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Supporting locally determined food systems

The role of local organizations in farming, environment and people’s access to food

Localized food systems provide the foundation for people’s nutrition, incomes, economies and culture throughout the world. Locally determined approaches and organizations play critical roles in sustaining farming, environment and people’s access to food. In order to alleviate hunger and protect environment, local organizations should be centrally involved in managingand governing local food systems.

Food systems include not only the production of food but also processing, distribution, access, use, recycling and waste. Today, there are still many diverse food systems throughout the world, particularly in developing countries. Indeed, most of the world’s food is grown, collected and harvested by over a billion small-scale producers, pastoralists and artisanal fisher folk. This food is primarily sold, processed, resold and consumed locally, with many people deriving their incomes and livelihoods through work and activities at different points of the food chain – from seed to plate.

Such localized food systems provide the foundation for people’s nutrition, incomes, economies and culture throughout the world. They start at the household level and expand to neighbourhood, municipal and regional levels. And localized food systems depend on many different local organizations to coordinate food production, storage and distribution, as well as people’s access to food. Moreover, the ecological and institutional contexts in which diverse food systems are embedded also depend on the coordinated activities of local organizations for their renewal and sustainability.

But despite their current role and future potential in meeting many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), locally determined food systems – and the local organizations that govern them – are largely ignored, neglected or actively undermined by the international development community.

Local food systems, livelihoods and environment

A significant number of livelihoods and environments are still sustained by a diversity of local food systems throughout the world. Most local food systems are embedded in complex, risk-prone and diverse environments, where most of the world’s rural poor people live. These environments include mountains, hills and wetlands, as well as the vast tracts of the semi-arid and humid tropics. As participants in localized food systems, local communities actively influence key ecosystem functions such as:

– sustaining the ecological basis of food systems;

– coordinating human skills, knowledge and labour to generate both use values and exchange values in the economy of the food system;

– the local governance of food systems, including decisions on people’s access to food.

The role of Local Organisations in sustaining local food systems and livelihoods

For as long as people have engaged in livelihood pursuits, they have worked together on resource management, labour-sharing, marketing and many other activities that would be too costly, or impossible, if done alone. Local groups and indigenous organizations have always been important in facilitating collective action and coordinated management of food systems and their environments at different spatial scales.

The different types of local organizations concerned with food, farming, environment and development include traditional and indigenous organizations; governmental and quasi-governmental organizations; non-governmental and voluntary organizations; emergent, popular or “community-based” organizations, including new social movements.

Local organizations exist across a range of scales – from individual through national to international federations, consortiums, networks and umbrella bodies. One reason for linking up and federating in this way is to increase the effectiveness of organizations in managing localized food systems and their leverage in policy and political debates on farming, environment and people’s access to food.

Many rural communities are no longer in charge of managing their local food systems, and, importantly, they are not “trusted” by state bureaucracies to be able to do so. But, throughout the world, local organizations – individually and collectively – still play a key role in:

– sustaining the ecological basis of food systems;

– coordinating human skills, knowledge and labour to generate both use values and exchange values in the economy of the food system;

– the local governance of food systems, including decisions on people’s access to food.

a. Local adaptive management of food-producing environments

Local organizations are crucial for the adaptive and sustainable management of food-producing environments. Local groups enforce rules, incentives and penalties needed for the sustainable management of landscapes, environmental processes and resources on which local food systems depend. Moreover, local organizations are particularly well placed to monitor and respond adaptively to environmental change. This is important because variation within and among the environments in which local food systems are embedded is enormous. Daily, seasonal and longer-term changes in the spatial structure of these environments are apparent at the broad landscape level right down to small plots of cultivated land. These spatio-temporal dynamics have major implications for the way food-producing environments are managed – how, by whom and for what purpose.

More generally, collective action, based on social learning and negotiated agreements among relevant actors in an ecosystem, is often a condition for sustainable use and regeneration of that ecosystem. Platforms that bring relevant actors together are key in mobilizing capacity for social learning, negotiation and collective action for natural resource management and sustaining critical ecological services on which local food systems depend. Examples of platforms include joint forest management (JFM) committees, farmer field schools (FFS), local fishing associations and user groups of various kinds.

Local organizations usually develop successful adaptive management regimes when they build on local practices and the knowledge used by rural people to manage food- producing forests, wetlands, fields, rangelands, coastal zones and freshwater systems. Moreover, the “learning by doing” approach of adaptive management, and the experiential knowledge shared in local organizations, often generate the skills and confidence needed to address wider livelihood and environment issues. All this suggests new practical avenues for outside technical support in which land and water users’ own priorities, knowledge, perspectives, institutions, practices and indicators gain validity in the search for a liveable world and human wellbeing.

b. Local organizations and people’s access to food

Once food has been harvested from fields, forests, pastures and water, local organizations oversee its processing in a variety of local contexts. Many local organizations and groups also determine people’s access to food. The criteria and indicators used by these local organizations to guide action often reflect culturally specific forms of economic rationality and highly diverse definitions of well-being. Indeed, the latter usually sharply contrast with the indicators and criteria used in mainstream definitions of poverty, wellbeing and economic exchange. For example, the international development community’s current emphasis on market-based approaches is largely blind to the fact that many local organizations mediate forms of economic exchange that exclude the use of money.

