Breaking new ground

Sean Connelly.
New ideas can flourish if we give them room to grow, writes Sean Connelly.

A more sustainable food system is by definition different from the one we have today. It requires fundamental changes to the way we value land, soil, food producers, food itself, community and each other. However, what a more sustainable food system looks like can be difficult to imagine.

It will certainly vary from place to place, in response to the local priorities, environmental conditions, local food issues and how they are interconnected to other food systems locally, nationally and globally. Despite the need for local solutions to create more sustainable food systems, examples from elsewhere can  help to re-imagine what is possible.  Inspiring examples provide a mechanism for coping with the tensions of creating a different kind of food system while continuing to live with the one we have.

Often, these types of examples may not appear radically different when they start out, but  over time, they can dramatically reshape  not just the food system, but  communities as well.

The Kootenay Food Co-op is one such example. It began in the 1970s as a bulk organic food-buying co-op to provide a way for rural residents in the small town of Nelson, Canada (population 10,000) to get access to organic food.

In 1990 it became the first retailer in Canada to exclusively sell organic food and now has 14,000 member-owners, 150 employees and annual sales that exceed $14 million. 

In response to this growth, they have set aside $2.5 million of member dividends over a 10-year period with a goal of securing a new site for the store. As a democratically controlled entity, where each member-owner has an equal say in how the co-op is run, it was important to control the development of the new store to retain benefits for the wider community. They decided to think big, beyond just a site for the store to include how they might contribute to a revitalisation of the main street of town.  So the co-op recently led a $23 million redevelopment of a city block in the centre of town to provide new retail space for the co-op and 54 residential flats. 

The decision to get into real estate development was something that fitted with the co-op structure. They needed a new site for the store and also wanted to ensure that investments were retained in the local economy. 

They wanted to avoid paying an out-of-town developer and seeing millions of dollars of co-op members’ money flow out of the community, and they wanted to control the construction of the project to ensure local builders and trades were used, and selling residential apartments was a way for the co-op to finance the construction of the store.

It is a powerful example of how residents’ commitment to organic food can translate into broader community benefits.

Closer to home, Christchurch has become a hub of local food activity. Cultivate Christchurch is one example, where empty sites in the central city become hives of activity as groups come together to grow produce using organic and permaculture methods.

Otakaro Orchard is the showpiece of the city’s efforts to become the world’s most edible city. Plans are under way to redevelop a vacant site into a fruit and nut orchard, raised vegetable beds, glasshouse and a cafe that serves food produced on site. The land has been leased by the Government to Otakaro Orchard and the development of the site is expected to cost $2 million and would  showcase the potential of local food initiatives in the city.

It would become the first edible park and serve as an urban food hub that will stretch people’s imagination of what is possible and provide inspiration for more sustainable food systems.

Given its high-profile location, it offers the potential to break down boundaries and highlight new possibilities for growing food in the city.

The project has raised $300,000 through public and grant funding.

It has just recently raised an additional $60,000  through crowdfunding.It is a project that has resulted from  many years of efforts  by the Food Resilience Network, which has brought together council, central government, community groups and individuals around a common goal of raising the profile of food in the city.

What both  projects illustrate is the potential of taking risks, doing things in unconventional ways and not letting our imaginations of what a sustainable local food system might look like be constrained by present conditions, barriers and limitations.

- Sean Connelly is a senior lecturer in the University of Otago department of geography. Each week in this column, one of a panel of writers addresses issues of sustainability.

Add a Comment