It has become increasingly apparent that the current global food order has led us into a rather perilous place. While its proponents proclaim that never have so many eaten so much so cheaply, those who count the hidden costs remind us of the consequences of this abundance. Today more than two billion people worldwide are considered obese and therefore at risk from three of the four leading causes of non-communicable diseases (Swinburn et al. 2019). Meanwhile, the food supply chain creates 26% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (excluding non-food agriculture) while contributing one-third of global terrestrial acidification and almost four-fifths of eutrophication (Poore and Nemecek 2018) and places huge demands on freshwater resources and the world’s stock of biological diversity. Little by little the lens of rigorous scientific analysis has begun to join up these multidimensional issues utilising transdisciplinary approaches that have revealed the deep interconnection of human health and wellbeing with planetary equilibrium. This has brought a new emphasis upon dietary practices linked to the structures of food supply and the need to move sharply away from production and consumption patterns that are prevalent in rich and upper-middle-income countries around the world.
It is in this context that the notion of sustainability has come to play a hugely significant role in debates around the food system and has become a key term linking environmental performance – ‘living within planetary boundaries’ (Steffen et al. 2015; Rockström et al. 2020) – with human nutrition and other vital considerations (including rights-based social justice). At its most basic level we might suggest that the application of sustainability to food production and supply is to secure diets with low environmental impacts, yet which deliver nutrition security and wellbeing for both present and future generations. Working towards the achievement of such a goal will require nothing less than a complete transformation of the existing global food system. This is a challenge given the enormous economic power and political influence wielded by those major corporations (‘Big Food’) which will wish to maintain ‘business as usual’, albeit by appropriating the language of sustainability (‘greenwashing’). However, we are witnessing the emergence of a loose coalition of diverse actors – including peasants, urban dwellers, scientists of many disciplines and people who eat and who are concerned about their food – that is beginning to offer a new vision for food production, supply and consumption. This coalition no longer operates entirely as protest: it performs opposition to the status quo, demonstrating that alternatives are not only practically feasible, they also deliver a host of other co-benefits, including ecological regeneration, community building and improved wellbeing.
While this volume builds upon the significant body of work that has documented, critically evaluated and richly illustrated alternative food networks (AFN; Goodman et al. 2012; Matacena 2016; Maye 2013; Renting et al. 2012), we argue that a ‘second generation’ of new food initiatives now requires attention. In part due to the capacity of the mainstream food system to adapt to new challenges while extending its reach across the globe, it is clear that ‘first-generation’ alternatives were able to effect only a limited transformation in agri-food practices. Indeed, a remarkable process of corporate consolidation continues, such that the top 100 companies now account for 75% of all packaged food sales worldwide (Clapp and Scrinis 2017). This ascendancy of ‘Big Food’ has arguably helped stimulate a multiplicity of community initiatives that seek to wrest back some part of the food system from corporate control.
Consequently, this volume offers insights into a range of practical, community-led initiatives that are aimed at transforming the non-environmentally sustainable, socially unjust and economically fragile food economy into resilient sustainable food systems. To this end, they start at very different social, political, technical and economic levels; may organise themselves as a movement, network or enterprise; and in all cases seek to weave a global, relational carpet of sustainable food practices that cannot be described in terms of a simple either/or of modern economic understanding (Gibson-Graham 2008). Further on we provide an insight into the individual chapters, but first we review some foundational concepts and thereby establish the key parameters of this volume.
1.2 Sustainability and transformations
A common definition of a sustainable food system is one that ‘delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised’ (FAO 2018). Such a definition draws attention to the three pillars model so frequently cited in relation to sustainable development since the Brundtland Report (WCED 1987) and where economic performance (meaning growth and profitability) usually remains at least as important as maintaining vital ecological services for planetary survival. Yet we contend that food is ill served by such narrow generic definitions and that to speak of ‘sustainable food’ means going well beyond the way many might regard it through the lens, say, of Goal 2 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While ‘zero hunger’ is, indeed, a vital aspiration, the elimination of under-nutrition stands alongside other goals where food must be regarded as inseparable. These include ‘Good Health and Wellbeing’ (goal #3); the elimination of poverty (goal #1); understanding the role of food in enhancing ‘Gender Equality’ (goal #5); to ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’ (goal #12); and, of course, ‘Climate Action’ (goal #13) given the food system’s contribution noted in the opening paragraph. More immediately, with relevance to this volume, we also highlight food’s role in building ‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’ (goal # 11) and in contributing to ‘Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions’ (goal # 16).
