Bizarre Food Systems : Going the Distance

 In Food Systems
“The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed.”

-(Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin)

Exotic food sourcing can be traced back to the post-classical era of the Han dynasty and the Western Roman Empire with expansive geographical reach showcasing the power and prosperity of the global elite.  However, the true globalization of food is a phenomenon which mainly developed in the late 19th and  20th century, following industrialization and rapid developments in new technology.  The 1960’s brought additional movements which increased intensive farming practices of scale, simplifying landscapes and vastly narrowing plant diversity across the globe.

Today extensive variety and unique cultural exploration from global supply chains are perks that many of us presently enjoy, however, with the average bite of food traveling 1500 miles to reach our plate, the question arises, “have we gone too far?”  (No pun intended)

Did you know?

  • Of total cropland in the U.S., corn, soy, and wheat cover 64.7% of harvested cropland acres; corn and soy alone cover 56.6% (USDA NASS, 2019a)
  • Over forty percent of U.S. corn crop is for ethanol production. (
  • Thirty-three percent of croplands are used for livestock feed production. (
  • More than thirty percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables Americans consume come from other countries, predominantly Mexico and Canada.(

Over-Arching Impacts

 Carbon Emissions. The long-distance travel of food is responsible for producing large quantities of carbon emissions. While certain forms of transport have a higher impact than others, an increase in demand often calls for faster and more polluting ways of shipping. Regional food systems shorten supply chains allowing for less long-distance travel.

Waste. An estimated 133 billion pounds of food are wasted in the U.S. each year and 40 percent of food grown in the U.S. is never eaten.  Food waste is about more than just food, it’s about resources. High amounts of energy and water are used for production. Additionally, organic waste management systems which rely on landfills for disposal pose additional threats, releasing methane and CO2 and having an additional impact on climate change.

Health.  To prepare for long distance travel, produce is often picked unripe then left to ripen after transport.  Preservatives and irradiation are sometimes responsible for keeping food stable for transport and providing a longer shelf life.  Poor soil health due to decades of monocrop production has also led to a depletion of vitamins and minerals in food.  Regenerative farming techniques are often promoted through sourcing standards for localized farmers markets adding to the benefits of local food systems.

Food Security.  The current food system operates on very small margins, typically relying on a three-day turnaround. Interruptions in the chain of supply or demand can cause a major breakdown within the system, recently highlighted in 2020 during the initial onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because food security is really a matter of national security, better preparation for unforeseen challenges is paramount.  Shortened supply chains have proven to be vital in the event of a crisis.

Food Access.  Consumer choices are largely impacted by affordability and accessibility. Food insecure households in some cases may not have access to affordable healthy food.  Establishing food markets in food desserts can help small farmers financially while increasing food access for local residents.

The good news: In the last few decades access to fresh local food in the U.S. has experienced huge growth rates.

  • regional food hubs have grown by 288 percent,
  • farmers markets have grown 180 percent
  • farm to school programs that use local foods has grown 430 percent

A change in the way our food system operates is one of the most impactful ways to address issues surrounding climate change.  A circular approach to food takes inspiration from natural systems, lessening waste and regenerating the living systems that surround us. This type of cycle provides value for both humans and the environment, lessening impact and building a system fit to sustain.




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