Cover image for Together at the Table: Sustainability and Sustenance in the American Agrifood System By Patricia Allen

Together at the Table

Sustainability and Sustenance in the American Agrifood System

Patricia Allen


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02473-8

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272 pages
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Rural Studies

Together at the Table

Sustainability and Sustenance in the American Agrifood System

Patricia Allen

“In Together at the Table, sociologist Patricia Allen offers a timely analysis of the discourse and practices of two prominent alternative agrifood movements in the United States: sustainable agriculture and community food security. These movements have contributed significantly to pushing dominant agrifood institutions in a direction that is more environmentally sound and socially just. . . . Together at the Table . . . will be of immense value to anyone wanting to understand how alternative agrifood movements can transform the current agrifood system.”


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  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
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Everywhere you look people are more aware of what they eat and where their food comes from. In a cafeteria in Los Angeles, children make their lunchtime food choices at fresh-fruit and salad bars stocked with local foods. In a community garden in New York, low-income residents are producing organically grown fruits and vegetables for their own use and to sell at market. In Madison, Wisconsin, shoppers select their food from a bounty of choices at a vibrant farmers’ market. Together at the Table is about people throughout the United States who are building successful alternatives to the contemporary agrifood system and their prospects for the future. At the heart of these efforts are the movements for sustainable agriculture and community food security. Both movements seek to reconstruct the agrifood system—the food production chain, from the growing of crops to food production and distribution—to become more ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just. Allen describes the ways in which people working in these movements view the world and how they see their place in challenging and reshaping the agrifood system. She also shows how ideas and practices of sustainable agriculture and community food security have already woven their way into the dominant agrifood institutions. Allen explores the possibilities this process may hold for improving social and environmental justice in the American agrifood system.

Together at the Table is an important reminder that much work still remains to be done. Now that the ideas and priorities of alternative food movements have taken hold, it is time for the next—even more challenging—step. Alternative agrifood movements must acknowledge and address the deeper structural and cultural patterns that constrain the long-term resolution of social and environmental problems in the agrifood system.

“In Together at the Table, sociologist Patricia Allen offers a timely analysis of the discourse and practices of two prominent alternative agrifood movements in the United States: sustainable agriculture and community food security. These movements have contributed significantly to pushing dominant agrifood institutions in a direction that is more environmentally sound and socially just. . . . Together at the Table . . . will be of immense value to anyone wanting to understand how alternative agrifood movements can transform the current agrifood system.”
“Scholars, consumers, and activists interested in the alternative food movement will find this book useful. Allen does a fine job of addressing her objective.”

Patricia Allen is Director of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz.




1. Sustainability and Sustenance in the Agrifood System

2. Perspectives of Alternative Agrifood Movements: Issues and Concepts

3. Landscapes of Alternative Agrifood Movements: Institutional Integration and Construction

4. Discourses, Epistemologies, and Practices of Sustainability and Sustenance

5. Reflections on Ideologies Embedded in Alternative Agrifood Movements

6. Participation and Power in Alternative Agrifood Movements and Institutions

7. Politics of Complacency? Rethinking Food System Localization

8. The Politics of Sustainability and Sustenance

9. Working Toward Sustainability and Sustenance



1 Sustainability and Sustenance in the Agrifood System

Everywhere you look these days there are signs that people are beginning to take charge of their food system. In a cafeteria in Los Angeles, children make their lunchtime choices at fresh-fruit and salad bars stocked with local produce. In a community garden in New York, low-income residents are producing organically grown fruits and vegetables for their own use and for sale. In Madison, Wisconsin, shoppers make their selections from a bounty of choices at a vibrant farmers’ market. In universities across the country, faculty members research and students study organic farming. In San Francisco, “at-risk” teenagers run an organic food business. On a farm in Santa Cruz, California, unionized farmworkers grow and harvest organic strawberries. In Washington, D.C., legislators develop new policies and programs to promote sustainable agriculture and community food security. These kinds of activities span the entire United States, from Hawaii to Maine, as diverse groups of people work to construct alternatives to the conventional practices, discourses, and institutions of the contemporary agrifood system. In the United States much of this work has been spearheaded and encompassed by the movements for sustainable agriculture and community food security. The goals of these movements are to reconstruct the agrifood system to become more environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially just.

Alternative agrifood activities and actions are the result of both increased knowledge about the agrifood system and increased understanding that the system can be changed. Today’s newspapers and newsrooms, the oracles of modern times, increasingly lead with stories about food and agriculture. Occurrences of mad cow disease, the mysterious infiltration of the food supply by genetically modified foods, pesticide drift near elementary schools, charity food distribution for working people, the transformation of farms into shopping centers, epidemic rates of obesity—all are regularly placed at the forefront of public consciousness. Every day in the United States resources are depleted, toxins enter the food chain, people go hungry, and the gap between the rich and the poor grows at an accelerating rate. Yet many people do not feel helpless in the face of this staggering array of environmental and social problems. They realize that, as the country moves further and further from democratic practice, these conditions have been accompanied and enabled by a process that wrests decision making away from ordinary people. They witness the failure of electoral politics and political parties to solve agrifood problems, a situation they fear can only get worse, as the decision-making ability of elected governments is superseded by the power of global capital to limit choice. They have decided that it is time to take matters into their own hands.