If food is such an important thread running through the SDGs then it requires us to adopt a generously broad frame of analysis recognising that societies should seek to recover an appreciation of food’s multidimensional roles beyond that as a global commodity. The pursuit of productivism since mid 20th century has contributed to the world’s current ecological predicament, yet many diverse voices are heralding sustainability as providing a compass bearing for the way forward. But who will steer the course? This is the challenge for all societies as they navigate their way out of a succession of food crises, a global pandemic and years of austerity which brought such widespread insecurity and poverty to even the richest countries. Hence sustainability in relation to food can no longer be adequately framed by the three pillars model noted above, but must now be extended at the very least to embrace the broadest conception of human and planetary health and wellbeing, and the capacity to accommodate a new ethical frame of reference. Moreover, we refer to the emergence of a new philosophical approach that is not just about improved animal welfare standards but begins to re-evaluate the relationship of humans with all other forms of life. This more-than-human ontology has been most cogently outlined by Timothy Morton (2018, 2019) who has argued that our current predicament in the Anthropocene can be traced to the ‘severing’ that took place in the Neolithic with the development of agriculture. As one might guess, this more broadly conceived understanding of sustainability goes well beyond the ‘greening’ of production and consumption in an effort to achieve greater resource efficiencies but, rather, speaks to a more profound transformation of our relationship with the Earth. As the famous aphorism of Albert Einstein reminds us, if we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them then it is unlikely that planetary-scale thinking will entirely resolve our global predicament. Rather, it will require a commitment to local-level actions that demonstrate through everyday practices our willingness to change. Through many of the case studies represented in this volume we see such efforts as communities attempt to pilot their own path to a different food future; not one where business as usual prevails but, rather, a more democratic, participatory and engaged system where human and non-human life is respected.
If we deploy sustainability in this more expansive sense, then equally we should bring the same attention to the term ‘transformation’. This, also, is a word prone to careless deployment and so we use it here cautiously, deliberatively and in a rather interrogative sense as a way of signalling the potential power of this emerging new social order around food. We recognise that the word carries significant weight because of its associations with economic history, particularly its resonance with Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation ( 1957) that heralded the triumph of the market economy and its ideology. Polanyi described this great transformation as a long-term decoupling of market activities from social relations and values through the progressive commodification of all social structures, i.e. through commercialisation that turns the production factors of labour, capital, land and knowledge into commodities. He highlighted the resulting disembedding of an emerging independent economy that effectively reduced national societies to ‘an appendage of the market’. This process is no better demonstrated than in the application of Fordist principles to the realm of food and agriculture, most especially the huge investments in chemical, mechanical and biological innovations and associated developments in infrastructure and marketing, that were to radically transform the production of this most basic and essential human requirement. Consequently, we concur with Allaire and Daviron (2019), who regard the post-1945 era of agricultural productivism not only as forming part of a Polanyian transformation, but to constitute the first Great Transformation of the food system.
The past 70 years have witnessed remarkable changes throughout the entire food system, beginning with farming practices, particularly the adoption of labour-saving technology, in specialisation and in the scale of farm operations. These have been accompanied by extraordinary developments in plant- and animal-breeding programmes that arguably reached an apogee in the 1960s and 1970s with the Green Revolution, though have long been overtaken by more recent scientific ‘advances’ at the cellular level. However, beyond the farm-gate radical changes have taken place in food-processing and assembly line technologies designed to increase the volume of output in accordance with economic efficiency, thus giving rise to a deluge of cheap and convenient products. A growing share of these are then purchased by the public from an increasingly concentrated sector of corporate retailers which have come to exercise enormous influence back up the food chain given practices of standardisation and their control of ‘point-of-sale’ data (Busch 2019).
