Cover image for The Fight Over Food: Producers, Consumers, and Activists Challenge the Global Food System Edited by Wynne Wright and Gerad Middendorf

The Fight Over Food

Producers, Consumers, and Activists Challenge the Global Food System

Edited by Wynne Wright, and Edited by Gerad Middendorf


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Rural Studies

The Fight Over Food

Producers, Consumers, and Activists Challenge the Global Food System

Edited by Wynne Wright, and Edited by Gerad Middendorf

“The categorization of the essays and the overarching theme of agency results in a balanced approach, avoiding easy tropes or doomsday scenarios. Individual essays are consistently sound in scholarship.”


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  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
“One problem with the food system is that price is the bottom line rather than having the bottom line be land stewardship, an appreciation for the environmental and social value of small-scale family farms, or for organically grown produce.” —Interview with farmer in Skagit County, Washington

For much of the later twentieth century, food has been abundant and convenient for most residents of advanced industrial societies. The luxury of taking the safety and dependability of food for granted pushed it to the back burner in the consciousness of many. Increasingly, however, this once taken-for-granted food system is coming under question on issues such as the humane treatment of animals, genetically engineered foods, and social and environmental justice. Many consumers are no longer content with buying into the mainstream, commodity-driven food market on which they once depended. Resistance has emerged in diverse forms, from protests at the opening of McDonald’s restaurants worldwide to ever-greater interest in alternatives, such as CSAs (community-supported agriculture), fair trade, and organic foods. The food system is increasingly becoming an arena of struggle that reflects larger changes in societal values and norms, as expectations are moving beyond the desire for affordable, convenient foods to a need for healthy and environmentally sound alternatives. In this book, leading scholars and scholar-activists provide case studies that illuminate the complexities and contradictions that surround the emergence of a “new day” in agriculture.

The essays found in The Fight Over Food analyze and evaluate both the theoretical and historical contexts of the agrifood system and the ways in which trends of individual action and collective activity have led to an “accumulation of resistance” that greatly affects the mainstream market of food production. The overarching theme that integrates the case studies is the idea of human agency and the ways in which people purposefully and creatively generate new forms of action or resistance to facilitate social changes within the structure of predominant cultural norms. Together these studies examine whether these combined efforts will have the strength to create significant and enduring transformations in the food system.

“The categorization of the essays and the overarching theme of agency results in a balanced approach, avoiding easy tropes or doomsday scenarios. Individual essays are consistently sound in scholarship.”
“How will we feed ourselves in the future? Who will decide? Can people acting together make a difference in the food system to come? This book takes up the key sociological questions of structure and agency in addressing these questions. It moves beyond abstract debates, applying the structure/agency lens to a most important human system—the one that produces and distributes our food. . . .
The Fight Over Food illuminates possibilities for change in the food system and simultaneously reminds us of the constraints of global capitalism. This book will be of interest not only to sociologists who study food and agriculture, but to all students of social change within a variety of disciplines. The Fight Over Food points us in directions for our engagement both as scholars and as citizens of the world who care about food.”

Wynne Wright is Assistant Professor of Community, Food, and Agriculture at Michigan State University

Gerad Middendorf is Associate Professor of Sociology at Kansas State University.



Introduction: Fighting Over Food: Change in the Agrifood System

Wynne Wright and Gerad Middendorf

Part I. Conceptual Framework

1. Agency and Resistance in the Sociology of Agriculture and Food

Alessandro Bonanno and Douglas H. Constance

2. Agency and the Agrifood System

William H. Friedland

3. Resistance, Agency, and Counterwork: A Theoretical Positioning

Norman Long

Part II. Case Studies: Making Room for Agency

4. Counterhegemony or Bourgeois Piggery? Food Politics and the Case of FoodShare

Josée Johnston

5. Resistance, Redistribution, and Power in the Fair Trade Banana Initiative

Aimee Shreck

6. Sustaining Outrage: Cultural Capital, Strategic Location, and Motivating Sensibilities in the U.S. Anti-Genetic Engineering Movement

William A. Munro and Rachel A. Schurman

7. Social Life and Transformation in Salmon Fisheries and Aquaculture

Michael Skladany

Part III. Case Studies: Constraints to Agency

8. Infertile Ground: The Struggle for a New Puerto Rican Food System

Amy Guptill

9. Possibilities for Revitalizing Local Agriculture: Evidence from Four Counties in Washington State

Raymond A. Jussaume Jr. and Kazumi Kondoh

10. Consumers and Citizens in the Global Agrifood System: The Cases of New Zealand and South Africa in the Global Red Meat Chain