In many places and in many different ways some people are struggling to improve conditions in the agrifood system. Not content to let food production, distribution, and quality be defined and determined by faceless others, they have taken action. Consciously or not, they are part of a new assemblage of movements sweeping the nation, movements for alternative food and agriculture. The issues with which these groups are concerned include food safety, access to food, environmental degradation, and rural development. Together they are addressing these basic issues of sustenance and sustainability—to reconfigure the agrifood system to meet people’s food needs both for the present and for the future.

Two movements figure prominently in these efforts: a movement for sustainable agriculture and a movement for community food security. The concerns they address are closely related but have somewhat different emphases. The sustainable agriculture movement has focused primarily on production-centered issues, such as environmental degradation and the viability of the family farm. The community food security movement has centered more on issues of distribution and consumption, such as food access and nutrition problems. These movements are related in different but complementary ways, and increasing consumer demand for pesticide-free, organic, non–genetically modified food has only strengthened the ties between them. Because the issues they address are so important, they have attracted a broad range of participants and have become significant social movements.

Social movements are efforts to change widespread existing conditions—political, economic, and cultural. The multiple strategies that social movements employ to achieve their objectives can be quite varied. Alternative agrifood movements in the United States operate primarily at two levels: at the level of developing alternative practices, such as those just described, and at the level of changing institutions. Historically, many social movements have chosen to operate outside the state, having little faith in the sociopolitical process and power structures that excluded their concerns in the first place. In America’s agrifood system, for example, those who have been able to influence political decision making have been primarily producer groups and food industries little interested in issues of agricultural sustainability or food security. Yet because of the central role of government in the American agrifood system, the movements for sustainable agriculture and community food security have had to engage public institutions at local, state, and federal levels. Therefore, in addition to working on many other fronts, these alliances of farmers, environmentalists, consumers, and scientists have sought and achieved a “place at the table” in major food and agricultural institutions. Ideas that were once anathema, in the case of sustainable agriculture, or unknown, in the case of community food security, have become part of the policy, research, and education agendas of these institutions.

What is the effect of these efforts to create change in the agrifood system at both community and institutional levels? Although there has been no comprehensive evaluation of these efforts, it would seem that they have already begun to improve conditions of everyday life for those who have not been well served by the conventional agrifood system. For example, the creation of a farmers’ market in an inner city where there was previously little or no access to fresh fruit and vegetables is surely a positive development. Similarly, providing institutional funding to teams of researchers working with farmers to develop environmentally sound farming practices is an important step toward resource conservation in agriculture. These incremental improvements, significant in themselves, also provide openings for catalyzing further changes as programs and networks expand. The people involved in these diverse efforts can coalesce into a powerful social movement for restructuring and transforming the agrifood system in the direction of greater environmental soundness and social justice.

Alternative agrifood movements may also possess significant potential to develop into even broader movements for social and environmental change. For example, the introduction of genetically modified organisms into the food supply has become a powerful catalyst for social activism, spanning issues of food safety, sustainability, equity, biodiversity, and democracy. Agricultural sustainability and food security are important to each and every person, regardless of economic or social class. Moreover, as discursive symbols, both sustainability and food security are enormously powerful. Youngberg and others (1993) suggest that in its emotional appeal and evocative meanings, sustainability is on par with concepts such as freedom, liberty, and democracy. Yet the extent to which alternative agrifood movements and their activities help create substantial change in the direction of greater environmental sustainability, social equity, and food security remains unclear. In other words, analysis of these rapidly developing alternative discourses and practices lags behind their proliferation in communities and institutions.

This book is a first step toward such an analysis. In it I explore the discourses and practices of alternative agrifood movements and actions and the translation of movement ideals into practice. I focus primarily on the sustainable agriculture and community food security aspects of the alternative agriculture movement. Specifically, I examine how the ideas and practices of sustainable agriculture and community food security have been woven into the dominant agrifood institutions in the United States In addition, I explore the possibilities this process may hold for improving social and environmental justice in the American agrifood system.

<1> Social Movements and Social Change

Throughout human history, social change has been brought about by people organizing themselves to correct a perceived injustice or inequity. In the United States, food safety laws, women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery, workers’ rights to unionize, antihunger programs, the end to the Vietnam War, our very independence as a nation—all were brought about by the collective actions of ordinary people.

