What is relocalization? How does it shape the future of food?

Food Tech
May 24, 2023

Our company is called Relocalize for a reason. We believe that the only way to make food systems more reliable, equitable, and sustainable is to localize the production of both agricultural and transformed products. 

In short, relocalization is a movement that aims to reduce the reliance on distant food supply chains by promoting local production and economies. Food systems were localized for thousands of years. It was only in the 1930s that the combined forces of specialization, mechanization, and chemistry put an end to localized production for the majority of foods. Recently, relocalization has re-emerged as a solution to enhance food security. Let us go through the history of relocalization and explore in detail how a localized food system can shape a better world. 

Global vs. Local: Which one is better?

COVID pandemic and relocalization

The world economy has greatly benefited from the division of labor across states and countries, thanks to globalization. It has enabled businesses and individuals to trade products across the globe, resulting in a wider variety of products available at a lower cost. Global trade has also provided economic opportunities for developing countries.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the downsides of having extended supply chains. Logistics difficulties caused by infections and preventive measures have led to disruptions in food and commodity supplies. The challenge was reflected in food prices. In the U.S., food prices rose 11% in 2021–2022, compared to 2% in prior years. This is the largest rise since the 1980s, with COVID being one of the major causes. Thanks to COVID-related supply chain shocks, both CEOs and governments recognize that increasing the resilience of supply chains is critical to economic performance and business continuity. 

Average Annual Increase in Food Prices in Selected Metro Areas, 2013-2022 (Analysis from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), U.S.).

To mitigate this risk, one solution is to have shorter supply chains. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for localized systems to demonstrate their benefits over global supply chains. Researchers have found that production systems closer to their retail destinations are more robust and resilient. Consequently, the concept of “relocalization” has emerged, advocating for a return to more localized supply chains.

The origin of relocalization

While the word ”relocalization” has not been widely used, the concept is not new. We are far from the first people to advocate for a return to localized food. In fact, it has been around since the 1970s. 

By that time, industrial agriculture had largely replaced traditional, diversified farming practices. “Monocropping” and the reliance on chemical pesticides had become standardized. It has become evident that this rapid change in the food system may come at a cost: environmental degradation and social inequality. People began to question the sustainability of an industrialized and globalized food system, which is reflected in the literature of the time: 

"The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977)" Wendell Berry argued that the industrialization of agriculture was causing ecological and social damage and called for a return to small-scale, sustainable farming practices.

"Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973)” E.F. Schumacher argued for the importance of small-scale, decentralized economies, including local food systems.

Small is beautiful | Realize Engineering
Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973) by  E.F. Schumacher

Gaining momentum with food sovereignty

The idea of relocalization gained further momentum in the “food sovereignty” movement from the 1990s to the 2000s. On February 27, 2007, representatives from 80 countries across five continents met together in Mali for the International Forum on Food Sovereignty and made the Nyéléni 2007 Declaration

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

This global peasant movement was a response to the negative impacts of industrial agriculture and globalization. It is about challenging the dominant economic and political systems that led to the concentration of power and resources in the hands of a few large corporations and the marginalization of small-scale farmers, indigenous peoples, and rural communities. 

There are 6 pillars of food sovereignty, with “localized food systems” being one of them. It promotes the importance of reducing distance between food providers and consumers and resisting dependency on remote and unaccountable corporations. Since then, relocalization has become part of a bigger social movement to promote a more fair, equal, and dependable food system. 

Photo from La via Campesina on the International Day of Action for People's Food Sovereignty and against Transnational Corporations.

A key strategy against climate change

In 2015, the Paris Agreement was adopted during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21). It aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The food sector, which is responsible for a significant portion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, needs to find solutions to reduce its carbon emissions. 

With advancements in carbon accounting and life cycle assessment (LCA), the emissions derived from our food systems can be calculated and categorized. These analyses provided scientific datasets for us to identify major emission sources. For instance, the transportation involved in the food supply accounts for nearly 20% of the total emissions, making it one of the major sources that needs to be tackled. 

In addition to that, climate change could potentially threaten our food security. With the changing climate in major plantations, draughts, floods, and other adverse weather will hamper food harvests and cause logistics inconsistencies. Food shortages will become more frequent, severe, and unpredictable. 

Relocalization has become one of the key strategies for decarbonizing the food system and mitigating food supply risk. Reports from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and many others have highlighted the importance of relocalization in reducing carbon emissions and enhancing food system resilience to climate change.

Trucks produce a disproportionately large amount of GHG.

Relocalization beyond agricultural farming

Localization is often discussed in the context of farm products. But we believe that  relocalization efforts cannot be limited to agricultural production. One study estimated that processed food in the U.S. travels over 1,300 miles before it is consumed, which is more than the driving distance from New York to Miami (1,285 miles). More than 60% of all foods available in the U.S. are transformed and manufactured, which means the majority of foods travel great distances to get to market. 

We need solutions that hyper-localize post-agricultural food production because all those food miles come at a huge carbon cost. Based on Relocalize’s (our company's) estimation model, hyper-localizing production for heavy products can make a huge difference. For example, products made of water that travel over 1,300 miles produce 95% more CO2 than hyper-locally produced products. 

At Relocalize, solving this problem is our mission. We are developing hyper-local micro-factories for the packaged ice and beverage industries (our first micro-factory makes packaged ice). We started with products made of water because they are among the most costly and carbon-intensive products due to their very high weight. What's more, shipping large quantities of mostly water is irresponsible in geographies where water is available from taps in every municipality. Why not simply add water to products locally?

Furthermore, temperature-controlled transportation along the cold chain consumes extra fuel on top of the movement itself. Cold storage warehouses are also needed to store inventory in a traditional supply chain. According to the United Nations, the food cold chain alone is responsible for 4% of global GHG emissions, which equals the amount of GHG produced on the entire continent of Africa. 

We are building a network of thousands of micro-factories to supply food and beverage products to local communities, eliminating upstream transportation and producing according to community demand. This also eliminates up to 90% of the carbon and drastically reduces the cost of logistics. 

This network will also greatly increase the resilience of our food systems. In the event of a local disruption due to an emergency such as a hurricane, the remaining micro-factories that make up the network can ramp up production to maintain supply to communities in need, ensuring a consistent supply. 

A network of micro-factories for the relocalization of food manufacturing.

While people now understand the benefits of localizing production, there is a big problem: food chains are not getting shorter. There is too little innovation and investment in the hyper-local production of affordable products.

A balanced mix between localized and globalized production is critical for our future food supply. Relocalization needs to become a movement if we are to reap the rewards of a distributed and localized food supply network, including:

  1. Strengthening food security and resilience.
  2. Reducing waste by producing based on local communities' needs.
  3. Reducing carbon footprints.
  4. Supplying fresher food that tastes better.
  5. Cutting costs and making products more affordable.

We are building towards a future where the food system is as local and sustainable as possible — a relocalized future. Contact us to learn more about how we make relocalization possible!

Learn more about RELO

Learn how Relocalize's distributed network of micro-factories can improve your profits while saving the planet.

Get in touch
off logo