Is 'Local Food' Sustainable? Localism, Social Justice, Equity and Sustainable Food Futures

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Abstract

Intensive agri-industrial food systems in facing old and new sustainability challenges are now confronted with emergent 'alternatives', particularly local food systems, that pose transformational pathways for strong sustainability. But important questions are raised about the role local food will play in the creation of sustainable food futures, including: Are local food systems sustainable? Can they offer a socially just replacement to agri-industrial systems, or will they simply replicate the problems of the past or create new ones? These questions, in turn, are underpinned by the fundamental question: What exactly does 'sustainability' mean in the context of food futures?

Introduction

In a recent report for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Adams and Jeanrenaud (2008: 3) ask the following question, "How do we devise strategies for society that will allow a peaceful, equitable, fulfilled human future: a humane future for a diverse earth?" Present day sustainability is acutely concerned with answering this question. Peace, equity and diversity are values increasingly incorporated into discourses of sustainability that have, in past mainstream practice at least, primarily been concerned with economic or ecological outcomes (Redclift, 2005; Boström, 2012). These values highlight a widespread and growing recognition that socially focussed strategies are required to address "society-oriented definitions" of sustainability challenges, which involve people as much as nonhuman nature (Becker et al., 1999: 4). Thus, sustainability is not only about resolving ecological or economic imperatives. Sustainability also involves the analysis of socially-shaped processes and relationships within and between societies, which are implicated in the creation of both social and ecological injustice. As Becker et al., (1999) note in their seminal book on the study of sustainability within the social sciences, "sustainability turns out to be closely linked to supposedly 'internal' problems of social structure, such as social justice, gender equality, and political participation." This article explores the implications of taking a socially focussed perspective on sustainability to the study of local food systems.

As both Adams and Jeanrenaud (2008) and Becker et al. (1999) show, a socially focussed perspective on sustainability is informed by the key principles of social justice and equity. Fundamental to social justice are notions of freedom and rights, which have implications for people's safe and fair representation and participation in civic and social life, for example. In a sustainability context, equity refers to both intragenerational equity (between people now) and intergenerational equity (between present and future generations). Equity is primarily concerned with matters of distribution, implicated in the widening gap between rich and poor between and within many countries, and increasingly geographically stratified ecological degradation (Gibson et al., 2005). Social justice and equity are crucial to long-term sustainability imperatives because they expose underlying social and economic conditions that lead to unsustainable states, for example, they link excessive consumption in developed nations with ecological degradation in developing countries (Rees & Westra, 2003). Importantly, they also challenge strategies for sustainability that effectively maintain these conditions. Both principles share a commitment to fair and equal access to decision-making processes. Achieving a more sustainable society is, therefore, dependent on realising higher levels of material and social equality, including economic and political equality (Agyeman et al., 2003; Schlosberg, 2004). Without social justice and equity, collaborative and inclusive dialogues that allow for equal partnerships and the co-construction of alternate sustainability strategies will continue to be marginalised in sustainability debates. …