Betsy Donald documents shift toward local food economy

Donald sees the trend of local food as a positive development for communities, and she says it’s no fad. “We can begin to think about how the ways we eat can change the world for the better,” says Donald.

Betsy Donald: Food is without a doubt, one of the most exciting fields to study, because it is the only intimate commodity. We eat it. And therefore, how we eat it has implications for a host of other policy issues around ecosystem protection, hunger, diversity, local economic development, and our carbon footprint.

Betsy Donald is a geographer at Queen’s University in Canada. She’s documenting a shift taking place in North America’s food system, from large, industrial agriculture to locally produced food.

Betsy Donald: The statistics suggest that organic food and local food are growing at rate of 20% a year, whereas the traditional food system is growing at 1 – 2%.

Donald said more people are growing their own food, and eating from regional farms and markets.

Betsy Donald: What we see in North America recently, is just a resurgence of interest in community gardens, rooftop gardening, and more attention is being paid in those gardens to diverse and organic food production.

Donald estimates that currently, about 1% of the total food economy is made up of local, organic food. Meanwhile, she said the local food movement has found a place in the national consciousness.

Betsy Donald: I think about, for example, Michelle Obama’s White House Garden. I mean, that’s very symbolic of the times.

Donald studies the alternative food system, which she calls the ‘creative food economy.’

Betsy Donald: I’m particularly interested in how what I call the ‘creative food economy’ is transforming the lives of everyday people in North America. So I’m documenting statistically, as well as qualitatively, the rise of this alternative food system, that is trying to break away from the agro-industrial system. I’ve been tracing it over the past 10 years, and watching it explode.

Donald sees the trend of local food as a positive development for communities, and she says it’s no fad.

Betsy Donald: It hasn’t changed, even with the recession, more and more people are turning to local food. Primarily, because they see it as a way to help their local farmers, maybe embed more local jobs.

She said that recently, consumers have lost trust in the industrial food system. They prefer to know the producers of their food.

Betsy Donald: I think there’s a lot of reasons why it’s happening now – phenomena like food scares, declining rural communities, rising cultural awareness. Also, people are experiencing health issues.

Donald said that there are a few steps to transforming North America’s food chain.

Betsy Donald: We need to re-solarize the farm, we need to re-regionalize the food system, and we need to rebuild our food culture.

Donald added that researchers are investigating how much agriculture urban regions can support. She believes supportive government policies can help develop young farmers, new businesses, and revitalize ecosystems, in regions around the world. But what’s most important, she said, is that individuals think about the implications of what they are eating.

Betsy Donald: It’s empowering. We can begin to make change, and we can begin to think about how the ways we eat can change the world for the better.

Our thanks to Betsy Donald.
Betsy Donald is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She has degrees in history, environmental studies, planning and geography from McGill, York and Toronto respectively. She teaches and researches the urban creative economy.

Photo Credit: gregor_y

Lindsay Patterson