By Jess Halliday, reprinted from FoodNavigator.com and posted 07-Feb-2011
The food industry should not rage against the idea of professionalised local food systems, nor unleash its lobbying force to uproot them before their green shoots can reach maturity. Rather, it should explore ways to benefit from local foods and, in turn, foster their development.
These days we tend to pigeon-hole people by their eating habits. Is so-and-so a home cook, or do they live off ready meals? Do they potter down to the farmers’ market or Sundays, or are they on first name terms with the servers in McDonalds?
My friends and colleagues inhabit both camps, but there’s almost always some cross-over: many a ready meal aficionados goes weak at the knees with one bite of a ripe local tomato on an August afternoon. Yet according to an opinion from Europe’s Committee of the Regions on local food  systems, in Europe the emphasis is heavily skewed towards large-scale, industrialised food production. Around 80 per cent of world food production is sold locally, but in Europe that figure is just 20 per cent.
It’s time to redress the balance, according to Lenie Dwarshuis-van de Beek, a Dutch regional councillor and the opinion’s rapporteur. That means professionalising local food systems.
Wait a minute. Doesn’t that mean seizing back a slice of consumer pie from big food players? People won’t by local tomatoes and imported ones, they’ll by one or the other. And if farmers have more bargaining power in the food chain, that means loosening the grip of the retailers. We could be heading for a lobbying storm…
Not necessarily. The intention is not to pitch local foods in competition with industrial agriculture, according to Mrs Dwarshuis, but to make local foods more available to local consumers, and make it easier for them to chose them. Food systems are not discrete, you see. They are intricate, organic structures that shift and overlap and feed off each other. The industrial and the local way of eating do not need to be at loggerheads. They can exist side by side in symbiosis.
Side-by-side on the shelves
First of all, the opinion does not limit the sale of locally produced food to their traditional stomping grounds of farmers markets and road-side stalls. Rather, it suggests that local retailers should stock more foods grown within, say 30 or 50 km – not just the independents, but neighbourhood branches of major chains too.
Tesco, Carrefour, and friends have been dreaming up a stream of new store formats in recent years – but I, for one, don’t see a huge difference in what’s on the shelf in my nearest Carrefour Market, the Carrefour Contact in the next town, or the several Casino-owned Huit à Huits in the city. Stocking local produce, supplied directly by farmers or cooperatives, alongside goods shipped in from the central buying units, would help embed retail stores in their communities, give to each a unique identity, and keep money in the local economy.