The world was once a scattering of small communities that through hunting and gathering, and later farming, were often self-sufficient.
As systems of trade were built, dependent largely on the sea, goods and services had value and started to leave or be exported from these community hubs.
In many cases, this brought an infusion of revenue. It may have also priced goods greater than the previous local market price and pushed some food prices out of the hands of those who needed it. No longer able to afford local food, populations drifted to major centres where higher wages brought the ability to provide.
Eventually food itself became centralized, and access was dependent on transportation and storage systems, retail hubs and proximity to major populations. For food to take the journey, new kinds of food with specific traits, such as the banana that does not bruise, were imperative. Science and technology improved production, transportation and shelf life.
This has been termed as progress.
I found it fascinating that when I researched global food systems in my graduate program and in following conversations, many of our leaders of this day are asking this: How do we still access large amounts of food, keep our stakeholders (the investors or board) happy, and build local communities? How indeed! This is the question.
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The centralization of trade and the expansion of trade routes were supposed to produce a robust global economy. Globalization has not yielded the progress that was expected. The conflict between globalization and nationalism is growing. Leaders I spoke to reminded me that we lack a modernized and fully functional global economy. They questioned if we should now grow and support national or regional systems as communities, and in particular, rural communities that are struggling with services and resources, particularly human capital.
It is the access to food that is critical.
When people in communities cannot access the food they grow because that food is exported or because of cost or broken infrastructure, then globalization has failed to sustain rural communities.
In addressing the leadership question we need to ask: Do we need more food?
Technically we do not need more food and produce more than enough today to feed every person on Earth. We do, however, need to improve the access to a lot of food for all. Hunger, as global logistics expert Esther Ndichu reminds us, is a logistics issue.
Secondly: Do global companies need to build local communities?
No. It is up to communities to build themselves. What is needed is the ability to listen and to see the culture of that community and respect it. Local knowledge runs deep and companies must stop going in as ‘experts’ and walk beside local communities in their investment strategies, always asking permission rather than ‘selling’ a concept.
Communities do, however, need to be recognized as economic hubs, and nurturing them through enhanced food and infrastructure policy is important. Food policy includes those areas of trade such as product identification, so producers or the value-add industry can sell or find exclusive food ingredients.
And finally: How do global company executives keep the investors happy?
That is the difficult piece in this puzzle. Just as a culture of a community is important in our expectations within it, so is the culture of a company. With so many layers between the farmer and the finished product, there is often a true disconnect.
Perhaps a compatibility can be driven from the ground up but only when quality and relevant price are in play for the producer. As corporate worlds may hide behind the sustainable curtain there are the ethical questions concerning profit. The current and easy access to food ingredients that are priced on the average would require a different business model and likely threaten the bottom line.
I propose that bottom line is threatened now.
It’s a tired farming world out there as producers from all over the globe have talked to me about the lack of communication from the scientific and technological industries, and the urgency for more adaptation. They lamented broken agricultural and food policy, information drift and marketing fatigue. New or changed policy to support rural growth, greenhouses, gardens, food processing, composting, greenhouse gas reduction, transportation, and land and water stewardship are needed, they said. Foreign investment does not always benefit the recipient country, they noted.
It has been grossly unfair to put the future of the world on today’s farmers by asking them to produce more. Instead, food policy should focus on the establishment of strong communities centred around identifiable, traceable food production and processing for local, domestic and export markets.
Communities know who they are and what they need. They have a history and a culture that should be explored, understood and respected when other stakeholders move into that space. To be local or global should be a choice and whatever that choice is must be supported by creative and committed food and infrastructure policy.