Ensuring our food system feeds all

Vertical farming, seen here at Agricola Moderna in Milan, may be one hyper-local alternative. Source: Agricola Moderna

Amidst the Covid-19 crisis, the global food system has shown its supply chain is vulnerable to shocks. But in times of crisis, how do local farmers, with more compact supply routes, feed us?

While the seven or eight gardening pots on Scarlet Allenspach’s balcony may not yield enough produce to live off of, she always has salad leaves and other produce readily available to enhance any meal. Now more than ever, Allenspach feels reassured that she knows how to grow her own food.

As countries shut down their national borders to limit the spread of Covid-19, the complex global network of farmers, processing plants, shippers and retailers that urban centres across Europe rely on to stock supermarket shelves has been inevitably disrupted. For a small country like Switzerland, where Allenspach resides and runs her own urban growing business that delivers organic seeds and gardening starters-kits, this has been indubitable. “People really realize what actually is available within the country,” she says. “We’re dependent on this system we built around, this whole nutrition system, and how to get food on your plate.”

According to a recent  policy briefing from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Covid-19 pandemic has already strained the global food supply chain. In part because the global food system has evolved into a predominantly industrial process, with a lengthy supply chain that ensures consumers and producers are kept far apart—where a shock at any link can upset the whole system. 

It will take resilience for the food system to endure the shocks from this crisis and future ones. This means ensuring access to nutritious and affordable food for all, even when food production and distribution face unanticipated disruptions. Yet in part by shortening this supply chain and producing food much closer to where it will be consumed, like Allenspach and a large and established network of small-scale producers in already Europe do, this may contribute to building this resilience.

The ‘knock-on’ impacts on the food system

For many, seeing dwindling supplies—that was largely a result of initial stock-buying at the beginning of the pandemic—was anomalous. But that’s also just how supermarkets operate— a just-in-time-readiness model, where food often arrives aptly to meet consumer demands. The ripple effects of this are then noticeable on empty supermarkets shelves.

But the problem isn’t a scarcity of supplies. “Anytime you’re having a shock that has an impact on borders, on trade routes, that’s going to have a knock-on impact onto food systems,” says Honor May Eldridge, who was previously the head of policy for Sustainable Food Trust, an organization based in Bristol working to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food and farming systems. 

As Eldridge describes, as the global food network relies on a globalized transportation system, it’s inevitable that the system will experience some slowdowns, especially when many countries now want to restrict certain exports to prioritize their own food security—either to meet their own domestic demands or at least to allay the political demand for it. Vietnam, for example, began limiting its rice exportations—an effect that will be felt in Europe and elsewhere.

On the local level, the current crisis has forced many restaurants and markets to close, upending many supply routes that local food producers rely on to reach their customers. Food businesses around Europe have had to adjust. But from takeout dining to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes—where consumers subscribe to receive a delivered share of a local farmer’s harvest—many local producers have found ways to adapt to the changing market. 

For Scarlet Allenspach, it’s worked out pretty well. In the past month, while people are home with more time to garden, Allenspach’s seed and gardening kit sales have almost doubled. “This is a very crisis-proof business, I realized,” she says. 

When Allenspach began the business, she had no formal growing instruction herself. And she found that most instructions and guides were geared towards rural growing in fields, not pots in a metropolis. For the small European country where nearly three quarters of the population lives in urban areas, space for urban growing is limited. But in her own research, Allenspach found that most people do have balconies and terraces. So, there is space to grow, but most people just don’t know how. She wanted to share what she’d taught herself with others. Through her online platform and online shop, she aims to get people back into growing their own produce in an approachable and enjoyable way. 

It’s a skill she’s found has been lost over the past couple of generations. And for many, it’s more than simply a hobby. Local and regional small-scale producers in Europe have long been feeding their communities. And they’ve done so in ways that, relative to industrial farming, not only protect the lands they are cultivating, but prioritize food security—ensuring that everyone has access to healthy and affordable food.

One hyper-local alternative

In more recent years, hyper-local urban agriculture—growing food in city centres using a myriad of activities from greenhouses, rooftops, vertical farms to community gardens—has also become more prominent. 

Inside Agricola Moderna, a 1,500 square-meter vertical farm in Melzo, a suburb about 20 kilometers east of Milan, a small team has been experimenting growing leaf vegetables—like lettuce, wasabina, basil and red mustard —in an indoor and temperature-controlled environment. 

While they’ve more recently relocated to Melzo from a lab in central Milan, they’ve been at it since 2018. This past fall, Luca Bigi joined the team as a marketing officer helping to prepare them to enter the marketplace with their produce. By late April or early May, their salad mixes will be in about 20 Carrefour (a large grocer with French origins) locations in and around Milan. “We harvest the product, we deliver to Carrefour and the day after, maximum, it’s in their supermarkets,” Bigi says. 