Keiko Tanaka and Elizabeth Ransom

Conclusion: From Mindful Eating to Structural Change

Wynne Wright and Gerad Middendorf



Fighting Over Food: Change in the Agrifood System

Wynne Wright and Gerad Middendorf

Time magazine recently reported the story of a man in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who had been pulled over in his pickup truck by the state police for hauling illegal cargo. This was the culmination of a sting operation that resulted in seizure of the cargo. But this was no ordinary drug bust; the driver of the mud-splattered pickup truck was a dairy farmer dealing in raw milk (Cole 2007). A growing number of consumers, often from urban locales, are seeking out the warm, white liquid straight from the udder for what they perceive as its superior nutritional value. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not see it that way. The FDA line is that unpasteurized milk contains E. coli, salmonella, and listeria—all risks to human health. It is illegal to transport raw milk across state lines, just as it is illegal to sell raw milk in twenty-three states. As a result, farmers and raw milk drinkers have found a creative way to circumvent this obstacle by partnering together to organize a small cooperative venture, known as a cow-share. It is legal to drink straight from your own cow, so by organizing a cow-share co-op, consumers are effectively drinking from the cow they own and partnering with the farmer to do the milking and caretaking. The confiscation of the raw milk has set off something of a maelstrom in Michigan. Raw milk drinkers are a dedicated bunch; members of the farmer’s cow-share cooperative could not run fast enough to the aid of their farmer, offering support in numerous ways. It seems that this case is not so unique. People appear to be struggling over the meaning of raw milk—dubbed “real” milk by its supporters—in a number of states. New York, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Nebraska, Colorado, Arizona—the raw milk crack down is spreading, while at the same time resistance is mounting. The conflict over raw milk and the growing divide among producers, consumers, and the state is merely the most recent example of a radically changing food system. The case of raw milk suggests that we are increasingly confronting a food and agriculture system that is being restructured in both subtle and highly politicized ways.

In this book we probe the tremendous dynamism of these social forces to explore the lessons they teach us for understanding the complexity of human agency. Some of the agrifood system changes are quiet and almost slip under the radar for their ordinary, everyday properties. Other changes are constantly scrutinized and are highly politicized on the domestic and international stages, bringing a multitude of actors with divergent interests into conflict with one another. We can see the political and sociocultural nature of this process in diverse initiatives, from campaigns to prevent animal cruelty, to the now routine on-site protests against the opening of McDonald’s restaurants around the world, to the rise of a new entrepreneurial ethos in producers and a heightened reflexivity among consumers. A casual observer of the media might conclude that something qualitatively new is afoot in humans’ relationship to food and agriculture. Consider the following newspaper headlines: “Kinder, Gentler Food: Restaurants, Groceries, and Activists Force Farmers to Change Treatment of Their Animals” (Perkins 2004); “Monsanto Lab in Crystal Closes Amid Food Protests” (Bangor Daily News 2000); “The Slow Food Movement: Slow Food Protests over Fast Foods and Food Safety” (New Internationalist March 2002); “Tests Confirm 2nd Case of Mad Cow Disease in U.S.” (Newman 2005). If headlines are barometers of social trends, then it appears that we are indeed witnessing an explosion of efforts aimed at reconfiguring our relationship to agriculture and food.

We are experiencing the rise of an “alternative” food system that attempts to exist outside of the mainstream commodity-driven network. This alternative network comprises a repertoire vast in economic scale, political intentions, and cultural overhaul. Growth in interest and activity around organic foods, eco-labeled foods, direct marketing, fair trade, local foods, community kitchens and gardens, community-supported agriculture, food box schemes, farmers’ markets, and assorted community buying clubs collectively demonstrate the emergence of a new production/consumption paradigm and are some of the topics taken up in this book. The resurgence of such locally embedded food networks is growing in the United States, but Americans are not alone in charting a new food course. Whatmore, Stassart, and Renting (2003, 389) conclude that such projects “represent some of the most rapidly expanding food markets in Europe over the last decade.” But efforts to construct new alternatives to the existing food system are not the only subject we explore in this book. At the same time, challenges to the current commodity-driven food system by producers and consumers are growing. Struggles over the organization of the current food system are evident in food antidisparagement laws, as well as in the backlash against confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), aquatic “feedlots,” genetically engineered foods, mad cow disease, E. coli contamination, biopiracy, and dissent targeted at transnational trade regulatory bodies such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).

These efforts are only some of the phenomenal changes taking place in the agrifood system. A complete list might be nearly impossible to compile. Therefore, we have been somewhat selective in our account. The essays in this volume highlight some of the major transformations with which many readers will be familiar and, at the same time, demonstrate the arenas of contest that are increasingly part and parcel of our food system.

It is this broad arena of contest—the aggregation of efforts to reshape the conventional agrifood system—that frames our conceptualization of the fight over food. What do these streams of social change share in common? They signify a mounting reflexivity and new modes of action among producers, consumers, and activists in the production and consumption of food (Fine 1995; Fine and Leopold 1993; Goodman 1999, 2004; Lockie et al. 2002; Murdoch, Marsden, and Banks 2000). Food, along with its attendant production processes, is moving to the forefront of our consciousness. It is being reconsidered in light of changing values, norms, customs, science and technology, and institutional resources, and is no longer invisible in our culture. Many of our long-held assumptions about food—from the way it is produced to the way we eat—are now in flux.

These new configurations provide us with an opportunity for a sociological study of the various ways that agency is expressed by humans. All of these contests in the agrifood system—from the rising demand for raw milk to the segmentation of our local supermarkets—are products of human agency. We recognize that social structure can direct, even constrain agency, yet we have avoided overly structuralist accounts that suggest that agency can be squelched under the unbending rigor of structure. We also steer away from interpretations that seem to imply that agency is free to be realized without any constraint whatsoever. In the transformations taking place in the agrifood system we are reminded that actors exercise agency in numerous ways. They may reflexively and creatively generate new forms of action (e.g., new markets), or they may resist the establishment of new forms of action or the continuity of activity. Finally, this volume examines the ways in which individual action and collective activity are articulated. It links the reflexivity of consumers with the collective acts of citizens and attempts to prompt a dialogue that focuses on the synthesis of these roles along with other social roles humans play in society.

How did we get here? In the postwar era of abundance, food moved to the back burner of the consciousness of many in the industrialized world. For most, it became plentiful, inexpensive, more convenient, and perceived as relatively nutritious. Given a willingness to trust those embedded in our food-provisioning system, we relinquished our civic responsibility for food system oversight to farmers, nutritionists, food corporations, agribusinesses, and the state; in other words, we let the experts take charge. Issues of how, where, and by whom food was grown were not generally topics of conversation around the dinner table. In some circles, it might even be considered unacceptable or impolite to inquire about the social life of our dinner.