There has been some debate about whether alternative agrifood efforts like sustainable agriculture or community food security actually represent social movements at all, or whether they behave more like something more modest, such as special interest groups or affinity groups. This raises the question: What is a social movement? While social scientists devote much thought and analysis to the definition of social movements, Cohen (1985) has pointed out that there is little agreement among theorists on what a social movement is exactly and how it differs from a political party or interest group. Assigning the term “social movement” to a group of actors therefore remains somewhat arbitrary. Many different phenomena have been categorized as social movements, including public-interest lobbies, religious movements, revolutions, and political reform movements (McAdam et al. 1988). The term generally refers to persistent, patterned, and widely distributed collective challenges to the status quo. Collective action becomes a movement when participants refuse to accept the boundaries of established institutional rules and routinized roles. For Darnovsky and others (1995), social movements are collective efforts by socially and politically subordinated people to challenge the conditions and assumptions of their lives.

Within this framework, can any alternative agrifood effort legitimately be called a social movement? To answer this question, I refer to Scott (1990), who proposes that a social movement is a collective actor constituted by individuals who understand themselves to have common interests and a common identity. The issue of self-perception is crucial to this definition. That is, if the participants in sustainable agriculture and community food security groups refer to what they are doing as a social movement—and they do—there is little purpose in scholarly questioning of their terminology. However imperfectly articulated and integrated, a large group of people working together to achieve sustainability and community food security is considered to be, and should be referred to as, a social movement.

Alternative agrifood movements have similarities in themes and strategies with other progressive social movements. Merchant (1992) situates the movement for sustainable agriculture within the environmental and ecofeminist movements. These types of movements, which began to take shape in the 1970s, are new in the sense that their objectives are not delimited by objectives such as increased workers’ power or national liberation, as were “old” social movements. There is nothing new about concerns like women’s rights, peace, and the environment. These issues have long been with us, but were probably suppressed in the old social movements (Frank and Fuentes 1990). Common themes of new social movements are struggles for a democratic, postpatriarchal society (Cohen 1985), often centered on specific political goals or recognition of rights. New social movements are increasing in strength and importance; they inspire and mobilize people more than the “old” ones do (Frank and Fuentes 1990). These movements are driven not only by abstract social issues but also by concerns about their participants’ own life conditions and identities, issues that they experience in daily life. Perhaps because of this immediacy, these movements have become quite powerful.

<1> Discourse and Social Movements

In this book I focus on discourse because of its centrality in the constitution and efficacy of social movements. By “discourse” I mean the ensemble of social, political, and cultural languages, meanings, codes, and relationships that construct, maintain, or challenge the social order. It is the process through which social reality comes into being.

Discourse is what forms and maintains social movement identity. In fact, for some, discourse is primarily what a social movement is. For Eyerman and Jamison (1991: 3), for example, the concepts, ideas, and intellectual activities—the cognitive praxis—of a social movement are what give the movement its identity and its particular meaning. For them, cognitive praxis is the core activity of a social movement, and this cognitive territory is what transforms a group of individuals into a social movement. “It is precisely in the creation, articulation, and formulation of new thoughts and ideas—new knowledge—that a social movement defines itself in society” (Eyerman and Jamison 1991: 3). Discourse is not only constitutive of social movements; it is also one of the primary tools movements employ to work toward social change.

For many analysts, the primary power of social movements is discursive, that is, it lies substantially in their ability to challenge dominant perspectives and priorities by raising new issues, changing popular consciousness, and opening new arenas of public policy. Power is embodied in and exercised through discourse. Control of discourse by institutional and societal power holders is a key factor in maintaining power (Fairclough 2001). The discursive construction of reality is a crucial realm of power for social movements that do not control major economic resources or the formal political process. While government and economic resources are major loci of power in society, another is ability to define situations (Wallerstein 1990). Discursive struggles are therefore crucial arenas for instigating changes in cultural and material conditions and within institutions.

One of the key functions of a social movement is to challenge and “rehabilitate” social institutions, to “reform” public space so that new ideas and relationships can develop. It is through discourse that dominant ideas within organizations and institutions are produced, reproduced, contested, and transformed (Fairclough 1994: 10). The relationship between the discourse of social movements and that of social institutions is dialectical. That is, as movements reshape institutions, institutions also reshape movements. Social institutions both determine and are produced by discourse. Discourse simultaneously reflects and creates social reality. It is in this discursive space that the present study is located.

<1> Studying Alternative Agrifood Movements

Since most alternative agrifood ideas and practices have emerged relatively recently (or only recently come under academic scrutiny), research analyzing alternative agrifood discourses and practices is still in its infancy. According to Kloppenburg and others (1996) this relative paucity of research on alternatives to the agrifood system is also related to the fact that analysts of the food system have tended to focus more on the problems of agribusiness, and less on the work being done to solve those problems. Increasingly, however, scholars are looking closely at the development of these alternatives; research to date on alternative agrifood practices focused mostly on one of three approaches (Allen et al. 2003)—identification, classification, and analysis.

