Shrinking the Global Food Supply Chain

by Jennifer Clapp

We are what we eat, so the saying goes. But despite the significance of food to our health and well-being, Canadians' relationship to the food they eat has changed from what it was just a few generations ago. Today, we often knows very little about where our food comes from, or the conditions under which it was grown or prepared. Welcome to the global industrial food system.

This will be the third year that I will teach a course at Trent offered by the Comparative Development Studies Program and the Anthropology Department on global food issues. In the time since I began teaching in this course, the public's awareness of some of the potential problems associated with the global industrial food system has grown remarkably.

This system is highly mechanized, very large in scale, and relies heavily on chemical use and genetic engineering of seeds. It is also dominated by a small number of global corporations and encourages long distance travel and trade of food items. The average distance food travels in North America before it reaches your plate is some 2000 miles. This type of food system makes it very difficult to make informed choices about the food we eat. And the environmental ramifications of a global food system are many: pollution from food transport (not a minor point, as 20% of all commodity transport in the US in 1997, for example, was food related), contamination from chemical pesticides, unknown health implications of genetically modified foods, soil erosion from large scale mechanical tilling, and the list goes on.

But are we at the mercy of the global food system? There is a growing debate about the viability of the current global food system versus alternatives to it. The Trent community has been actively engaged in this debate through various courses and other activities, and Trent students have become involved in a number of local community efforts seeking alternatives to the global food system.

Last February Trent was host to a weekend conference, Globalization, Food and the Environment: Grassroots Responses, organized by Trent faculty and students, the Kawartha World Issues Centre and Trent's chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG). This well-attended conference brought in local and nationally-known speakers from various angles on the global food debate. The follow-up workshops drew up lists for local community action to raise awareness on issues such organic farming, genetically altered foods, and the impact of intensive livestock operations on local water quality.

Following the enthusiasm that came from this conference, some exciting initiatives have emerged and are taking shape in the Peterborough community this summer.

One is the revival this summer of a local community shared agriculture (CSA) farm. In a CSA, consumers purchase a share from the farmers at the beginning of the growing season, and in return receive a weekly basket of the food that is harvested. In this type of food system, farmers can share their risks, and share-holders consumer locally grown, organic food. CSAs also encourage a reconnection of people to the land by bringing farmers and consumers in direct contact with one another on a regular basis.

One Trent student is organizing organic farm and community garden tours for the public this summer in conjunction with OPIRG. This initiative is aimed at raising awareness of alternative food systems by bringing people in contact with them directly through a guided tour. Another Trent student is working with a Trent professor (who teaches a course on ecological agriculture) testing the viability of growing food organically in rooftop gardens on the Trent Campus.

There are other activities in the Peterborough community that encourage awareness of the global food system and alternatives to it. They include the Wednesday weekly farmer's market, which features only local producers. There are a number of Peterborough-based buying clubs with the Ontario Natural Food Co-op, a province-wide food co-op that features organic and Canadian food products. Retail food outlets in Peterborough that feature organic and local foods are also expanding their services to meet the growing demands for alternative food sourcing. Community and back-yard gardens are also thriving.

There are many local food initiatives in the Peterborough community, and great interest in these among Trent students and faculty. At the same time, there is awareness that there is much we still need to learn about the long-term viability of alternative food systems on both a local and a global scale. Such systems may entail their own special problems that need to be considered. The local initiatives promoting them aim to be part of that broader learning process.

Jennifer Clapp, International Development Studies, Environmental and Resource Studies. She can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 705 748-1011 x 1388.

Back to Trent News

Trent's CrestReturn to Trent Home
Maintained by the Communications Department.
Last updated October 2, 2002