As we migrated away from the farm and the dinner table through the twentieth century, our consciousness of food likewise migrated away from the biological and social basis of production. As women moved into the workplace and those in the West generally increased the hours spent at work outside the household each week, interest increased in processed foods that provided convenience (e.g., canned, frozen, and prepared foods) (Goodman and Redclift 1991). All the while, confidence in the food system soared—we were assured that food processors were providing us with nutritious choices and that food scientists were using state-of-the art technology to resolve food safety issues. The choices available to the typical shopper appeared to multiply exponentially on supermarket shelves. Most of us believed that our food was being produced by farm families who received a living wage for their labor. Their dependence upon healthy soil and clean water assured us that they would not compromise environmental integrity through poor production practices. Yet we now know that the story of postwar development of the agrifood system is one of both successes and failures.

Although initially it was ridiculed, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) shocked many out of their quiescence over the environmental impacts of indiscriminate pesticide use in agriculture. Since that time, numerous scholars have demonstrated the role agricultural policy has played in encouraging a production treadmill that results in relatively inexpensive and abundant foods, while at the same time expelling farmers from the land, with crippling effects for rural communities (Brown 1988; Cochrane 1979; Dudley 2000; Strange 1988). And now, in the early twenty-first century, we have turned our attention to issues of health and safety (Critser 2003, Nestle 2002). As it turns out, the glorious choices that literally bulge from the shelves of grocery retailers also symbolize the price many in the advanced industrial world pay for a diet of affluence.

These growing realizations stem, in part, from our postmaterialist age, in which some of us have the luxury of putting quality and identity issues surrounding food front and center in our consciousness. But many in less developed countries, as well as an embarrassing number in industrialized nations, continue to combat issues of food insecurity with unfortunate regularity. Ten years after the World Food Summit, where we pledged to tackle the problem of hunger and food insecurity, “virtually no progress has been made.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 854 million people suffer from undernourishment worldwide, 845 million of them in developing and transitional economies and 9 million in the industrialized world (FAO 2006). In the Unites States alone, 11.9 percent of the population—or about 35.7 million—is food insecure (Nord, Andrews, and Carlson 2004). The simultaneous proliferation of food boutiques for the wealthy and food banks for the poor is a distressing paradox that defines an era of overindulgence alongside deprivation (Van Esterik 2005).

What interests us in this volume are the numerous and multifaceted initiatives in the agrifood system that attempt to bring about change in some way, whether through an effort to address social disparities such as hunger and food insecurity or to raise health or environmental concerns, change our eating patterns, or diminish corporate influence. Food and agriculture have become public debates in transnational, national, and regional policy, in part because they offer what social movement theorists refer to as a “consensus frame.” The desire for accessible “quality” food, a healthy environment, and regional economic development transcends the social markers of race, class, gender, and geography that divide us. We all want and need sustainable livelihoods.

Social scientists have variously referred to this distinctive impulse in food provisioning as an “alternative geography of food” (Whatmore and Thorne 1997) or an “alternative agro-food network” (Murdoch, Marsden, and Banks 2000). We find particularly useful Lyson’s concept of “civic agriculture” as a way of describing this remaking of our agrifood system. Civic agriculture is an organizational production strategy “tightly linked to a community’s social and economic development” (Lyson 2004, 1). This approach offers an integrative vision that promotes local environmental stewardship and rural community culture, including reciprocity and norms of neighboring, while simultaneously incubating engines for economic development. In this way, it liberates communities and food systems from global dependence by promoting paths of local interdependence. We feel that Lyson’s concept of civic agriculture comes closest to reuniting us with our food and our social obligations to each other. We will return to this subject in the concluding chapter. In this volume, we use a case study approach to analyze the developmental processes of food system change, thereby filling a gap in the agrifood literature.

We examine many of these trends and ask whether, taken together, they portend an “accumulation of resistance” that may fundamentally transform the predominant agrifood system, or whether they represent rather fragmented, atomized expressions of symbolic consumption. In other words, do these trends signify a transformative social movement or merely the emergence of “bourgeois bohemian” or “bobo” (Brooks 2001) food consumption patterns? Have the affluent classes merely reembraced food as a form of social capital (Bourdieu 1984), or do the efforts to redesign our food system suggest the birth of a new institutional arrangement, one that could replace the conventional productionist-centered agrifood system?

While anthropologists, economists, geographers, and agricultural sociologists have tried to present the range of new agricultural and food initiatives and explain their resonance, few have attempted to draw them together and examine their transformative potential. Seldom have we seen in the social science agrifood literature cogent attempts to grapple with these initiatives as a comprehensive form of social change. Can they be explained as a function of new forms of human agency, or as resistance to the dominant mode of agriculture? Or both? In this volume, we explore these questions.

An exhaustive review of the literature is beyond the scope of this introduction, but we hope to provide some tools to help the reader grasp the ways in which social change is possible. We turn first to an overview of some of the changes taking place in our agrifood system. In other words, we look at what’s “new” in agrifood systems. This involves the discussion of a concept of paramount interest in this volume—human agency. We provide an overview of this concept and touch briefly on some of the conceptual debates in the literature where they relate to agrifood system change. We conclude the introduction with a brief overview of the case studies in the book.