Take the case of the official Public Distribution System (PDS) in India, that was set up as a safety net for the poor has become socially and ecologically counterproductive. In the farming belts stretching across the Deccan plateau, north Karnataka, Marathwada, the deserts of Rajasthan and many adivasi (indigenous people) areas in central India, coarse cereals like sorghum and various nutritionally rich millets (pearl, finger and foxtail millets) have been the mainstay of agriculture, diet and culture.

Farming of these crops extends to 65 per cent of the geographical area of the country where agriculture is rainfed and where the concentration of the rural poor is among the highest in the world. These rainfed crops require very few external inputs and no irrigation. They offer nutritional and food security for rural communities – especially for the marginalized and most vulnerable. And yet, “progress” in food production and peoples’ access to food in India over the last decades has been fuelled just by two crops: rice and wheat (the “fine” cereals). Of every 100 tonnes increase in food production, 91 tonnes were contributed by rice and wheat. The remaining 9 tonnes were provided by coarse cereals (5.5 tonnes) and pulses (3.5 tonnes). In the last three decades, sorghum has lost 35 per cent of cropping area, and little millet has lost nearly 60 per cent of cropping area.

Despite all the rhetoric of increasing food production in the country, policy-makers and foreign development aid advisors have allowed nearly 9 million hectares of the millet–sorghum growing area to go out of production. One of the major contributors to this problem is the Public Distribution System (PDS), as practised in India, which concentrates on only rice and wheat. This centrally run national PDS provides for a regular and continued uptake of rice and wheat from the market for distribution to the poor at subsidized prices. The PDS offers a steady and remunerative price for rice and wheat farmers who are already supported by subsidized irrigation, subsidized fertilizers and adequate crop insurance. On the other hand, farmers from the rainfed areas suffer from multiple disadvantages – no assured irrigation, no subsidies, no crop insurance, and unreliable market forces. Moreover, the flooding of the Public Distribution System with cheap rice and wheat weans away the traditional users of coarse grains and leaves the small scale production of sorghum and millets without a market. As a result, many rainfed farms have been abandoned, and large areas of dryland agriculture are turning into fallows, enhancing desertification.

Prajateerpu – a citizens’ workshop on food and farming futures in Andhra Pradesh, India

Prajateerpu (or “people’s verdict”) was an exercise in deliberative democracy involving marginal farmers and other citizens from all three regions of the state of Andhra Pradesh.

The citizens’ jury was made up of representatives of small and marginal farmers, small traders, food processors and consumers.

Prajateerpu was jointly organized by the Andhra Pradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity (made up of 145 NGOs and POs), the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, the University of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, and the all-India National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP). The jury hearings took place in Medak District, Andhra Pradesh, in June 2001.Jury members also included indigenous people (known in India as adivasi), and over two-thirds of jury members were women.

The jury members were presented with three different scenarios – Vision 2020; an export based cash-crop model of organic production; Localised food systems. It was up to the jury to decide which of the three policy scenarios provided them with the best opportunities to enhance their livelihoods,food security and environment 20 years into the future.

The key conclusions reached by the jury members, their own “vision of the desired future”, included features such as:

-food and farming for self-reliance and community control over resources;

-maintaining healthy soils, diverse crops, trees and livestock, and building on indigenous knowledge, practical skills and local institutions.

It also included opposition to the proposed reduction of those making their living from the land from 70 to 40 per cent in Andhra Pradesh; land consolidation into fewer hands, and displacement of rural people; contract farming; labourdisplacing mechanization; GM crops, including Vitamin A rice & BT cotton; loss of control over medicinal plants, including their export.

The Prajateerpu and subsequent events show how the poor and marginalized can be included in the policy process. By being linked with state-level and international policy processes, the jury outcomes and citizen voice have encouraged more public deliberation and pluralism in the framing of policies on food and agriculture in Andhra Pradesh.

In response to these multiple crises, local organizations have developed alternative forms of PDS based on the cultivation of local grains, local storage, local processing and decentralized local control in different regions of India. Like the alternative PDS run by women’s organizations in Andhra Pradesh (For details see article on p.7 ), such community-controlled systems of food distribution contribute significantly to the alleviation of hunger and the regeneration of degraded drylands. They also significantly reduce the overhead costs incurred by the mainstream Public Distribution System (PDS), which involves energy- intensive long-distance transport of food grains, the maintenance of a huge storage infrastructure and centralized management.

c. Federations, networks and organized policy influence

Federated organizations have an important role in projecting the voice and concerns of small-scale food producers and other citizens in a variety of spheres. Many such federations that aim to influence policy-making are not entirely focused on natural resources and agriculture.

