Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Going Local

by Helena Norberg-Hodge (February 27 2010)

Today, the planet is on fire with global warming, toxic pollution and species extinction, with fundamentalism, terrorism and fear. The dominant media tell us that WE are to blame: our greed is the cause, and we as individuals must change our consumer habits. However, if we try to deal with these crises individually, we won't get very far. We need to stand back and look at the bigger picture. It then becomes obvious that the driving force behind our crises is a corporate-led globalization. Despite the apparent enormity of making changes to our economic system, isolating this root cause can be very empowering. Rather than confront an overwhelming list of seemingly isolated symptoms, we can begin to discern the disease itself. In so doing it also becomes apparent that joining hands with others is a key to reversing environmental and social breakdown.

The most powerful solutions involve a fundamental change in direction - towards localizing rather than globalising economic activity. In fact, "going local" may be the single most effective thing we can do. Localisation is essentially a process of de-centralisation - shifting economic activity back into the hands of local businesses instead of concentrating it in fewer and fewer mega-corporations. Food is a clear example of the multi-layered benefits of localisation.

Since food is something everyone, everywhere, needs every day, a shift from global food to local food would have a great and immediate impact, socially, economically and environmentally. Local food is, simply, food produced for local and regional consumption. For that reason, 'food miles' are relatively small, which greatly reduces fossil fuel use and pollution. There are other environmental benefits as well. While global markets demand monocultural production - which systematically eliminates all but the cash crop from the land - local markets give farmers an incentive to diversify, which creates many niches on the farm for wild plant and animal species. Moreover, diversified farms cannot accommodate the heavy machinery used in monocultures, thereby eliminating a major cause of soil erosion. Diversification also lends itself better to organic methods, since crops are far less susceptible to pest infestations.

Local food systems have economic benefits, too, since most of the money spent on food goes to the farmer, not corporate middlemen. Small diversified farms can help reinvigorate entire rural economies, since they employ far more people per acre than large monocultures. Wages paid to farm workers benefit local economies and communities far more than money paid for heavy equipment and the fuel to run it: the latter is almost immediately siphoned off to equipment manufacturers and oil companies, while wages paid to workers are spent locally.

Local food is usually far fresher - and therefore more nutritious - than global food. It also needs fewer preservatives or other additives. Farmers can grow varieties that are best suited to local climate and soils, allowing flavour and nutrition to take precedence over transportability, shelf life and the whims of global markets. Animal husbandry can be integrated with crop production, providing healthier, more humane conditions for animals and a non-chemical source of fertility.

Food security worldwide would increase if people depended more on local foods. Instead of being concentrated in a handful of corporations, control over food would be dispersed and decentralised. If developing countries were encouraged to use their labour and their best agricultural land for local needs rather than growing luxury crops for Northern markets, the rate of endemic hunger could be eliminated.

Studies carried out all over the world show that small-scale, diversified farms have a higher total output per unit of land than large-scale monocultures. Global food is also very costly, though most of those costs do not show up in its supermarket price. Instead, a large portion of what we pay for global food comes out of our taxes - to fund research into pesticides and biotechnology, to subsidise the transport, communications and energy infrastructures the system requires, and to pay for the foreign aid that pulls Third World economies into the destructive global system. We pay in other ways for the environmental costs of global food and we will still be paying for generations to come.

When we buy local food, we can actually pay less because we are not paying for excessive transport, wasteful packaging, advertising, and chemical additives - only for fresh, healthy and nutritious food. Most of our food dollar isn't going to bloated corporate agribusinesses, but to nearby farmers and small shopkeepers, enabling them to charge less while still earning more than if they were tied to the global system.

The benefits of localisation are not limited to food, as we can see from the wide range of local initiatives and trends springing up around the world. Increasing numbers of doctors and patients are rejecting the commercialised medical mainstream in favour of more preventative and holistic approaches, often making use of local herbs and traditional methods. Many architects are finding inspiration in vernacular building styles, and are employing more local, natural materials in their work. Millions of farmers are switching to organic practices, and dietary preferences among consumers are shifting away from processed foods with artificial colourings, flavourings, and preservatives, towards fresher foods in their natural state. Community-supported projects like local media outlets - radio, television, art and journals like this one - help reconnect people to each other and learn about their surroundings. Small businesses provide meaningful employment and keep money circulating in the local economy. Spaces for people to gather and socialise help to revitalise community and a sense of belonging. In this age of escalating ecological crises, localisation is a key to reducing waste and pollution and conserving our precious resources.

Yet for these grassroots efforts to succeed, they need to be accompanied by policy changes at the national and international level. It is necessary to pressure governments into what I call a "Breakaway Strategy" forming an international alliance of nations to leave the WTO and formulate policies that would protect the environment and human rights. These policies would move society away from dependence an a few monopolies and promote small scale on a large scale, allowing space for more local economies to flourish and spread. Through localisation we open ourselves up to a world of richness and diversity. We can thus achieve true sustainability and well-being for ourselves, our communities and the planet.


Helena Norberg-Hodge is an analyst of the impact of the global economy on cultures and agriculture worldwide and a pioneer of the localisation movement. She is the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). Her book Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World (1992) has been described as an "inspirational classic" by the London Times and together with a film of the same title, it has been translated into 42 languages. She is also co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home (2002) and From the Ground Up: Rethinking Industrial Agriculture (2001). In 1986, she received the Right Livelihood Award, or the "Alternative Nobel Prize" as recognition for her work in Ladakh.

Bill Totten


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