The Politics of the Plate

Starting with western Europe, van der Ploeg and Renting highlight the invigoration of an entrepreneurial ethos and demonstrate the salience of new critical market streams for the production sector. They write that more than half of professional farmers in the European Union (EU) have adopted on-farm production strategies that add value “through such mechanisms as quality production, on-farm processing, marketing through new short circuits,” or are attempting to broaden their market reach by expanding into “new non-agricultural activities that are located on the interface between society, community, landscape and biodiversity” (van der Ploeg and Renting 2004, 235). Organic agriculture is one example of such “quality” production.


Fast becoming one of the most dramatic expressions of the politicization of food, the popularity of organic food and beverages has accelerated rapidly. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) define organic agriculture as a “holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It emphasizes the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account that regional conditions require locally-adapted systems. This is accomplished by using, where possible, agronomic, biological and mechanical methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfill any specific function within the system” (Slign and Christman 2003, 1). The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) goes further by integrating components of social and economic sustainability, along with biological elements, into its definition of organic agriculture (IFOAM 2007). Regardless of differing definitions, it seems that organic agriculture has exploded on the world stage, affecting production and consumption trends and creating new industries as well as reconfiguring older agribusiness firms (DuPuis 2000).

Global sales of organic products are increasing annually, making organics a growing segment of the food market. In the United States, organic production has outpaced all other sectors of the farm economy (OTA 1999), with sales growing by 20 to 25 percent annually over the past decade (Greene and Dimitri 2003). This surprising growth in the U.S. demand for organics has bypassed that of the European Union, historically the leader in organic consumption (Organic Monitor 2006). More than 77 million acres worldwide are now farmed using organic methods (IFOAM 2007), 4 million of them in the United States. The economic future of organic production appears bright in many areas of the world. Organic food and drink sales in the United States hit $40 billion in 2006, and many areas of the world began to experience shortages (Organic Monitor 2006). But an expanding market share does not readily translate into the potential to fundamentally transform our agrifood system.

It is precisely this market momentum that has caught the attention of the purveyors of industrial agriculture who want a piece of this fast-growing pie for themselves. In a study of the California organic sector, Guthman (2004) found that agribusiness firms were rapidly capturing a vast share of the organic market and applying their familiar production-intensive and industrial template to the sector. This control, Guthman argues, translated into a separation of organic production from its philosophical foundation—historically in opposition to the capitalist mode of production. Instead, the organic sector is coming increasingly to resemble other sectors of commodity-driven agriculture, and in the process fraying the oppositional threads necessary for transformative change.

In addition, there remain questions about the diffusion of organic products to the general public. While growth of this new sector has been robust and while it is becoming increasingly standardized, consumption continues to be influenced by social class and may be out of the economic or cultural reach of the working and lower classes (Ehrenrich 1985; Friedland 1994; Kauffman 1991; Marsden and Arce 1995). Even among the middle class, there appears to persist a habit or custom of cost saving, making the purchase of organic and other high-end products seem frivolous or unnecessary when foods perceived to be sufficient and comparable can be purchased less expensively at chain stores like Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Loblaws, and Wal-Mart. At the moment, it appears that organic food and beverage production has succeeded largely by crafting an upscale market clientele willing to pay premium prices for either quality or status, to the delight of supermarket retailers who are scurrying to capitalize on this market segmentation. Miele (2001) found that European consumers are willing to pay high prices for organic products, ranging from 20 to 200 percent above the cost of nonorganic fare. In other regions, producers have been slow to realize the market potential of organics. In Chapter 8, Amy Guptill looks at the paradoxical case of Puerto Rico, which has deftly organized an alternative agrifood infrastructure (markets and grassroots activism) but faces a legacy of social and economic arrangements that present a formidable challenge to organizing an effective production sector.

Local and Regional Foods: Farmers’ Markets and CSAs

One of the early market outlets for organic products was local venues that synthesized community, place, and market exchanges, such as community-supported agriculture and farmers’ markets and other direct-market schemes, and, in the process, bypassed the global industrialized food system (Henderson 2000). Local food systems are “rooted in particular places, aim to be economically viable for farmers and consumers, use ecologically sound production and distribution practices and enhance social equity and democracy for all members of the community” (Feenstra 1997, 28).

Farmers’ markets have been viewed as the centerpiece of food system localization efforts, acting as dynamic venues that serve multiple functions: diversifying homogenous food retail outlets, channeling revenue to cash-strapped producers, incubating small business development, and reembedding local producers and consumers in market exchanges and community-building networks (Hinrichs, Gillespie, and Feenstra 2004, 32). It is not surprising that they would figure so prominently in food system renewal, given their roots in social resistance. Brown recounts the revival of California farmers’ markets in the early 1940s as an illustration of organizers’ pragmatic response to postwar produce-distribution problems. The 1940s saw the first American renaissance of farmers’ markets; the second took place in the late 1970s. Proponents of local markets faced a groundswell of political opposition during the authorization of the Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act of 1976 (Public Law 94-463), which charged that “direct marketing threatened the national food supply” (Brown 2001, 669). Regardless of the social and political obstacles, their resurgence in the United States has been nothing short of phenomenal, increasing almost ten times over the past three decades. Even more impressive is the growth that has occurred in the past decade. Farmers’ markets in the United States grew from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,385 in 2006, a growth rate of 150 percent in twelve years (USDA 2006).