These developments representing the advance and consolidation of capitalism in agri-food have created a global food economy estimated at US$ 8 trillion in 2015, representing 10% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and around one-third of the global workforce (Clapp 2016). Yet the deleterious consequences of this system have been recognised for some time and have particularly impacted farm families as well as many food consumers. Going back to the 1950s the economic pressure on farmers to adopt new technologies and scale up operations in the pursuit of efficiencies was labelled the ‘agricultural treadmill’. This metaphor is less about the ‘speeding up’ of production (though this has been a feature of animal rearing) than the squeeze on farmers facing rising input costs as a consequence of intensification while experiencing – at best – static prices for their commodities (Sage 2012). The agricultural treadmill has consequently seen a major reduction in the size of the farm population and in the number of agricultural enterprises as the global food economy has expanded under trade liberalisation measures, exposing and fatally undermining many producers to a flood of cheap food imports.
The success in raising output volumes of undifferentiated commodity crops that could be shipped around the world and serve as inputs for the manufacture of processed foodstuffs represents a massification and deculturalisation of food and eating practices. The ubiquity of fast, convenient and ‘tasty’ refined products in many different societies under the combined forces of corporate promotion, advertising and low price witnessed the dominance of ‘Western-style’ eating practices, particularly involving processed meat. Yet from the 1980s onward public health began to fall victim to the consequences of food massification with the emergence of a series of food safety scares. The appearance of listeria and salmonella in eggs, poultry and cooked meat was accompanied by growing concern around pesticide residues, most notably in the case of Alar in apples. Recent experience of the coronavirus pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the number of zoonoses has increased steadily as a consequence of the penetration of the remaining refuges of wild creatures. Through the 1990s the issue of genetic engineering became a touchstone of concern and since 2012 has intensified due to the far-reaching possibilities of genome editing. Meanwhile E. coli outbreaks and episodes of dioxin and other contaminants have arisen, on occasion threatening food safety. However, it was the emergence of bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE) in cattle (‘mad cow disease’) that arguably did most damage to the food industry in the wealthiest countries.
1.3 Alternative food networks
The success of the first Great Transformation in agriculture is invariably measured by volumes of output, the value of exports and the continued expansion of global trade in commodities. Given this, it is fair to say that the contemporary food system has become entirely decoupled from parameters such as the numbers of people fed healthily and sustainably. In other words, it is apparent that human health and the wellbeing of the planet have not been an objective of the food system and that agriculture is not aligned with nutritionally optimal diets. The episodes of public health failures noted above serve to mark the inevitable consequence of a profit-seeking system designed to cut costs at every turn. It is little surprise, therefore, that since the 1980s this era has become something of a turning point in public sensibility, one where localism, quality and territorial embeddedness emerged as key criteria amongst those able to spend more on their food.
Arguably triggered by the twin but unrelated disasters of Chernobyl and BSE, a first generation of ‘re-localising’ food can be observed, possibly best captured by the expressed desire of consumers to ‘know where their food comes from’. Frequenting farmers’ markets and other short-supply chain outlets, buying regional specialty foods and other products that were territorially ‘embedded’ or ethically sourced (e.g. Fairtrade), these AFNs were heralded as representing a new emancipatory resistance to the corporate-dominated world of industrial food (Kirwan et al. 2013). Yet, while closely tied to issues of quality, transparency and trust (Maye and Kirwan 2010), attributes that were regarded as entirely absent from the mainstream food system, these terms quickly became appropriated by Big Food interests in order to reassure consumers and, ultimately, despite the promise of alterity, AFN offered little challenge to the prevailing logic of capitalism.
Yet the unreflexive use of the term ‘local’, as Goodman et al. (2012) carefully interrogate, is not innocent and can quickly establish a set of normative standards that privilege certain analytical categories, exclude democratic and participatory agendas and disregard the politics of place. Moreover, the celebration of territorially embedded ‘quality’ food that secured premium prices while retaining value in the locality served to enhance the status of the market as a neutral venue of transaction. With economic drivers rem...