Food Systems, Economies, and Ecosystems

Steve Bosserman's picture
What We Are Doing
Over the past three months several of us have made presentations to various groups providing an overview about the recently awarded USDA-SCRI grant proposal and our general strategy for the ensuing program.  Our primary purpose is to facilitate the continuing development of local and regional food systems as a viable and sustainable counterbalance to the predominate global food system.  Ideally, local and regional food systems work seamlessly with the global food system to form a total food system that provides the overall advantages of price, variety, and quality while contributing to community health, vitality, and well-being.

Local and regional food systems, together with renewable energy and distributed manufacturing, are an integral part of local and regional economies.  The interdependence of these three features prominently in the design of our strategy.  While the mission of our USDA-SCRI initiative is focused on food systems, when seen in the bigger picture these systems become a platform by which local and regional economies are established, strengthened, and grown.  Building local and regional economies is our broader agenda.

A local or regional economy is shaped by the social, political, cultural, and geographic context and conditions in which it exists.  Such an economy is defined by complex webs of interwoven interrelationships and behavior patterns.  Because of this characteristic, our understanding of them is benefited by adopting an ecological perspective or seeing them as part of ecosystems. 

There are several types of ecosystems: natural, human, urban, etc.  Each of them is characterized by several factors such as participants, source - sink dynamics and flow, and landscape patterns.  Using these factors to inform an ecosystem health index and provide insight on how well an ecosystem is functioning is of particular interest.

Such an index is especially helpful when determining which course of action among several alternatives achieves the imperative at hand with the least amount of collateral damage and unintended consequences or side-effects.  An obvious instance is with agriculture because of its pervasiveness and the degree of environmental impact its practice has on a local, regional, and global scale.  Under the aegis of the USDA-SCRI grant there will be ample opportunities to apply the metrics of agroecosystem health in helping local and regional food systems become more efficient, effective, and less disruptive counterparts to the global food system. 
The Business Ecosystem
Adopting an ecosystems view is also helpful within a business context.  In the mid-1990's, Jim Moore observed the dynamics of natural ecosystems and noted the similarities they have with those in a business setting.  He coined the term business ecosystem to label the dense webs of interrelationships among suppliers, service providers, customers, competitors, communities within a social, political, and economic environment in which any given business starts, survives, and is sustained.

Moore's "business ecosystems" thinking has led to a unique and powerful understanding about business strategy and in so doing significantly expanded the business development repertoire. It has also encouraged the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in several areas.  Perhaps the greatest experimentation with this approach has been Europe where the European Commission (EC) linked Moore's concept business ecosystems concept with Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to form digital business ecosystems.  The primary purpose at the outset was to establish networks of connectivity among participants in SME ecosystems in order to stop the decline in the numbers of SMEs in several European countries.  Early results show this strategy is successful as indicated by a reversal in the decline of SMEs complemented by signs of an increase in their numbers across the Continent.    

Business Ecosystems in the Context of the USDA-SCRI Grant
Fundamentally, the strategy underscoring the USDA-SCRI grant proposal is the digital business ecosystems approach applied to local and regional food systems.  The graphic below illustrates the flow dynamics among ecosystem participants in the interconnected regions across the upper-Midwest and mid-Atlantic states:

Social network facilitation, as part of the ICT backbone for the project, catalyzes regional networks and convenes leaders within them to prompt the formation of business ecosystems.

Business ecosystem particants conduct research, deliver education and training, and launch pilot projects directed toward building local food systems within given regions.

Local food systems development links with complementary efforts in renewable energy and distributed manufacturing systems to drive relocalization.  This heightens participation at local levels which increases the experience base among players and drives changes in the formulae for land use practices, inclusion, workforce development, and government collaboration.  The net effect is that the rules are rewritten so they facilitate the rise of functional and sustained local and regional economies. 

Healthy, vibrant, adaptive, and innovative local and regional economies offer a constructive counterbalance to the global economy; they become attractors for new business start-ups and the expansion of existing businesses.  Glocalization results as fully-functioning local and regional economies mitigate the downsides of the global economy and position the total economy for sustainable growth.  Successful glocalization feeds larger regional networks of players and leadership of business ecosystems providing the wherewithal to fuel additional research, education, and pilot projects.  This closed-loop cycling generates AND reinvests resources within the same local and regional economies which relieves the dependency on outside funding, like the USDA-SCRI grant, to spur local and regional economic sustainability and vitality.

A Broader Vision
The bottom line is that with thriving, interconnected business ecosytems, local and regional economies capable of maintaining themselves while spurring business growth and community well-being will result.  Although the USDA-SCRI grant is directed toward social networks and local food systems, these are milestones along the path to a broader claim.   Our vision is of capable local and regional economies operating in concert with the global economy to provide people with the means to enjoy a reasonable quality of life in communities assured of survival and sustainability.  For us, this is the ultimate goal of the grant proposal.  Thanks in advance for your participation over the next three years to make the vision a reality!

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Moving toward balance in 2009

Casey Hoy's picture

Steve Bosserman has done an excellent job of describing the ecosystem context for our work in a message posted over the holidays, just before we started the overhaul of the site.  Because the site has been under construction, part of growth from an Ohio-centered effort to a more regional network, I’m guessing that many of you missed this important post.  I want to amplify a couple of points and would encourage you to have another look at the original post.

Agriculture is a unique intersection of natural ecosystems and human business ecosystems as Steve has described.  Managing agroecosystems means finding balance between these two ecosystems, recognizing that they really function as a single interdependent whole.  So you can’t build an economy around food systems without taking care of the land and its many natural capitals, and a healthy local economy provides plenty of incentive to take care of the land and natural capital.

We see a lot of parallels between what we observe in the natural world, without our input, and what we want to have happen in our business ecosystem.  For example, complex food webs prevent population outbreaks and extinctions, allowing many species to coexist in natural systems; complex webs of business relationships preserve opportunities for many businesses to coexist in local and regional economies.  Water and nutrient cycles conserve resources within natural ecosystems; businesses that are linked in ecoindustrial supply chains, so that one business’ waste stream provides the next business’ raw materials, provides a similar conservation of materials in business systems.   Biological diversity provides the basis for efficient function, adaptation and resilience in natural systems; portfolio diversity provides the basis for stable growth, entrepreneurship  and resilience in local and regional economies.  If we use what we know about ecosystem function in choosing agricultural and business enterprises, we should make progress toward an ecologically efficient balance that builds both natural and human capitals.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the Ohio Department of Development chose “a State of perfect balance” as the vision for Ohio’s economy in it’s recently released strategic plan.  The past year has brought a great deal of focus and energy to finding this balance starting with food systems and we look forward with excitement to how much more we can accomplish together in 2009.