The first approach consists primarily of identifying and describing these alternatives—a kind of affirmation that people are actively engaged in developing alternative food pathways and institutions (see, for example, Henderson 1998). The second has had a more instrumental focus, evaluating various types of agrifood alternatives in terms of their potential for helping different populations or sectors such as small-scale farmers, food-based entrepreneurs, or regional economies (e.g., Ilbery and Kneafsey 1999 and Kolodinsky and Pelch 1997). The third approach focuses on analyzing specific expressions of alternative agrifood efforts, such as direct marketing (e.g., Hinrichs 2000) or community-supported agriculture (CSA) (e.g., DeLind and Ferguson 1999). It still remains for researchers to study the constellation of agrifood alternatives. In an effort to develop this research agenda, I have undertaken in this book to analyze the discourse and practices of the alternative agrifood movement and their integration into traditional agrifood institutions in the United States.

As I have argued before, this kind of analysis is important for enabling alternative agrifood efforts to accomplish their goals and minimize potentially contradictory outcomes. Those working in alternative food movements have neither the time nor often the inclination to study the larger context of their work. While committed people work in many different areas of the food system to effect change, those embroiled in direct action, whether on farms, in nongovernmental organizations, in laboratories, or in agrifood businesses, rarely have the opportunity to analyze their efforts. Yet this type of analytical process can reveal possibilities for and obstacles to success that may be obscured by the demands of day-to-day work. Marsden and Arce (1995) point out that without close, empirical studies of food systems, we are likely to miss not only understanding how such systems work but also—and perhaps more important—how they might change.

This work also attempts to fill a gap in the study of social movements. Eyerman and Jamison (1991) write that sociologists have generally ignored the cognitive dimensions of activities in the movements they study, focusing instead on actions such as the mobilization of resources, organizational methods, and campaign strategies. For many sociologists knowledge and identity are seen as nonempirical objects and therefore outside the range of what can be studied. Other scholars of social movements focus on the identities of the movements, but study them primarily by reference to theories of social change and philosophies of history.

My subject in this book is primarily the discourse of the alternative agrifood movements in the United States generally and in California in particular, to include the assumptions shared by participants in the movement as well as the specific topics or issues around which the movements are created, that is to say, their cognitive content. What are the core assumptions and positions of the movements? How far do they take us on a path to an environmentally sounder and more equitable agrifood system? I am also interested in how alternative agrifood discourses have been integrated into major agrifood institutions. What has been the record and effect of this integration? What is the potential of the alternative discourses and practices supported by the movements themselves?

The data for this analysis come from several sources. These include the projects funded by public programs in sustainable agriculture and community food security, publications by leaders and participants in the alternative agrifood movement, interviews with key people in these traditional agrifood institutions and alternative agrifood organizations, surveys and interviews of farmers and consumers, and my own observations as a long-time participant in alternative agrifood movements.

I also used textual sources: institutional grant programs in sustainable agriculture and community food security; published documents, including program reports, pamphlets, and manuscripts written by program leaders; and alternative agrifood movement publications, presentations, and conference programs. Institutional grant programs in sustainable agriculture and community food security are social forms where discourse and practices are evident and formalized. In these we can see which ideas and practices are preferred and privileged, and which are downplayed or omitted. Published documents written by program leaders reveal collective institutional priorities and perspectives. Alternative agrifood movement publications, presentations, and conference programs represent the self-identified perspectives and priorities of alternative agrifood movements.

Of course, real people carry out relationships between and within institutions. An investigation of people’s self-understanding is crucial to learning more about the meaning and potential of sustainable agriculture and community food security discourse and practice. Therefore, I interviewed key people in the movements and the institutions. These interviews are “triangulated” by my own observations at alternative agrifood conferences and meetings, based upon my “position” within the movements. Because I have myself been involved in the movement for sustainable agriculture for nearly twenty years, and in the community food security movement almost since its inception, I am also a participant observer. I initiated and organized the first University of California conference on sustainable agriculture in January 1985, at a time when the very concept of sustainability was considered heretical within the agricultural establishment. In 1995 I organized a community food security project in Santa Cruz, California. I collaborated on developing the original proposal and was a participant in a California organizational collaboration on agricultural sustainability and food-system issues, and I have attended and taken part in numerous alternative agrifood meetings and activities over the years. Thus I have had many opportunities to bypass the academic isolationism that Epstein (1990: 39) criticizes in the study of social movements. In her view, the absence of a “vital intellectual connection” to social movements leads researchers to develop theories “more about than for the movements.”

