O‘ahu’s farmers’ markets are booming, with lines for locally grown produce sometimes as long as those for hand-pulled noodles. Yet, Hawai‘i’s food system is broken, according to a Civil Beat article highlighting the state’s lack of support for farmers and other obstacles to island food security. While it seems we are rolling in kale and ulu, the majority of residents still buy imported produce from supermarket chains—because it’s what we can afford.
At Near and Far 2022: Cool Ideas, Hot Food, Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of the nonprofit Local Futures, will open the conference with a talk (via video) about how there is a better economic way through localism. She will also take questions live later in the program.
“We human beings didn’t evolve for a hyper-individualized, competitive way of being,” she says in the new Local Futures–produced documentary Planet Local: A Quiet Revolution. “For most of our time on this planet we lived in collaborative, intergenerational communities deeply connected to the land and the waters that sustained us. This is why you can now see across the world people have been pushed into this unnatural highrise way of living, disconnected from each other and from the earth. They are now developing a natural and almost biological hunger for community and connection to nature.”
A linguist by training, the Australia-based Norberg-Hodge advocates for what she calls “economics of happiness,” a system that takes into account the cost of environmental damage for products shipped over long distances; and values intangible benefits like community.
Her vision started in Ladakh, a region in northern India where she went in the 1970s for a project. She was able to experience the area and its people before the global economy destroyed the local economy. Norberg-Hodge saw firsthand how a system of economic growth works against the interests of people and nature. “We’ve all played a part in contributing to the system,” she points out. “Key today is that we build a worldwide localization movement.”
According to Local Futures, localization over globalization—moving from dependence on global corporations toward local and regional economies—is the path to humans being the solution, not the problem.
Because of globalization’s trade agreements, our food travels thousands of miles. It is redundant trade—in 2020, Germany was the world’s second largest importer of milk and the world’s second largest exporter of milk. That same year, the US imported $3.5 billion worth of beef while simultaneously exporting $3.75 billion worth of beef. Global trade rules encourage this wasteful practice, needlessly contributing to the climate crisis.
Agriculture uses half of all habitable land, so a shift from global monocultures to localized diversified food systems would literally transform the face of the earth.
That global food system, from farm to table, is responsible for around 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Corporate farming also wastes one-third of all the food it produces. On the other hand, studies show that smaller-scale, diversified farms are five times more productive than industrial monocultures. Local food outlets—like farmers’ markets and independent operations such as Kokua Market—also have the potential to create more jobs than supermarket chains, and keeps money in the local economy.
Governments on the left and the right roll out the red carpet for corporate giants, freeing them from regulation and paying taxes, and subsidize expansion of globalizing infrastructure. At same time, citizens, small businesses, and even national industries are squeezed for taxes and burdened by red tape and bureaucracy. That is why products from the other side of world generally cost less than local products. It’s why the Chinese parsley grown 10 miles away from your apartment costs a dollar more than the stuff flown in by Safeway.
“The problem isn’t so much about evil greedy people in charge,” says Norberg-Hodge. “It’s more about a lack of awareness, about ignorance, from grassroots to the pinnacle of power. This is actually good I many ways, because the antidote to ignorance isn’t complicated. It’s about raising awareness.”
Local food systems are critical to restoring environmental health, building community, and creating an economy that works for all. “Chefs, food producers, and purveyors are vital to the localization movement,” she emphasizes. “Food is the only thing human beings produce that we all need every day. Shifting that food economy is the most important thing we can do.”
She underscores that as an archipelago, Hawai‘i is even more urgently in need of rebuilding its local food economy. It is not impossible—in the 1960s, the state was still producing 50 percent of its food.
At Near and Far 2022, find out from Norberg-Hodge why knowing your story is so important to moving localization forward.