Farmers and consumers alike appear to be drawn to open-air retail markets for a number of reasons (Lyson, Gillespie, and Hilchey 1995). According to Hinrichs, Gillespie, and Feenstra (2004, 34), the resurgence of farmers’ markets in the 1990s is due to “producers’ renewed search for more profitable alternatives to wholesale commodity markets, consumers’ rising interest in farm fresh and regional specialty foods, and also the cachet of colorful open-air markets as trendy arenas for consumption.” The popularity of some markets, such as the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wisconsin, demonstrates that, for some, the market itself has become a destination point, drawing community members and tourists to a wide panoply of festive, family-centered events. Many markets offer a convivial atmosphere and in this way provide the foundational elements for community cohesion as they generate an atmosphere of cultural celebration, whether through neighborly interaction, petting zoos and face painting for children, or community string quartets that provide a highbrow backdrop to the consumption experience. Andreatta and Wickliffe (2002, 6), in their survey of market patrons in North Carolina, found that 15 percent reported that a trip to the local market “was something fun to do on a Saturday morning.” While local, they can also nurture a global culture (Waterman 1998) through the presence of new and ethnic foods. A stroll down the aisle at some large metropolitan markets reveals the infusion of new Central American, eastern European, African, and Asian foods. In the same way that organic products tend to be largely the domain of the more affluent, farmers’ markets in many areas have also become the shopping destination for those who have high levels of disposal income, demonstrate variable commitment to the politics of alternative food systems (Hayes and Milánkovics 2001), and live in urban rather than rural areas (Hinrichs, Gillespie, and Feenstra 2004).

While the popularity of farmers’ markets soars, community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes have also demonstrated impressive potential to reembed markets in localities by directly reconnecting producers and consumers. CSA is a unique consumer-producer partnership that allows both parties to share in the risks and rewards of food production. Subscribers (consumers) pay farmers in advance for a share of fresh produce that is delivered to them regularly during the growing season. Farmers benefit from the locally based direct markets for their produce and access to investment capital from subscribers to offset production expenses. Consumers have the chance to reconnect with the producers of their food and gain access to high-quality fresh produce. They are also able to enhance their knowledge of the production process and of farming and environmental issues more generally. CSA shareholders often speak of the new varieties of vegetables to which they are exposed and their education in rural and agri-environmental politics. Both groups benefit, as they are able to nurture bonds of affinity. As one Kentucky CSA operator put it, “I don’t have seventy-five shareholders, I have seventy-five friends.”

One of the key differences between CSA and farmers’ markets is the level of commitment. CSAs generally involve a higher level of commitment on the part of the participants than do farmers’ markets, as they require subscribers to prepay for seasonal produce rather than frequent a market episodically (Hayes and Milánkovics 2001). Moreover, CSA arrangements vary widely, depending on the objectives, needs, and preferences of both the farmers and the subscribers. Depending on labor needs and philosophy, the arrangement may require a minimum of a prepaid subscription that farmers use to cover the costs of production for a season. Membership may also involve volunteer time on the farm, however, or a more formalized “working share” in which subscription costs are partially offset by members’ labor. This may explain in part why the CSA model has not only been successful in producing fruits and vegetables but has also been widely touted for its ability to foster community (Andreatta and Wickliffe 2002; Groh and McFadden 1997; Lyson, Gillespie, and Hilchey 1995; Hinrichs 2000). Since the introduction of the CSA model in the United States in the mid-1980s, it has expanded to more than a thousand operations in North America (Hendrickson 1999).

Fair Trade: Equity in Food?

Others are looking to Fair Trade networks to make more overt political commentary about the equity of food distribution. Raynolds (2002, 410), for example, writes that Fair Trade “involves the constitution of alternative knowledge systems as well as commodity networks,” by challenging the inequitable organization of conventional world markets and attempting to repair the exploitive relations embedded therein.

Thus far, Fair Trade networks tend to include tropical commodities like coffee, tea, cocoa, and bananas. Whatever the product, Fair Trade networks attempt to “shorten the social distance between consumers and producers” and, based on trust and a sense of justice, offer farmers a more equitable piece of the food dollar, sharing civic and ecological responsibility with consumers (Raynolds 2002, 420). According to Raynolds, the Fair Trade market has grown to a value of $400 million. Not unlike organic food production, farmers’ markets, and CSAs, Fair Trade networks continue to enroll impressive numbers of actors, with North American and Pacific Rim sales growing by 37 percent in 2002 alone. Clearly this market has grown in scale, but does this growth translate into improved living conditions for those who rely on it? A related question is whether Fair Trade poses a challenge to conventional market streams. Aimee Shreck (Chapter 5) examines the transformative potential of Fair Trade by exploring conditions in the Dominican Republic.

Challenges to Agriculture as Usual: CAFOs and Biotechnology


These examples of agrifood system change are coupled with other struggles that attempt to challenge the detrimental effects associated with conventional models. Among the most insidious reminders of the persistent productivist bias associated with highly rationalized systems of food production are the environmental and social impacts of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that have inspired individual and collective mobilization (Bonanno and Constance 2000; DeLind 1998; Thu and Durrenberger 1998; Wright 2004). Community after community in the United States has seen protests over the siting of CAFOs in its vicinity, including floating feedlots or aquatic CAFOs in some fishing communities. Canadian activists declared a “day of action” against intensive animal production facilities in April 2004, charging that the primacy of economic interests in rural communities has led to threats to human health, environmental well-being, and community cohesion (Brubaker 2004). Americans and Canadians are not the only ones to cry foul. Polish activists successfully defeated an effort by Smithfield Foods, the world’s leading pork producer, to transplant its industrial-style hog production into Poland’s fragile transitional economy. Success was achieved by a partnership between the Animal Welfare Institute of Washington, D.C., Polish farm groups, government officials, and representatives of the Polish press (Juska and Edwards 2004). This international partnership is a good example of the growing transnationalization of agrifood movement actors who are learning that their futures are intricately bound together. Grassroots organizations and community groups have called for moratoriums on the construction of new CAFOs to thwart industry expansion and halt the reshaping of the landscape into a “rural ghetto” (Davidson 1996).