Discovering how people working in the alternative agrifood movement and agrifood institutions view the world and how they see their place in challenging and reshaping the agrifood system represents an essential step for better understanding the sites of and possibilities for change in the agrifood system. Yet these perspectives are rarely studied. According to Kloppenburg and others (2000), conceptual framings of alternative food systems have been devised primarily by academics and policy specialists, but so far, none of these perspectives reflects the full range of understandings among those producers and consumers who constitute the bulk of the movement. In their study of the meaning of food-system sustainability within a broad cross section of the alternative agrifood community, Kloppenburg and others found that popular meanings of sustainability often differed significantly from the definitions of academics and professional advocates. They assert that it is essential to include the perspectives of “ordinary people,” who are, after all, the “principal agents of change in the efforts to recreate the food system.”

An intensive study of subjectivity is beyond the scope of this book; however, I draw on three studies in which I was involved to include the perspectives and priorities of participants in alternative agrifood movements and practices. The earliest of these is a survey of California agrifood organizations that I conducted in the fall and winter of 1996–97 under the auspices of the California Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (CASA). This survey, the first of its kind, gathered information on organization mission statements, conceptions of sustainability and food security, and projects and activities. The initial list of organizations was compiled by CASA members and was supplemented through conversations with these initial groups. Organizations were targeted because they are more influential than individuals and because their perspectives are the products of larger discussions and deliberations and more closely represent the views of their constituencies. Although results from the survey are more illustrative than definitive, they nonetheless provide a picture of the perspectives and priorities of respondent organizations. We received 71 questionnaires out of 196, a response rate of 36 percent.

The second study is one I conducted with a research team at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on alternative agrifood institutions (AFIs) in California. AFIs are the collective efforts of people to build food systems that are more environmentally sound and socially just than the conventional food system. This research focused on the subjectivity of “agents,” that is to say, the people who actually do the work of developing agrifood alternatives in California. Our goal was to document how people express agency in reaction to the problems they perceive in the agrifood system as well as to reflect their self-perceptions of their actions. In the first phase of this research, we focused on the leaders, since leadership is considered to be a crucial ingredient in the trajectory and success of these organizations. Through her work with numerous community-based food organizations, Feenstra (1997) determined that the first key element for developing sustainable, equitable food systems is leadership by clearly identifiable leaders who can build strategic relationships. Thus, in conducting this research project, our hope was not only to gather information about an organization and its activities but also to learn more about the perspectives of the actors who guide and direct each organization.

For this phase of the study we identified eighty California organizations that fit within a general typology of alternative agrifood organizations. Of these eighty organizations, we selected forty-five that represented a range of activities intended to change the way food is produced, consumed, or distributed. Programs offered by these organizations included alternative agrifood education programs, therapeutic agriculture programs, local and regional food labels, agrifood microenterprises, urban agriculture and community gardens, food policy advocacy, farm-to-school programs, community-supported agriculture, and farmers’ markets. Contacts with these organizations resulted in a list of thirty-seven that were still in existence and able to participate in the study. Geographically, the distribution of our study sample reflected the population densities of these alternative agrifood organizations in California. Organizations were often located in both northern California (mostly near the San Francisco Bay area) and southern California (mostly in and around the Los Angeles area). Our goal in this study was neither statistical rigor nor generalizability. Rather, it was to learn about the worldviews and transformative potential of alternative food efforts by listening to the perspectives and insights of their leaders as expressed through in-depth interviews.

Research team members conducted semi-structured interviews with organization leaders, primarily face-to-face, supplemented by telephone interviews where in-person interviews were not possible. In each case, the interviewee was sent a list of the interview questions beforehand so they could provide thought-out, rather than spur-of-the-moment, responses. The questionnaire was designed to collect basic information about the organization’s history, activities, obstacles, and influences. It also provided opportunities for AFI leaders to share their perceptions of key problems and solutions in the food system, their vision for a better food system, and their motivations for being involved in alternative food work. In these interviews we collected basic information about the organization’s history, activities, obstacles, and influences. Each interview was taped, transcribed, coded, and tabulated.

The third study focused on community-supported agriculture on the Central Coast of California. Community-supported agriculture is an alternative approach to food production and provision in which consumers pay farmers at the beginning of the growing season; in exchange they receive a weekly share of produce. The purpose of this study was to document how community-supported agriculture was being implemented in this area, to assess the extent to which groups practicing community-supported agriculture (CSAs) were meeting the goals ascribed to them in the alternative agrifood movement and to identify the opportunities for and constraints on meeting these goals. In this study we wanted to obtain the perspectives of both producers and supporting community members. For producers, data were collected both through in-depth interviews with twelve community-supported farmers (out of fourteen in the area) and a written questionnaire. Information on member experiences and perspectives was gathered through a written questionnaire included in the members’ boxes or sent through the mail. We received 274 responses to the 638 surveys delivered to members, a response rate of 43 percent. In addition, we held three focus groups with seventeen members of five different farms. Focus group members were self-selected by identifying their interest in participating on their written questionnaires.

