Posted on November 18, 2009 - by

What Does the Local Sustainable Food Movement Need?

By: Zachary Adam Cohen
Originally posted on Farm to Table

In order to break through and become a mainstream movement, the local sustainable food movement needs several things to happen.

1. We need leadership

There are too many disparate leaders in the movement. Michael Pollan is an obvious choice, but he’s made his decision to use journalism and education as his tools. And he’s made great strides in educating so many of us, raising our level of awareness and giving many of us our mission statements in life. That in itself will assure that Pollan will be remembered and revered for a long time to come.

But Michael Pollan cannot do it on his own. And neither can Joel Salatin.

We need leadership at every level. In every city, rural community we need civic leaders who are local sustainable advocates. We need people on both the inside and outside of local and state governments who see the redemptive value of local food sheds and work hard to reform.

We need educators, writers, entertainers, and advocates working in concert to drive the conversation forward. No progress will be made unless the American public can be educated and instructed on how to make the necessary changes. This is happening now, but we need to redouble our efforts, use every opportunity to work together, and put down petty differences. It shocks me to realize how many divisions exist within the local sustainable food movement. These division are already slowing our efforts. They will continue to do so if we cannot find a way to work together. I am amazed at how the most minor differences prevent passionate, driven people from working together.

We need to get organized, and quickly. We need website communities, we need local organizations talking to one another.

2. We Need the Business Community to Get On Board

The local sustainable food movement needs, very badly, for entrepreneurs to lead the way. America is a country built on capitalist principles, and despite the shakiness that form of capitalism currently projects, no serious change happens in America without the business community either supporting or leading.

The local sustainable food movement can also benefit from the inclusion and assistance of America’s vast entrepreneurial and finance networks. There is plenty of money to be made in the local sustainable world: healthy profit margins, impressive return-on-investment, and activity in this sphere has the added benefit of healing the land, nourishing our citizens and strengthening our communities. That is a compelling reason to invest.

Investors need to get out there. They need to meet with the farmers and artisans that will create the opportunities. They need to bring their fantastic ability to identify opportunities into the sustainable food world. They will be amazed at what they see.

But there are quarters within the local sustainable movement that are suspicious of American business. After all, wasn’t it our blind pursuit of profit through industrialized methods that gave us the totally broken food system we have now? The answer is Yes and No. The consciousness level is currently at a place where we understand what works and what doesn’t. We have the history, we have the knowledge. We know what doesn’t work. And it’s time for business to recognize what does work, and support it.

The point remains that the local sustainable food movement remains a niche movement unless the amazing energy and persistence of American investors can be geared towards developing the hundreds, even thousands, of local sustainable food opportunities into successful businesses. This is what the business community can do:

Learn the vocabulary of the local sustainable food movement.

Understand and sympathize with the passion and concerns of the farmers, artisans, chefs and others involved in the production and consumption of good food.

Accept the fact that their return on investment may be lower than they are accustomed to.

This last point is a sticky one. The truth is that there is plenty of money to be made in the local sustainable world, but the manner in which it is going to be made will be quite different than the wealth creation heretofore known in this country. We will need investors who understand that it is better to be a part of a business that grows more slowly but that is sustainable, rather than the quarterly focus on growth to which we are accustomed.

3. Government Needs to Reform or Get Out of The Way

As Dawn Gifford laid out in her essay, 13 Ways to Create a Sustainable Food Tipping Point, massive governmental reform is a necessity. We’ve got to end or scale back agricultural subsidies. Government needs to roll back its “Go big or get out” mentality. And perhaps most of all, government needs to stop impeding small sustainable enterprises. We now know that local and federal government often prevents the emergence of real competition by carving out laws that make it nearly impossible for small new businesses to enter and serve new markets. This has to stop.

What are the other developments need to take place in order to bring the local sustainable food movement into the mainstream? Please join the discussion and leave your comments below!



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  1. Visit My Website

    November 18, 2009


    *Lisa* said:

    After the discussion at the community screening of FRESH we held last week, a group of us decided to keep the conversation going by starting this blog, along w/a FB group:
    It’s amazing to see what a small group of concerned citizens can do when they work together for a cause they truly believe in!

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    November 18, 2009


    Amber @ Native Food and Wine said:

    Great suggestions. I especially agree with point #3 and to add to that – people need to stop blindly trusting our government.

    Question them! Hold them responsible!

    I look at countries like France and am inspired by their inquisitiveness and by how out spoken they are.

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    November 30, 2009


    Eireann said:

    We do have some great leaders/influencers. In addition to Michael Pollen and Joel Salatin, we have Barbara Kingsolver, Raj Patel, Amy Cotler, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, the Organic Consumers Association, movies Food, Inc., and now FRESH! (Yay!).

    But a movement for local food of course also needs local leaders. I am extremely pleased that my local community (Berkshire County, Massachusetts) has an outstanding local food movement, with a grassroots group stepping up for organization and leadership ( In my area, farmers markets and CSAs are going strong, numerous restaurants and colleges are sourcing ingredients locally, and community outreach programs are promoting local eating.

    So point #1 is in great shape in our community. Point #2 is catching on in some ways (as mentioned, restaurants and colleges are onboard, grocery stores a little less so but making some hopeful moves). Point #3 is the stickiest part for us, as national and state legislation continues to be passed favoring industrial farming methods (including our state law prohibiting the sale of raw milk anywhere except on premises, which even excludes farmer’s markets – and, sadly, I just have to be grateful I don’t live in a state where it’s entirely prohibited). This is really where national leadership is needed, in my opinion.

    Consumer influence on regulations and laws is not likely to amount to much, even if a significant portion of the population is onboard – unless we have enough people in the system working on our behalf. Lobbyists are powerful, and legislation is cleverly crafted in favor of industrial practices in the name of “safety” and “accountability” – which are hardly things that your typical politician or lawmaker (or even citizen!) would say no to. It’s these people who need to understand that accountability is built-in when it comes to small, local farms; only industrial practices require such oversight. It’s these people who need to understand that expensive, rigorous safety procedures are only required by a system that removes the farmer from the consumer, that reduces profit margins for farmers to below living standards, that places profit at the forefront rather than community, health, enjoyment.

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    September 14, 2010


    Anonymous said:

    You make a number of good points, however, you have left one out that is very important. The consumer has to be willing to pay more for the same product. I am a chef and am about to do a luncheon for a group that is trying to educate people on local sustainable food. The problem is that they are a state group that pays a state rate. This translates to making lunch for a food cost of $2.00 per person. I can do this with my normal suppliers, but when I use local vendors my costs double