Producers’ organizations have also been active at the international level. One example is Via Campesina, a broad, worldwide coalition of peasants and farmers lobbying on land-tenure reform, agroecology, and food sovereignty. Bold innovations such as the Prajateerpu (“peoples’ verdict”) on the future of food and farming in South India (see box) suggest new ways of bringing together coalitions and federations of the poor with international organizations. Local organizations and federations are thus increasingly becoming expressions of an emergent citizenship in the governance of food systems. People have special rights when it comes to food, and claiming and exercising these rights to “food sovereignty” has become a movement that is very much in tune with this concept of “citizenship”.

Reclaiming diverse local food sytems

Sustaining diverse local food systems, and the hundreds of millions of livelihoods associated with them, calls for reversals in contemporary patterns of economic growth, modernization and nation-building. Achieving the MDGs for hunger alleviation and environmental sustainability will largely depend on emphasizing locally determined food systems and policy frameworks that empower local organizations to manage food systems and their environments. These are not the easy options. Dominant rules that govern food and agriculture are designed a priori to strengthen not autonomous local organizations but professional control by the state and corporations – and to facilitate not local but international trade.

Build on local institutions and social organization. Existing organizations are resources to be strengthened, changed and developed, not ignored and suppressed. Increased attention will need to be given to community-based action through local organizations and user groups that oversee different parts of the food system. Past experience suggests that if this type of institutional development is ignored in food and agricultural policies, economic rates of return will decline markedly, and the MDGs may not be met.

Build on local systems of knowledge and management. Local management systems are generally tuned to the needs of local people, and often enhance their capacity to adapt to dynamic social and ecological circumstances. Although many of these systems have been abandoned after long periods of success, there remains a great diversity of local systems of knowledge and management. Despite the pressures that increasingly undermine these local systems, plans to strengthen locally determined food systems should start with what people know and do well already, to secure their livelihoods and sustain the diversity of environments on which they depend.

Build on locally available resources and technologies to meet fundamental human needs. Preference should be given to local technologies by emphasizing the opportunities for intensification in the use of available resources. Sustainable and cheaper solutions can often be found for farming, food processing, storage and distribution when groups or communities are involved in identification of technology needs, and then the design and testing of technologies, their adaptation to local conditions and, finally, their extension to others. The potential for intensification of internal resource use without reliance on external inputs is enormous at every point along the food chain. However, combinations of traditional and modern technologies are possible too. This is particularly true with the development of miniaturization, multipurpose machines, multimedia and computer-assisted technology, knowledge in agro-ecology, and efficient renewable energy systems that can all enhance local autonomy and ecologies, minimize pollution, and expand the realms of freedom and culture by eliminating needless toil. But local organizations should decide which new innovations are needed, when, where and under what conditions along the food chain.

Support local participation in planning, management and evaluation. If activities associated with different parts of local food systems are to become adaptive and participatory, this will imply significant changes in how outside support is conceived and organized. Support is needed for participatory learning approaches in which the main goals are qualitative shifts in how people and institutions interact and work together.

Supporting locally determined food systems and organizations in the context of the MDGs also call for reversals in international and national policies. Indeed, there is a fundamental conflict between a global food system of centralized, corporate-driven, export-oriented, industrial agriculture, and one that is more decentralized and smaller-scale, with sustainable production patterns primarily oriented towards domestic markets and localized food systems. Reinforcing such localized food systems entails shifts from uniformity, concentration, coercion and centralization, to support more diversity, decentralization, dynamic adaptation and democratization in food systems.


Much of the Millennium Development community sees development as a process in which there will be a reduction in the number of people engaged in farming, fishing and land/water-based livelihoods. It is assumed that small-scale food producers, rural artisans, food workers and many of the rural poor will inevitably migrate to urban areas and find new and better jobs.

Indeed, most international and national social, economic and environmental policies envision fewer and fewer people directly dependent on localized food systems for their livelihoods and culture. Encouraging people to move out of the primary sector and get jobs in the largely urban-based manufacturing and service sectors is seen as both desirable and necessary – regardless of the social and ecological costs involved. This view of progress assumes that history can repeat itself throughout the world. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a direct relationship between the vast increases in productivity achieved through the use of automated technology, re-engineering, downsizing and total quality management, and the permanent exclusion of high numbers of workers from employment, in both industry and the service sector. This erosion of the link between job creation and wealth creation calls for a more equitable distribution of productivity gains through a reduction of working hours, and for alternative development models that provide opportunities and local spaces for the generation of use values rather than exchange values.

The social and ecological potential of local food systems and  organizations must be seen in this context. While neither perfect nor always equitable, locally determined approaches and organizations play critical roles in sustaining farming, environment and people’s access to food. In order to achieve the MDGs for hunger alleviation and environment, local organizations should be centrally involved in managing and governing local food systems. Linear views of development and narrow assumptions about “progress” and “economic growth” must be replaced with a commitment to more plural definitions of human well- being, and diverse ways of relating with the environment.

This paper is an extract of the original – Pimbert, M. (2005) Supporting locally determined food systems: the role of local organizations in farming, environment and people?s access to food. In Bigg, T. and Satterthwaite, D. How to Make Poverty History – the central role of local organizations in meeting the MDGs. Edited by IIED, London.

Michel Pimbert is Director of the Sustainable Agriculture, Biodiversity and Livelihoods Programme at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London.