While the information about alternative agrifood institutions in this book has been gathered from a number of sources using multiple methods, it is less inclusive in its geographic reach. All of the data and examples come from the United States.

<1> Area of Focus: United States and California

This research focuses primarily on alternative agrifood movements in California and in the rest of the United States because of the worldwide economic and political significance of their agrifood systems. The dissemination of the American model of production and consumption to other countries, combined with technological leadership and unchallenged supremacy of the United States in world markets, has “effectively established an international food order under North American hegemony” (Marsden and Little 1990: 26). American leadership in agricultural production volume and sales is beyond dispute. The United States exports far more edible agricultural products than any other country—almost half again as much as the next highest export country, which is France (Food and Agriculture Organization 1996). And it is partly due to this economic power that American food production systems and technologies are promoted and emulated throughout the world.

Within the United States, California possesses the premier food and agricultural system. As the world’s sixth-largest economy, with a land mass roughly equivalent to that of the United Kingdom, and home to 34 million people, California is almost more like a country than a state. It has led the nation in agricultural production and income for nearly fifty years, and its agricultural economy ranks sixth among nations as an exporter of agricultural products. In part because of its climate, productive soils, and irrigation system, California ranks first in the nation in agricultural production value for 75 crop and livestock commodities, generating $24.8 billion in sales in 1996 (California Farm Bureau Federation 1998). California agriculture is one of the most diversified in the world, producing over 250 different crop and livestock commodities, with no single crop dominating the state’s agricultural economy. Although its 30 million acres of farmland account for only 3 percent of the country’s total, it produces 55 percent of the nation’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Long held up as an exemplar for the rest of the nation and often the world, California’s agrifood system is assuming a leadership role in the domains of sustainable agriculture and community food security as well. Within the state, organic farming is a significant and growing industry, generating $95.1 million in sales in 1995, a 26 percent increase over the previous two years (Torte and Klonsky 1998). California has extensive experience in all aspects of sustainable agriculture. As a result of the organizing efforts of California Certified Organic Growers, as early as 1978 California developed legal standards for organic agriculture. This law was used as a model by the group drawing up the rule that became federal policy in 2002. Another institutional marker is that the national office of the CFSC was established and remains in California, and 25 percent of its membership reside there.

California provides an excellent opportunity for studying the possibilities of a movement that combines environmentalism and justice in food and agriculture. Because of the ways in which California agriculture differs from that of America’s agricultural “heartland,” there may be greater potential in California than in other agricultural regions for the development of alternative movements. Unlike agriculture in many parts of the country, California agriculture has been explicitly capitalist from the start, underscoring many of the contradictions that the sustainability and food security movements address.

From the beginning, California agriculture was based on the intensive extraction of natural resources and the reconfiguring of nature according to the logic of intensive agricultural production for export. California agriculture is based on extensive irrigation systems and the intensive use of fertilizers. The same long growing season and mild winters that enable the high production of so many fruit and vegetable crops also allows pest populations to grow, leading to high rates of pesticide application.

California is also the nation’s first and most extensive example of highly concentrated agriculture, with over 50 percent of production controlled by only 10 percent of the farmers by the end of the 1920s (Jelinek 1982). While large-scale agribusiness is a feature of agriculture throughout the country, corporate involvement has tended to be in input, marketing, and processing. rather than in direct production. The entry of large corporations in farm production has been the exception in most parts of the United States (Pfeffer 1992), but not in California. Agricultural land ownership has been highly concentrated in the West since the arrival of Europeans, and this concentration led to the creation of a dual system of capitalist farmers and wage laborers (FitzSimmons 1990).

While in most parts of the United States farm production is based on family or tenant labor, California agriculture has always depended on seasonally employed migratory workers (Martin et al. 1988). More than 85 percent of all of the labor that produces the state’s crops and livestock is performed by hired workers (Villarejo et al. 2000). California agriculture presents a clear juxtaposition of deep social inequality with unparalleled abundance. Ironically, the farmworkers who produce and harvest California’s bountiful crops comprise one of the populations at greatest risk of hunger. Even in the heart of California’s most abundant agricultural region, the Central Valley, children go hungry. The low pay, arduous and dangerous working conditions, and lack of employment security have led to persistent farmworker protests over the years, including a successful interethnic coalition that became the United Farm Workers Union (UFW).

