Mapping Food…Chicken or the Egg?

Recent gleanings on food:

Urban Omnibus recently posted a great interview with Edible Geography’s Nicola Twilley and Inhabitat’s Sarah Rich discussing cities as shaped by food, the FoodPrintNYC event, the recently published FoodNYC: A Blueprint for a Sustainable Food System, and the challenges faced by the emergent design revolution to transform our food systems and infrastructures.

Harvard Design Magazine’s latest issue: (Sustainability+ Pleasure), also contains several articles on urban food production; one of which forms a counterpoint to the current dialogue: Bill Rankin’s Local Food is not Always the Most Sustainable. The article’s arguments are based on Rankin’s plant and animal production maps below, which can also be found at his Radical Cartography site:

Percent of land devoted to crops in 2007 by county (showing overlaid percentages of land devoted to each crop)

Domesticated animal population density by county, based on 2007 census data

Aggregate market value of all plant and animal agricultural products sold in 2007 by county

Rankin states:

“The geography of U.S. agriculture is not a smooth space of overlapping local conditions; it is instead a disjointed and lumpy space of specialization. With the exception of some crops in the Midwest, there are few areas where different commodities are grown side by side, and while cattle are distributed relatively evenly throughout the country, the production of all other animals is quite concentrated...These maps suggest that we need to rethink our commonplace ideas of localism and the virtues of local farming. While local food is often more healthful or sustainable, the idea that the US could become a nation of locavores is absurd. No major city could ever source all of its food from local farms – not even those close to major agricultural areas.”

Rankin argues for a re-framing, or reformulating of the idea of local food production, emphasizing a need to design more efficient forms of global transportation and shipping infrastructure (which theoretically shrinks or trumps geographical distance) rather than any imposed set distance limitation for food sourcing.

Rankin’s maps are a superb documentation of corporate industrial food production as it currently exists (and, by the way, its massive over-surpluses).  They reveal the uneven, economy-of-scale structure of industrial agriculture and point to the complex web of mobility infrastructures required to distribute it (in FoodNYC, Wangari Maathai speculates that the industrial production, distribution, and consumption of food is responsible for one-third of the human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions contribute to climate change).

But beyond this documentation, the broad conclusions drawn from these mappings (localism is absurd) seem overextended and premature, as the data sampling and overall scale of the maps is biased towards these conclusions. The imaged data is based on a single source: census data of profit sales.  Local and urban food production that is not completely based on profit (or reporting thereof), or which operates on a more informal/trade/subsistence economy will not be recorded, and if it was, it would be at a much smaller scale because a large sector of it does not operate in the super-sized manner of industrial production methods – which is exactly the point – it doesn’t have to.  Additionally, the maps don’t track how much of the productive output that has been mapped is exported, rather than consumed in the U.S., nor does it reveal the problematics of mass overproduction and systemic waste that these numbers likely include (for a great description of this problem and its connection to related problems of obesity and diabetes, see Michael Pollan’s take on corn production in Omnivore’s Dilemma).  In short, the maps are too reductive to draw such broad conclusions.

Similarly, as both FoodPrintNYC and FoodNYC point out, there is inadequate mapping  and general understanding of how localized food production and regional food systems operate, or could operate.  We currently don’t know enough about localized food production’s limitations and opportunities:

“A key obstacle to developing New York City’s foodshed is the lack of information. Currently, there is insufficient knowledge about the existing regional food system, from production and distribution to processing and storage, as well as the capacity, demands, and constraints. Without an assessment like the one recommended, it is difficult to make good policy decisions to correct the inefficiencies in the system, let alone leverage potential opportunities.” (FoodNYC)

Rather than seeing Rankin’s production maps as a point of definitive conclusion, they are more of a starting point that poses many questions, demands more extensive and inclusive mappings at a range of scales,  and most importantly, further reveal the design challenge to find better ways of producing our food.

Aside from differences,  all perspectives reveal the need to better define what the scales of ‘local’ or ‘sustainable’ food production are, which perhaps is more a question of defining regionalisma persistent question in general.


Rankin’s maps are a superb documentation of corporate systems of food production as they currently exist (and, by the way, its massive over-surpluses).  They reveal the uneven, uni-functional and massively-scaled structure of industrial agriculture and point to the complex web of mobility infrastructures required to make the system work (in FoodNYC, Wangari Maathai speculates that the industrial production, distribution, and consumption of food is responsible for one third of the human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions causing global warming).
But the broad conclusions drawn from these mappings seem a bit overextended and premature, as the data sampling and scale is biased towards these conclusions. The maps are based on census data of profit sales, under which local and urban food production that is not based around profit, or which operates on a more informal economy will not be recorded, and if it was, it would be at a much smaller scale because it doesn’t operate in the same manner.  Also, the maps don’t reveal how much of the productive output is exported, rather than consumed in the U.S., nor does it reveal the problematics of mass overproduction (such as corn, which as Omninvore’s dilemma reveals, the government is trying to shove down our throats, wassted surpluses) and exportation

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