The issues associated with CAFOs are familiar to most students of agriculture. Opponents contend that intensive livestock operations constitute a rural “race to the bottom,” both culturally and economically, as they cause respiratory problems among employees and health ailments for those living in the vicinity of the operation, pollute water sources from runoff, lagoon spills, and leakage, and degrade neighbors’ quality of life owing to the odors, water pollution, and community contention they create (Jackson 1998; Kleiner and Constance 1998). Most of the complaints are directed at the operations on an individual level, but some challenge decisions that place disproportionate authority in the hands of nonlocal residents. Others weave issues of animal welfare into their concerns about this production strategy. The growing recognition of the social problems associated with CAFOs has encouraged some producers to pursue alternative production strategies, such as methods that allow meat to be produced in a more socially and economically sustainable manner (e.g., Swedish deep-bedding systems, hoop structures, open grazing, and community cooperatives).

Agricultural Biotechnology

No discussion of agricultural change would be complete without addressing the contentious political struggle of the past two decades over agricultural biotechnology. Since the approval of the first products of biotechnology in the food system in the early 1990s, debates have raged over the economic, social, ethical, and environmental consequences of the “biorevolution” in agriculture. Early debates about the actual impacts of the large-scale use of biotechnology tended to be speculative, because its products had not yet been planted in large scale or commercialized for public consumption. Yet much was already under way, and scholarship at the time focused on industry-university relationships (e.g., Kenney 1986), the role of biotechnology in the further industrialization of agriculture (Goodman, Sorj, and Wilkinson 1987; Kloppenburg 1988), patenting and intellectual property rights (e.g, Busch et al. 1991), and the role of developing countries in biotech development (Souza Silva 1994), among other issues. The debate heated up substantially with the highly publicized approval, in 1993, of recombinant bovine somatotropin (also known as rBGH, a recombinant bovine growth hormone injected into milk cows to increase production) and Calgene’s “Flavr Savr” tomato in 1994. The approval of genetically engineered foods for market brought increased attention to a new host of issues, such as the ethical implications of food biotechnology (Thompson 1996, 1997), including labeling and consumers’ right to know (e.g., Guthman 2003). Opposition groups became more active, diverse, organized, and transnational. They have organized conventional protest events around the world but have also developed and disseminated information, targeted retailers, affected trade meetings, and probably influenced consumer patterns (Munro and Schurman, Chapter 6 in this volume).

During the mid- to late 1990s, a host of other genetically engineered products were approved for release. Perhaps most prominent among these were seeds that had been engineered with one of two key traits: herbicide resistance (e.g., Roundup Ready soybeans, canola, corn), or insect resistance, achieved through engineering seeds to contain a protein from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) (e.g, Bt corn, cotton). Since the release of these seeds, the global area planted in transgenic crops has increased dramatically, from about 11 million hectares in 1997 to 40 million in 1999, then doubling to about 81 million hectares globally in 2004 (James 1998). While the global planting of transgenic crops has now diversified somewhat by country, crops, and traits, the vast majority of this acreage remains in three countries (the United States, Argentina, and Canada account for 85 percent of global acreage), two crops (corn and soybeans), and the two traits mentioned above. The expansion of transgenic acreage planted has been accompanied by increased research on the environmental implications of agricultural biotechnology (e.g., Krimsky and Wrubel 1996; Rissler and Mellon 1996; Mikkelsen, Andersen, and Jørgensen 1996).

In recent years, one of the key themes in the debate has been global trade issues. The biotech industry has argued that genetically modified crops and foods are essentially equivalent to nongenetically modified foods, and thus should flow freely in global trade. Yet there have been numerous moratoriums or bans on United States grains by importing countries that have chosen a more cautious approach to these grains and food products. Moreover, at global trade meetings, dissent against genetically modified crops and foods is one of the themes taken up by antiglobalization groups as well as spokespersons for developing countries. The public protests at the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 are emblematic of this new form of resistance to agricultural biotechnology. In Chapter 6, Munro and Schurman examine the origins and historical development of the anti–genetic engineering movement in the United States and attempt to assess its successes and limitations as a collective agent for social change.

These trends are only a few examples of the new socioeconomic and political repertoire of those engaged in the remaking of the agrifood system. This inventory is by no means exhaustive, but we hope it will suffice to give the reader a sense of the breadth of these initiatives. These actions, and others like them, raise the question of how agency is being manifested in agrifood systems and the ways in which the exercise of agency is constrained.

“The Food at the Center of the Plate”: Agency

Agency and structure are pivotal concepts in contemporary social theory, and many theorists have attempted to define, distinguish, and integrate the terms (see Archer 1982; Bourdieu 1984; Giddens 1984; Habermas 1987). As well they should. The examination of agency and structure in contemporary agrifood systems is an important sociological inquiry, because it sheds light on how humans shape something as essential for life as food, and on how the existing food system shapes human action. We should clarify from the outset that we see agency as active, reflexive choice that is embodied in either individuals or collectivities (Burns and Flam 1986). Agency is the ability of humans to act purposively, of their own volition, and to some extent independently of the constraining aspects of structure, including the predominant customs and norms of culture. For example, individuals may effect change by switching from conventional to organic milk (DuPuis 2000). This is a form of agency. Others might see it as a form of everyday resistance (Scott 1985), yet resistance, whether undertaken by an individual or a large group, is an exercise in action in the face of perceived structural conditions that may limit or detour agency.

