Growing the Social: Alternative Agrofood Networks and Social Sustainability in the Urban Ethical Foodscape

By Psarikidou, Katerina; Szerszynski, Bronislaw | Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Growing the Social: Alternative Agrofood Networks and Social Sustainability in the Urban Ethical Foodscape


Psarikidou, Katerina, Szerszynski, Bronislaw, Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy


Introduction

Since the Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987) brought to prominence the notion of sustainable development, agrofood practices have been an obvious, if challenging, domain for implementing sustainability. The "semantic plasticity" of the concept has allowed it to be adopted by diverse actors, from community supported agriculture initiatives to multinational corporations (Kloppenburg et al. 2000). However, most of these attempts and practices aim, at best, to balance the economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability, and only to do so as conceived in a narrow way. Thus, their goal might, for example, be an agriculture that does not deplete finite resources or disrupt natural biological processes, while at the same time offering competitive advantage.

In this way, despite the fact that food carries a dense set of social meanings and functions, the social dimension of sustainability has been relatively neglected in the mainstream understanding of sustainable food initiatives. This neglect has not helped to counter the dominance of industrialized agrofood system and governance patterns, which have impeded social sustainability goals by providing few opportunities for meaningful public involvement in food production and policy making and by exacerbating health inequalities as measured by geography and social class.

Against this background, diverse organizations and actors from different backgrounds and interests in the agrofood sector have advanced, frequently in a prefigurative way, their own visions of an alternative sustainable agrofood model. Alternative agrofood networks (AAFNs) is a broad term used to describe initiatives that embody alternatives to the conventional industrialized, global agrofood system (Murdoch et al. 2000; Renting et al. 2003). Concepts such as relocalization, respatialization, resocialization, and reconnection have described the different qualities of the possible alternative agrofood paradigm that such networks might prefigure (Renting et al. 2003). Yet, AAFNs appear to enact alternatives not only to unsustainable agrofood practices, but also to the dominant understanding of sustainable agrofood practices. They thus further demonstrate sustainability's interpretive flexibility, by offering a different approach to sustainable agrofood practices, one that avoids narrow, desocialized understandings of ecological and economic value (Feenstra, 2002).

A number of studies have examined the sustainability potential of AAFNs, such as those involved in organic and local food (e.g., Marsden et al. 1999; Ilbery & Maye, 2005; Iles, 2005; Pretty et al. 2005; Seyfang, 2006). However, this work tends to focus on the potential of AAFNs for ecological sustainability, for example, by measuring "food miles," carbon inputs, and so forth, while others criticize the inadequacy of the AAFNs to "take care of the social aspects of sustainability" (Allen et al. 1991), to move beyond power asymmetries and socioeconomic inequalities, and to integrate social justice and broad-based equity considerations (Allen et al. 1991; Allen & Wilson, 2008; Brown & Getz, 2008; Getz et al. 2008). Moreover, most of the studies prioritize producer-led rural agrofood networks and the social issues that primarily affect rural actors and residents. In so doing, the work neglects ways in which sustainable agrofood networks go beyond rural settings to affect and involve urban populations and metropolitan regions where the growing commodification and globalization of the dominant agrofood system is increasingly responsible for producing a deskilling and alienation in relation to food production and preparation, or even food insecurity (Koc et al. 1999; Wrigley, 2002).

In this article, we draw on research carried out for the European Facilitating Alternative Agro-food Networks Project (EU FAAN Project) and identify ways in which AAFNs can help to deliver social, as well as economic and ecological, sustainability. …

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