I recently visited the town of Bendigo for the first time, a beautiful heritage town in central Victoria, Australia. It was one of the first places gold was discovered in the state, sometime in the 1850s, and much of the town’s original business and residential districts still stand, in all their gold rush glory.
The region is also the centre of a thriving local food scene. Just over the hill, the village of Harcourt is known for cool climate apples and organic and heritage cider. The land around Heathcote and Nagambie has produced some memorable shiraz wines (and an extraordinary racehorse), and the granite rocks and ancient soils support a number of organic and ‘traditional’ farms, producing great food like free range old-breed pork, biodynamic fruit and holy goat cheese.
Bendigo itself is sort of a mini-Melbourne, which is only a couple of hours drive further south. To tempt the hoards of urban weekenders, many of the restaurants in Bendigo’s CBD have proudly embraced the ‘locavore’ label, filling their menus and wine lists with sensational locally grown and made produce.
Local food production was once just a necessity and it still supports many farming communities around the world, without much fanfare. Now, it is increasingly being used as a marketing strategy to entice visitors to a region through “culinary tourism”. The drawcard of these local food scenes is their perceived virtues – sustainable, ethical and healthy, the antithesis to globalised food monopolies and industrial farming. The benefits from local food scenes can work both ways – small, family-owned farms can increase their customer base and economic opportunities while reducing their environmental footprint, and customers can learn more about nutrition, food production and agroecology in the process.
Sometimes this aura of ecological ethicality can be a myth. Some producers or businesses included in regionally-based food promotions may certainly be local in their physical form, but may have global foundations through management, finance, labour, imports or exports. And local doesn’t always mean healthy or environmentally-friendly. A local fruit grower may have a long family history of growing fruit in the district, but he might drench his orchard in chemicals that kill bees and other insects, contaminate the local environment and affect his neighbour’s health.
Beyond these shades of grey, establishing and interacting with local food networks are essential to our future, and these networks need to be created and supported mindfully and ecologically, not hedonistically. They support the local community by encouraging social and economic interaction at local scales, rather than global ones; they enhance awareness of health, nutrition, environment and ethics; they encourage regional heritage and identity; and they keep traditional skills and knowledge alive. And local, family-based food scenes are one of the best ways that regional communities can survive the ‘global food security’ drama.
Most importantly, local food production scenes can be better for the environment. In most cases, local food networks are based in “multifunctional rural landscapes”, which are made up of small-scale, family-owned farms producing different crops and livestock – the opposite of broadacre, industrial monocultures that make up the backbone of the standardised ‘food product’ industry. Often, these smaller, family-owned farms are managed with traditional farming practices that can minimise risks through stable yields, dietary diversity, limited resource use and enhanced biodiversity – good for the farmer, good for the environment. If this kind of agriculture was the norm, rather than a tourist attraction, imagine what a different world we would live in?
Local food also supports the conservation of food diversity in our increasingly homogeneous world. A recent study shows how national food supplies have homogenised globally, meaning that countries are becoming increasingly similar, and therefore interdependent, in their food supplies, crop genetic resources and nutritional priorities. In a nutshell, everyone eats food/food products made up of a select few dominant crops: soybeans, palm oil, wheat, sunflower, canola, rice and sugar…which won’t at all surprise you if you have read any of Michael Pollan’s books.
So how can local food scenes counteract this? Small, diversified farms often cultivate boutique, traditional or ‘heritage’ crop and livestock varieties to maintain a competitive edge, thus conserving species and genetic diversity. The so-called artisanal (i.e. how it was done for centuries) food makers are not only keeping manual production skills and traditional knowledge alive in an increasingly industrialised, technological world, but they can also keep endangered food species alive.
France is rapidly losing traditional cheese varieties because people have lost the art of making them…because demand for them has dropped as overzealous health regulations, industrial dairies, supermarkets and pizza have taken over. In North America, it’s a similar story. A recent lawsuit against an unlicensed farmer selling unpasteurised milk to local customers from his farm raised divisive voices – overregulation stops the farmer from doing what he does and curbs local food production, but disease risks or outbreaks from unlicensed food producers who cut corners can have even more devastating impacts on local food scenes.
Local food scenes are also at risk in less affluent countries where traditional farming and food production has been the majority way of life for centuries. Today’s youth want to be tech heroes, bankers and beauty queens, not farmers and food vendors. When young people from farming and local food production communities choose the glamour of city life over the family profession, food diversity and security across the whole world suffers.
But it’s not just farmers and producers who create and support local food networks…
© Manu Saunders 2014