Since at least the 1960s activists in California have raised issues about environmental and social problems in their agrifood system. Environmental concerns focused on agrichemical effects on the environment and groundwater depletion. Social concerns included the plight of farmworkers, the distributional effects of irrigation laws, and the poverty and racism that were part and parcel of the agrifood system. This tradition of activism continues to this day. Today, California has a high density of projects and organizations dedicated to sustainable agriculture and community food security. For example, California is the only state that has developed a statewide community food security organization, the California Community Food Security Network. And, of the five regional Sustainable Agriculture Working Groups, only one is based in a single state, the one in California.

Thus, the social and environmental issues of California’s industrialized agrifood system, along with a history of social activism may provide a different type of catalyst for change in California than in other American agricultural regions. Alternative agrifood movements may also have a better chance to flourish within the state’s complex and diverse demographic and sociopolitical environment. While conventional agricultural interests are powerful in California, they may be less so than in other states where agriculture is a more significant part of the economy. While California is the nation’s leading agricultural producer, farming and related activities contribute only about 8 percent of the gross state product and supply about 8 percent of the jobs in the state (Carter and Goldman 1996). Not only is California’s political economy relatively less dependent on agricultural production, but California voters tend to be nonrural and liberal. More than 90 percent of the state’s population lives in metropolitan areas, and less than one percent of the state’s residents are farmers or ranchers. These conditions pave the way for interests beyond those of conventional producers to help shape the agrifood system of the future.

California provides fertile ground for the development of a progressive alternative agrifood movement. The relatively small contribution of agriculture to the state’s current economy, a history of diverse agrifood activism, the emphasis on progressive politics and alternative lifestyles, the high level of cultural diversity, and the degree of involvement with sustainability suggest that if an arm of the movement that joins environmental issues and social justice were to develop anywhere, California would be a likely place.

<1> Primary Themes of the Book

To understand these movements we first need to address why they exist. It is clear that the contemporary agrifood system is not meeting people’s food security needs at present and because of the progressive damage that conventional practices are doing to the environment, this situation is likely to get worse. The conventional agrifood system therefore needs significant changes in order to achieve ecological soundness and social justice. Conventional agriculture has been largely self-negating, depleting the natural resources upon which agricultural processes depend and thus producing barriers to long-term environmental sustainability and food security. These are the core issues for those involved in alternative agrifood movements. Since they are well documented and articulated in many other places, I summarize them in Chapter 2, where I also outline the development of concepts and movements centered on sustainable agriculture and community food security.

The drive toward environmental soundness and social equity in the agrifood system must be waged on many fronts. Interactions among the larger environmental, social, and economic systems in which agriculture is situated directly influence agricultural production and distribution. This means that solutions need to be found both on and beyond the farm, and that solutions will be not only technical but also social and political as well. Alternative agrifood movements realize that they need to engage with the agrifood institutions, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the land-grant agricultural research system, that have largely configured the current agrifood system. I discuss how the alternative agrifood movement has accomplished this engagement in Chapter 3, in which I review the institutionalization and key features of national and California programs in sustainable agriculture and community food security. Alternative agrifood movements are also developing concrete alternatives to current methods of production and distribution. In Chapter 3, I also highlight some of the alternative production and marketing practices featured by alternative agrifood movements.

What this book contributes to these efforts is an analysis of how alternatives are moving the agrifood system in the direction of environmental soundness and social equity. Through this review it is clear that the movements have made significant progress in developing alternatives to the current agrifood system and in integrating alternative discourses into dominant agrifood institutions. In many instances, they have challenged and are beginning to change the discourse and practice of these institutions. Discursive space has been carved out for sustainability and food security, and research agendas and methods are consequently beginning to change. These incremental changes are setting the stage for even broader and deeper transformations in major agrifood institutions.

Yet although new alternative agrifood discourses are being established, many traditional, conventional agrifood discourses remain. Chapter 4 identifies and examines both these emergent and residual discourses. In some ways, the institutional forms of sustainable agriculture and community food security have been constructed such that their problems are remediable within the structures of existing institutions. These institutions, in turn, shape the accepted frameworks of sustainable agriculture and community food security. Buttel (1997), for example, points out that although the sustainable agriculture movement is based upon broad social values, its effectiveness within traditional institutions is a based upon promoting a set of technical practices institution leaders consider both comprehensible and relatively noncontroversial.

This process occurs without any group necessarily intending it to happen. For example, the focus on natural science and technology can be seen as an accommodation to the institutions in which these approaches have been privileged and with which their scientists and administrators are familiar. Yet developing an environmentally sound and socially equitable agrifood system requires a larger epistemological framework for analysis than that of traditional agricultural science in order to find common ground and see beyond constructed dichotomies such as production and consumption. One approach suggested for analysis and action is a political ecological framework in which causes of and solutions to problems in the agrifood system are seen as both natural and social.