Altering your habits of milk consumption, or of any consumable good for that matter, while personally significant, is localized change that affects only the individual or, at best, the household. It is unlikely to bring about wider transformative change unless diffused to a broader audience that has the power to effect change through the power of numbers. In the 1960s, César Chávez, California activist for farm workers rights, succeeding in mobilizing thousands to boycott grapes until grape growers responded by improving worker wages (Mooney and Majka 1995). These examples signify two kinds of agency. When we reflexively choose alternative foods, we demonstrate agency, but agency comes in other shapes as well. Large numbers of individuals working collectively, like Chávez and the dedicated farm workers, may communicate their grievances and effect change by organizing consumer boycotts. Mounting crop-withholding strikes, barricading roads, or dumping milk and butter, as Iowa farmers did during the Great Depression in response to the harsh effects of monopoly capitalism (Mooney and Majka 1995), are other instances of agrifood agency. Collective action stands a better chance of realizing systemic change, but it is by no means a silver bullet. Agency invariably runs up against obstacles of structure, yet it is important to recognize that humans, in the exercise of agency, are in a continual process of reshaping those structures to varying degrees.

There are a number of ways to conceptualize structure. Some scholars have emphasized that social life is largely determined by structure and that individual agency is explained by the prevailing structures. In this view, structure is often seen as residing outside the individual and constraining human action, or as the backdrop that determines the social activity taking place in the foreground. Others have described structure as consisting of patterned forms of organization and culture that are embedded in society (Ritzer 1996). Still others have emphasized structure as an outcome of social relations and interactions—for example, structure as a nexus of congealed action (Booth 1994), as negotiated order (Busch 1980), as a layering of social relations over time (Giddens 1984), or as stabilized networks (Latour 1987). These latter versions tend to open up more space for agency, for if structures are an outcome of social relations, then they can be changed through human agents acting reflexively and purposively. The point is that this is always a dialogical process in which structure is both medium and outcome. As Giddens (1984, 25) argues, structure is always both constraining and enabling. Culture and social organization may limit or close opportunities for food system transformation; in other cases, culture and embedded organizational patterns may facilitate change. Perhaps one of the clearest examples we can provide to illuminate what might seem like a paradox comes from a lesson taken from American tobacco farmers.

In a class action in 1998, the federal government required tobacco manufacturers to pay compensation of $206 billion to forty-six states and six territories to cover medical treatment for those with tobacco-related illnesses. This lawsuit is known as the National Tobacco Settlement. In an effort to offset their economic loss, transnational tobacco firms responded by purchasing their tobacco leaf from lower-cost production regions (e.g., South America and Africa), which allowed them to reduce their dependence on the higher-priced leaf from American producers. The economic consequence for farm families and tobacco-dependent communities has been a loss of reliable streams of rural revenue.

As the structure of tobacco production changed following the lawsuit verdict and the decline in national markets, opportunities that farmers had previously enjoyed were closed off. But embedded in this new structural obstacle was a new opportunity. In light of the hardship tobacco farmers were expected to face, legislators in states with a large tobacco-producing population allocated some of the financial windfall to agricultural diversification and rural revitalization. The Kentucky General Assembly appropriated more money than any other state for such efforts. Set to receive $3.45 billion over the next twenty-five years (Hall, Snell, and Infanger 2000), the state created an unprecedented opportunity to prioritize rural economic and social development. Assistance in the form of grants and low-interest loans has allowed farmers who had feared for their economic future to exercise new forms of agency as they go about the work of transitioning away from tobacco and building a more sustainable agrifood system. In this case, the sociopolitical reorganization of tobacco production created structural obstacles but at the same time provided a window of opportunity for farmers to express new forms of agency.

This story reminds us how structure can constrain and enable at the same time, yet it is not complete. Kentucky farmers and other grant seekers are not free to chart whatever agricultural future they might desire. They are obliged to adhere to the rules and procedures for grant seeking and other support based on predetermined regulations developed by a specially appointed Agricultural Development Board (Eaton 2004). Candidates seeking funds for tobacco transition are required to meet a number of criteria that fulfill the board’s definition of model agriculture.

As the case of tobacco and the other case studies in this volume will make clear, the line where agency begins and structure ends is quite blurry—the two things are part of a duality and cannot be neatly separated (Giddens 1984). For example, while we see the development of new market streams, such as organic production, as an exercise in agency, we also view this in some cases as a backlash, or a form of resistance to commercial market streams that squeeze small producers to the point of pushing them out of the marketplace altogether. Producers resist expulsion from the market at the same time that they creatively act to create new niche markets. Rather than seeing agency and structure as part of a dualism (see Archer 1982), we suggest that these cases be read with an eye toward understanding these complex concepts as dueling tensions that alter form and substance given changing contexts. We are reminded of Marx’s famous dictum, “men make history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” (Marx 1869/1963, 15). It is this dialectical tension that we hope readers will appreciate in the cases presented in this volume, as we search for the instances where human agency is transforming the agrifood system. We return to this friction in the conclusion and ask if such contradictory tensions can be useful.

Overview of the Book

We have organized this volume into three sections that are intended to give the reader a glimpse into major changes taking place in the agrifood system. Agency is the linchpin, or the primary sociological concept, around which this book is constructed because of its essential quality in realizing the transformative potential of agrifood system renewal. Many of the chapters commingle the concept of agency with equally illustrative concepts, such as resistance and structure. The vastness and complexity that characterize the remaking of the agrifood system prevents us from providing an exhaustive treatment of the restructuring efforts. It is our hope that readers will take from the following chapters an appreciation of this phenomenon and the hunger to discern the changes taking place in their local supermarket, farming community, restaurant, farmers’ market, and food pantry.

