “discuss” above).

  3. Great post John. You outline some key themes I've been observing in the growing local food movement. I see the phenomenal rise of interest in this and related areas (including the fights against corporate personhood, and hydrofracking) as part of a larger desire for community emancipation.

    As we follow those desires, a very clear line is beginning to emerge in terms of paradigms. I think you correctly identify that line as between continued over reliance/dependence on large scale solutions and corporations vs. greater community and regional autonomy. This dependence has made our communities weak in terms of problem solving ability, something we are increasingly in need of.

    If we are to become more than resource bases and consumers for a corporate driven global economy, communities will need to assert and sometimes defend the right to self-organize and solve problems in ways that are mutually beneficial to themselves and their citizens. Wendell Berry calls this "solving for pattern" (

    The work many of us are doing to support healthy, sustainable, equitable and more localized food systems is one front in this maturation process, but I see many other systems based approaches coming into focus soon as well, including integrated regional fiber, transportation, shelter and energy systems.

    For those who argue that the global economy is more efficient, I would say that there are a number of sophisticated tools that can be employed at the local and regional level which would dramatically improve the efficiency, resilience and adaptivity of localized economies, including some currently being employed by large corporations. We just need to dig in and start building infrastructure that is appropriate to a vision of interdependence, not dependence.

    Ultimately we need different metrics though, that measure wealth in a more mulit-dimensional way. I suggest reading Scott Russell Sanders recent article in Orion (,"Breaking the Spell of Money -To fix the economy, we first have to change our definition of wealth".


  4. Before we go too far in the concept of a Local Food System we need to first answer some fundamental questions that have now gone unanswered for hundreds of years. The first being what is food and who and/or what grows it. I think that much of what we consume is non-food feeds, not really food. Man doesn't produce food nature does. This is why many of us are now thinking permacultures as food producers. Most of our feeds are produced in dirt not soil, dead waters not from water life
    Sustainable agriculture will exist when we again allow nature to grow our food and with this understanding we will find our role and place as cooperative stewards both locally and globally.

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