There is a narrow, and permeable, boundary between residual and emergent—the old and the new—discourse and practice, both within agricultural institutions and within the alternative movements themselves. Chapter 5 explores how the movements may be reproducing some of the discursive approaches and ideologies of the dominant agrifood system, such as economic liberalism and individualism, in which nonsustainability and food insecurity are embedded. For example, while farmers may embrace the idea of sustainability, they face the reality of competition; they are driven by the same economic considerations that conventional farmers are. Within the exigencies of the market economy, one must make a profit or get out. Untangling these kinds of Gordian knots requires self-reflection on movement discourses and ideologies.

A crucial discursive step is to clearly define and articulate principles and characteristics of an agrifood system that is based upon environmental soundness and social justice so that the concept of sustainability, for example, cannot be as easily co-opted as it seems to be at the moment. Furthermore, attention needs to be paid to how these principles are interpreted and implemented. For example, many alternative agrifood organizations and programs have vision and goal statements that are broad and inclusive, focusing on environmental soundness and social justice for all food-system participants. In institutions such as sustainable agriculture grant programs or in practices such as alternative marketing strategies, discourse includes everyone. However, these goals tend to narrow as they become operationalized, and at the level of implementation, stakeholder groups such as farmworkers may be excluded entirely.

It is not surprising, then, that sustainability and food security discourse undergoes a narrowing from principles to practices within traditional agrifood institutions. What is possibly more problematic—and also more solvable—is the extent to which this narrowing happens within the alternative movements as well, thereby limiting the claims and changes they attempt to make. This constriction may also be embedded in some of the discourses and ideologies of these movements. Given the central role played by discourse in social movements, it is crucial that this discourse work toward solving rather than reproducing the problems that gave rise to the movement in the first place.

Another issue that bears examination is that of power and participation both in the current agrifood system and in the alternatives promoted by the movement. The primary participants in alternative agrifood movements closely resemble the participants in conventional agriculture in class, gender, and ethnicity. Participants in alternative agrifood movements are caught in power relations and discursive and ideological strangleholds similar to those of conventional agriculture. Chapter 6 addresses issues of authentic democracy as refracted through the prisms of privileged voices, material power, and gender and explores possibilities for deepening and expanding participation in alternative agrifood movements. Given uneven resource allocations among different groups of people, this emergent inclusiveness in turn requires exploring the possibility of democratizing both movements and institutions. So far there has been little discussion of how historically marginalized people can gain access to resources such as education, property, and capital that can give them equal footing in discursive spaces. It is unlikely that a runner who is placed far behind the starting line can catch up with the rest of the field, and this is an issue that needs to be addressed even if it is not clear how it can be resolved.

One of the current major efforts at developing sustainable, just, and democratic agrifood systems focuses on the creation of localized food systems. While these efforts make sense at face value, in Chapter 7 I explore some concerns about the implications of the drive toward food-system localization. These include concerns about the fundamental asymmetries of power within communities and the enormous differences in wealth and resources from one community to another.

In Chapter 8, I look into the current configurations of U.S. food and agricultural policy, including the demographics of the decision-making arrangements that created these policies. After discussing the importance of building broad-based alliances for developing alternative agrifood systems, I address some of the challenges inherent in this kind of effort. I conclude by highlighting emerging alliances for social and environmental justice in the agrifood system.

Now that agricultural sustainability and community food security programs are becoming institutionalized, to what degree should alternative agrifood movements seek further reforms and to what degree should they push for deeper changes in areas such as property relations, participatory democracy, and productive justice? Chapter 9 addresses the very real and troubling tension between reform and transformation faced by all social movements. While building on institutional success, alternative agrifood movements will also need to acknowledge and address the deeper structural and cultural patterns that constrain coordinated efforts to resolve social and environmental problems in the agrifood system. Several steps are crucial to this process: (1) developing a vision for a sustainable and food-secure society; (2) working to understand the causes for a nonsustainable and food insecure society and removing ideological blinders; and (3) realizing that people working together can transform the agrifood system, even at its most fundamental levels. Achieving agricultural sustainability and food security requires both the development of alternative practices and a political struggle over rights, justice, and equity. Whether the future in which we find ourselves is better or worse than the present will depend in large part on the evolving alternative agrifood movements simultaneously prioritizing issues of environmental and human degradation.

This book is an exploration of the concerns, claims, discourses, and practices in the alternative agrifood movement. My intention is to offer information and insights that can contribute to the reflexive efforts of the alternative agrifood movement as it continues to develop. My approach is “critical” in the sense that I attempt to ferret out meanings and connections that may be hidden from view as alternative agrifood advocates pursue the day-to-day actions in which they are engaged. It is not critical in the sense of criticizing people or their efforts as they work to change the agrifood system. I have only the utmost respect and esteem for the many people who work against long odds to develop a sustainable food system that provides sustenance for all. Through this work, I hope to provide some illumination along the path toward a more environmentally sound and socially just agrifood system, one that provides for us for both now and indefinitely into the future.