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Digesting the Global Food System – SELRS update November 15, 2011

Posted by gfsa in Community Stories.

Nausea, heart burn, indigestion… upset stomach, diarrhea…! No, it’s not just the Pepto Bismol commercial : ). It’s the feeling you get when you try to put together and digest the recipe of our global food system.

We’ve heard it said that, “We eat first with our eyes, then with our mouths”. In the case of the global food system, we could argue that our eyes are full but our stomachs, ironically, are empty; and our relationship with food is increasingly detached. To better understand where we are with our relationship to food, let’s begin by trying to understand how our global food system works:
Eee-gads! Perhaps this condensed version will be a little more appetizing:

Still feeling queasy? Us too. Wrapping our heads (and mouths) around the global food system seems nothing short of an Herculean task; perhaps requiring divine intervention… and some of that pink stuff.

According to the Basic Elements diagram above, the global food system is the balance between supply and demand of food. This balance seems to be quantified by two things, geography and politics. Or, assuming they can be separated – a HUGE assumption, by the way – natural systems and human systems.

  • Natural Systems
    • Geography / Environment, natural resources (air, water, land)
  • Human Systems
    • Politics, Economy, Science / Technology
    • Demographics
    • Psychographics (Socio-Cultural – knowledge, values, preferences)
    • Industry
      • Energy
      • Transportation
      • “Waste” management

And the management and measurement of balance between these ‘separate’ systems is qualified and quantified in:

  • Governance – managing the dynamics of complex systems
  • Civil Security – relationships between people
  • Food Security – relationships between people and food
  • Climate Change – degree of change in natural systems

That seems to be the short and skinny of it. Sounds simple, right? Not exactly. That’s like saying salt and pepper alone flavour our meals. Well, they can but you miss out on a lot of flavour. When we move to the more detailed diagram, we can see the ‘flavours’ and ‘spices’ increase almost exponentially… and not in the best combinations as anyone learning to cook for the first time can attest (cue the Pepto Bismol dance).

So, if the global recipe is falling short, how then do we find the right balance of flavours…?

The SELRS approach has been to use two proven recipes: Community Capacity Building and Asset Mapping and Whole Measures for Community Food Systems. Not to replace the global food system per se, but rather to refine its palate so that Sustainability, Equity, Locality, and Regeneration can thrive in diverse systems that communities can call their own – like treasured family recipes.

The question of how to understand the global food system ‘recipe’ and balance its many flavours is what we will address at the SELRS “Sense Making” Workshop, December 12th in Sylvan Lake. Bringing forward all of the information collected through our stakeholder conversations since August, the SELRS Guiding Group and GFSA Community Animators will complete the first iteration of its community asset mapping exercise to find a shared understanding of what a local food system can be in comparison and contrast to the global model. We plan to leave the workshop with a concrete action plan related to the SELRS framework with rural communities in central Alberta – and then across the map of our great province.

As for digesting the global food system, we think our backyards and local farms are a lot easier (and tastier!) to digest…

Submitted by Rene Michalak and Brenda Schroeder

(images courtesy of shiftN)



1. John Zylstra - November 16, 2011

The production and consumption of food is indeed a complicated diagram. I just read a story about 17 kindergarten children dying in a minibus accident in china. The article said they had 64 people in a nine passenger bus. So safety took a back seat. As safety increases, cost increases, and ghg emissions also increase, since they will need seven buses instead of one. To some extent this also applies to food production.? As we increase safety and capacity, will our costs and ghg emissions increase?
Can local food including backyards guarantee a certain supply? or will it always need a surplus backup system? And how does this backup system remain viable?

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