By growing upwards instead of outwards, vertical farming maximizes space. And it has proven that some products may not necessarily need to travel hundreds of kilometers to reach their consumers. “It’s difficult to get, say, an avocado with a vertical farm, but still, you can have many products using that technology, locally,” Bigi says. They sell at zero kilometers, well, close to—by agricultural standards, selling products in a zero to 100-kilometer radius from where they’ve been grown and harvested is considered “zero kilometers.” Because of this, Agricola Moderna’s transportation emissions are next to nothing. 

According to a United Nations report, globally, agriculture, forestry and other land uses emit about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases emissions. But while food transportation emissions only account for a small portion of this, about six per cent, vertical farming does save in more ways than simply transportation. By growing in a controlled indoor environment, this uses significantly less water than traditional agriculture, saving up to 95 per cent. “You don’t lose water, and also, you recycle it,” Bigi says. They also use less soil—another resource that, using their technology, they can also reuse. 

However, there’s also a challenge in relaying some of vertical farming’s benefits. While the technology has gained traction in the US and other places of Europe, like the Netherlands, it’s yet to be entirely established in Italy. “Italians are very into the idea of quality when the product is grown by a farmer, like the traditional farmer. They think about quality and sustainability when they see that farmer,” Bigi says. “And they could have the impression that, for example, vertical farms are something artificial, because you use artificial lights.”

But at the same time, hyper-local urban farming projects like Agricola Moderna have gained mainstream attention as futuristic alternatives. While they won’t replace traditional farming—at least not anytime soon—they are a viable way of bringing food closer to urban tables. And the team at Agricola Moderna has certainly witnessed this burgeoning interest. “We’ve had many bloggers or even consumers that text us,” Bigi says. “People are curious about it.” 

Local growing for food security

When it comes to local food, consumers’ purchasing choices largely drive the movement. In supporting small-scale and local farmers, Honor May Eldridge first advises that people recognize where their food is coming from. “There is a great need to focus on re-localizing our food systems so that consumers have a greater connection to where their food is coming from,” she says. “And we can create a more resilient food system that is able to adapt to these shocks that will come up.”

Europe’s current agriculture policies have been criticized for benefitting bigger, industrial farms with larger subsidy payments, whilst undermining the work of many small-scale farmers. It becomes tough then for small-scale and local farmers to provide affordable food. As a result, oftentimes local food becomes inaccessible to lower-income communities. 

For locally and sustainably-produced food to feed a larger population and to ensure food security, it will need to be accessible. “It’s looking at the mechanisms that we do have, whether that’s through public procurement, through school meals, through government or through nation-wide subsidy systems that are supporting agroecological farmers to make sure that food is more affordable to the vast majority of the public,” Eldridge says. 

As well, when local government use public procurement to create marketplaces for local producers and when councils decide to keep money within their local economies, Eldridge describes, this will also harbour better support for local food producers.

But local growing may not be the sole solution. A resilient food system will need to be a mosaic of small, medium and large-scale production, Eldridge says. “You need to ensure that you have that diversity of food production in order for it to be resilient, because you find resilience through diversity,” she says. As well, in a globalized world, local growing must also consider that some culturally-appropriate foods may not be able to be grown in the European climate, and will need to be imported.

An opportune moment 

The narrative surrounding the reshaping of food systems is not unfamiliar. But this crisis has triggered a unique moment in time, one that growers and activists alike think is an opportunity to reshape the food system, to favour small-scale producers and more sustainable methods of production.

In one Zoom webinar, farmers and food justice activists gathered from across the globe through computers screens to discuss the pandemic’s effects on food systems. Paula Gioia, who spoke on behalf of the European Coordination Via Campesina, a grassroots organizations that gathers regional farmers and organizations in the defence of farmers’ and field workers’ rights, called on the EU for advanced subsidy payments, so that small-holder food producers will be able to overcome the financial loses of the crisis to guarantee upcoming sowing and harvesting.

In the longer term, this will take policy leaders and the proper support mechanisms that sustainable producers need, Eldridge says. “And that means creating advanced subsidy systems that produce public money for public goods, and helps to ensure that farmers are supported for growing in a way that respects the climate, respects planetary boundaries in its farming in conjunction with nature, opposed to against it.”

For Bigi and the team agronomists at Agricola Moderna, they know that Italy’s economy will be very damaged as society eases into reopening. And they know the value of supporting local producers. 

“We’ll have to rebuild many parts of not only the economy, but of society, and a part of that is agriculture,” Bigi says. “I hope that this moment will make people understand that we have many alternatives.”

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