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The Time is Ripe

September 18, 2009
by Michael Dimock

California’s food production and distribution system is the root system of the state’s life. Its maintenance is fundamental for our health and our future sustainability—and it requires massive amounts of energy, water, labor, and capital to feed people each day. Consequently, it offers myriad challenges and opportunities: a healthy food system means better health for our children, the elderly, rural and urban communities, and nature in its diverse forms.

It’s also clear that today’s food system is in critical condition. It accounts for approximately 19 percent of our annual energy use. It is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions when fossil fuel used in production and distribution is factored into the system’s equation. Moreover, animals and cropping systems leave the land denuded of plant life for parts of the year.
Although people are working to solve these problems, the system continues to show signs of poor health—a malady of various components that are interrelated.

Here is an example: retailers fearing lawsuits following E. coli outbreaks are forcing farmers to clear the edges of their fields of vegetative buffer strips, destroying biodiversity and increasing erosion. With topsoil eroded, water pollution increases. Thus, farmers risk regulatory action in order to maintain their retail markets. This is just one set of the problems facing our food system. Solving such problems requires systemwide solutions that engage multiple challenges simultaneously.

An emerging network of individuals, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, businesses, and philanthropies recognizes this challenge. It is called Roots of Change, and it is unified by the goal of transforming the food system by 2030. Roots of Change has begun with a vision of a new food system in California: one that is known worldwide as the premier source of sustainably produced food, in which eaters know and care about where their food comes from, workers are respected for their labor and provided the means to thrive, every child has access to healthy local food every day, farmers and ranchers are rewarded for stewarding environmental resources, and regional food systems drastically reduce carbon emissions.

An essential characteristic of this new system is an urban-rural partnership that sustains the healthy flow of resources between the two. Within this partnership, rural communities will steward soil, water, species, food production, and the beauty of natural and cultivated landscapes. In return, urban communities will provide sufficient access to profitable markets, public investment, water, and healthy compost, and will ensure that policy affecting agricultural lands and food production supports the economic life of rural regions. Such a partnership sets the stage for the healthy food system we all need.

The time is ripe to reorient the food system. California has the natural, economic, and human resources to achieve it. If we are successful here, our example will have global impact. Every sector of the food system, every ethnic group, every religion, every political party, every region, every Californian has a role to play in this change

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