Local food system planning: the problem, conceptual issues, and policy tools for local government planners.

Author:Buchan, Robert


Local food system planning was identified in the late 1990s as an emerging and important urban planning object. Since then, little attention has been placed on identifying a robust and comprehensive understanding of the roles and tools local government can use in addressing their local food systems. The emerging literature identifies problems with the dominant productionist agricultural system, addresses conceptual issues and often advances normative arguments in support of developing and supporting local food systems, but attention to the practical actions needed to address this issue on the ground have been limited. This paper provides an overview of the reported risks (such as water shortages, climate change, peak oil) associated with our dominant food systems, addresses the lack of attention to the importance of subscales within 'local' and definition of 'local food,' and it identifies the main reasons for considering local food systems as part of addressing the food system risks. Finally, it presents a policy framework along with tools and roles for local government to address local food systems within each of the framework's categories. The principal purpose is to help advance the local food system work of planners in their North American communities.

Keywords: local food systems, local government, urban planning, sustainability, food system policy


La planification locale de systeme alimentaire a ete identifiee dans les annees 1990 comme un aspect important en urbanisme. Depuis, peu d'attention a ete accordee l'elaboration d'une meilleure comprehension concernant cette question, et le role et les outils que les gouvernements locaux peuvent utiliser pour repondre au besoin de leurs systemes alimentaires locaux. La recente litterature concernant ce sujet identifie des problemes avec le systeme de production agricole dominant, aborde les enjeux conceptuelles et, plus souvent qu'autrement avance des arguments normatifs l'appui et le soutien soutenable des systemes alimentaires locaux. Toutefois, l'attention sur les mesures pratiques necessaires pour repondre cette question sur le terrain son limites.

Cet article consiste en un apercu des risques signales de par les etudes associes nos systemes alimentaires dominants (tels que les penuries d'eau, les changements climatiques, choc petrolier). L'etude aborde egalement le manque d'attention l'importance des sous-echelles en ce qui a trait au terme 'local' et a la definition de 'nourriture locale' et, identifie les principales raisons de considerer les systemes alimentaires locaux dans le cadre de lutte contre les risques du systeme alimentaire. Finalement, l'article presente un cadre politique ainsi que des outils et des strategies pour les gouvernements locaux pour developper et renforcer le developpement de systeme alimentaire locale. Le but principal est de contribuer l'avancement des travaux des planificateurs sur les systemes alimentaires locaux dans les communautes en Amerique du Nord.

Mots cles: systeme alimentaire locale, administration communale ou locale, amenagement du territoire, planification urbaine, politique des systemes d'alimentation


The study of Local Food Systems and Production (LFS/P) represents a nascent field of geographic study, an emergent focus in urban planning (Granvik 2012) and it is increasingly a key part of sustainable development and the resilient community discourse (Kaufman 2009; Roseland 2012). The convergence of several related food system risks like climate change (Ostry et al. 2011), peak oil (Roberts 2009), productionist agriculture impacts (Tilman et al. 2002), and global demographic trends (Roberts 2009; Peters 2010; The Government Office for Science 2011) highlight the critical role food systems will play in the future at the local level. Research on how local communities and their local governments can support local food systems is essential for responding to this emerging food challenge, and addressing how we grow food is one of the most significant opportunities to become more sustainable (De La Salle 2011).

Since Pothukuchi and Kaufman (1999) placed LFS/P on the planner's table, there has been limited discussion in the academic literature on the role of planners and local governments (Nichol 2003; Werkerle 2003; Roseland 2012; Thibert 2013); however, these works have not attempted to bring together a robust list of the roles and tools. This paper addresses this void by providing a comprehensive list of roles and tools for local government food system planning and placing these within a broad policy framework that local government planners may consider when addressing their local food system needs. For the latter, however, it is important to understand the problem. We briefly review some the reasons for attention to local food system planning, address the issue of definition for 'local food', identify the importance of addressing local food system sub-scales, and identify arguments in favour of supporting local food systems. With an overview of the problem and a rationale for urban planning strategies to address local food systems and production, it is anticipated that planners will be better positioned to present and advocate for local food system and production initiatives with the tools and roles identified in this paper.

Our approach is sympathetic and supportive of LFS/P, but it asserts the need to retain and improve the sustainability of the global productionist agricultural model. We take a pragmatic view of the problem of sustainably producing enough food globally while respecting the need for local areas to improve food security and their own resiliency. In particular, this paper addresses the importance of LFS/P to the sustainability and resilience of local communities and the role of Local Governments in facilitating LFS/P. The conceptual framework and comprehensive listing of local government food system tools will help local government planners to undertake this important work and develop more detailed policy models within Local Food System Planning.

The Problem

The imperative to sustainably produce food in the global context is presented by the Foresight report which used over 100 peer reviewed articles and around 400 leading experts and stakeholders. It suggests that we have about 20 years to provide 40% more food, 30% more fresh water and 50% more energy to meet anticipated needs (Government Office for Science 2011). It argues that the unsustainable global food system needs to be radically redesigned and that food must advance up the political agenda. While other forecasts may reach different conclusions, there is clear growing demand for food, water and energy and serious challenges in meeting them. A current example regarding the water supply challenge, is the state of drought emergency declared in 2014 in the state of California. As of July 29, 2014 the entire state is in the severe, extreme and exceptional state of drought categories and over 58 percent is in the exceptional (highest) drought category (United States Drought Monitor 2014).

Supporters of LFS/P identify a wide range of issues as reasons for serious attention to LFS/P including: diminishing water supplies, environmental degradation from Productionist Agricultural (PA) practices, climate change impacts, rising energy costs, a growing and increasingly prosperous global population, food shortage risks and, more recently, community sustainability and resiliency concerns (Roberts 2009; Roseland 2012; Astyk and Newton 2009). Astyk and Newton (2009) describe the food crisis of 2008 as a result of the increasing global demand for food, cars, and cows and their impact on the price of staple grains. Clapp and Helleiner attribute the crises in part to the "financialization" of the agricultural industry through speculative investment tools like derivatives in agricultural commodities (2012).

Heavy dependence on productionist agriculture is also a common theme in the literature concerning the emerging interest in LFS/P. With PA's heavy reliance on fossil fuels to run machines and transport produce combined with an estimated 23% of fruits, 17% of vegetables and 68% of fish and shellfish in 2001 being imported into the United States, and with food traveling between 2,170 and 2,400 kilometers to consumers, there are large amounts of embodied energy in food (Frumkin et al. 2007). For example, one pound of lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy, but to grow, wash, package, and transport it from a California field to an East Coast market requires more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy--more than 50 calories of fossil fuel energy in for every calorie of food energy out. For these reasons, PA has been described as eating fossil fuel and its scarcity will result in more expensive and potentially less food (Ibid). The use of synthetic nitrogen has been identified as one of the key reasons why Organic farming produces less GHG emissions and has lower energy requirements (Lynch, MacRae, and Martin 2011).

While local governments have to balance many competing demands for

limited resources, planners must be able to make food system planning a priority area for action. This brief overview of food supply risks presents an argument for local communities and their governments to undertake work to improve local food systems as a key strategy to improve local sustainability and resiliency.

Definition and Scale Issues

It is important to understand what "local" food means and the subscales in which it can be produced. This is especially true for planning practitioners who will need to analyze local food systems and develop policies that are relevant to each scale of the local food system. There are multiple and varied definitions and practical expressions of 'Local Food Production' in the literature. While this is a point of critique for some, Martinez et al (2010) suggest that it may actually be appropriate to have different definitions....

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