The first section is devoted to three essays that provide either the historical context or a theoretical framework for understanding agrifood system change. The case studies, which reveal that human agency is alive and well, are concentrated in Parts II and III. We can discern two significant empirical strands in these case studies. First, agrifood system change is a highly variable and uneven process. In some instances we find actors reflexively acting to transform the agrifood system by altering their eating patterns; in other cases, change is occurring on a larger scale, such as sweeping market reorganization. Second, most if not all of the essays demonstrate contradictions and tensions within the agrifood system, suggesting that formidable structural hurdles must be overcome if lasting change is to be realized. Given these two conclusions, we have organized the case studies around the relative consequences of agency and structure in assessing the potential for agrifood system transformation. In distinguishing between agency and structure, Ritzer (1996, 560) argues that “the real issue is not agency and structure per se but the relative weight of agency and structure.” He charges social analysts to examine agency and structure on a case-specific basis and avoid treating them as equivalent across time and space.

Because of the observable differences in the exercise of agency among the actors represented in these case studies, the section of the book devoted to agency is organized in two parts. Part II, “Making Room for Agency,” examines cases that show us that the exercise of agency appears to be bringing about change. Readers will discover that the form of agency may vary somewhat. For instance, agency may be observed on an individual, collective, or organizational level. It may be responsible for subtle or incremental change, or it may present an overt political challenge to the status quo. Nonetheless, the case studies in this section show the greatest potential for the exercise of agency and change.

The case studies in Part III are characterized by more obstacles to the effective exercise of agency than those in the previous section. These obstacles make change slow and labored. This part, “Constraints to Agency,” highlights case studies that reveal difficulty or in which actors have been unable to identify or construct favorable socioeconomic and political outcomes. Yet these cases are nonetheless cases of agency. Of paramount importance here is the role played by structure and culture, which can restrict actors in their pursuit of changes in the food system. The purpose of making these distinctions is to signify that agency and structure are always part of an ongoing dialogue. All of the case studies probe the dimensions of agency in an effort to reveal the presence of (or constraints to) agency for bringing about transformative change.

While we feel that activists can glean many useful concepts for social action from this book, it is not intended as a “how-to” manual. The essays included here illuminate what has succeeded in various struggles for social change and what forces have proved to be obstacles to the development of a model agrifood system.

Part I of the book, “Conceptual Framework,” attempts to unravel some of the historical, conceptual, and interpretative problems implicated in studying issues of agency as they apply to agriculture and food. Alessandro Bonanno and Douglas Constance open the volume with a theoretical and historical roadmap of sorts. They employ an organizational profile of the International Sociological Association’s Research Committee on Agriculture and Food (RC-40) to give the reader a background in this scholarship. Readers new to this material may find this background a helpful guide to locating theoretical works. Others may find the organizational detail appropriate for readers more familiar with the subject. Bonanno and Constance round out their chapter by summarizing the key themes addressed in the scholarship of those affiliated with RC-40.

The strength of this opening chapter is the authors’ ability to deftly compare and contrast the two chapters that follow, written by William H. Friedland and Norman Long, respectively. These chapters serve as models of the theoretical frameworks that have predominated in the sociology of agriculture. They offer insightful context and prepare the reader to explore the neo-Marxian and actor-oriented approaches that have usefully invigorated debate and enhanced our understanding of agrifood system restructuring.

Relying on a neo-Marxist framework, Friedland characterizes agency as a manifestation of resistance to aspects of capitalist or authoritarian life, as people seek to assert some control over their lives. Manifestations of agency, however, take many forms, some more coherent than others, some challenging authority directly, others indirectly. Several chapters in this book share a similar conceptualization of resistance as a form of agency. Johnston, Shreck, and Munro and Schurman all present provocative case studies that demonstrate resistance, in varying forms, to hegemonic capitalism and its alienating consequences.

Long takes a contrasting approach when he proposes a return to an understanding of the fundamental sources and trajectories of change and heterogeneity, but without class categories or other prewritten scripts, such as globalization. Here, too, the reader will find complementary chapters in this book that operate under the same theoretical predisposition. The chapters by Jussaume and Kondoh and Skladany present empirical cases that forego macro templates and adopt an actor-centered orientation.

Part II begins with case studies that give the reader a glimpse into the wealth of cases that demonstrate agency in the agrifood system. We begin with Josée Johnston’s analysis of a Canadian-based food box scheme. She distinguishes between meaningful structural change and “tofu politics” and asks whether the consumption of organic food, support for farmers’ markets, or dining at upscale organic restaurants such as Chez Panisse are merely forms of “bourgeois piggery.” By examining a nonprofit community food security organization in Toronto, she shows us how certain food projects can be self-indulgent and exploitive, while others work to subvert social and ecological exploitation. We then move to Aimee Shreck’s intriguing analysis of the Fair Trade banana initiative. The Fair Trade movement, Shreck argues, has little transformative potential at present. While Fair Trade has been successful in enabling consumers and producers to commit acts of resistance and in facilitating the redistribution of resources from the global North to the global South, she asks whether the movement has yet to attain its full oppositional promise.

Turning more directly to collective action networks, William A. Munro and Rachel A. Schurman’s analysis of the anti–genetic engineering movement gives us a fascinating glimpse into the postmaterialist values driving protests against the agrifood system. For these authors, agency is manifested as activism, or resistance to the purveyors of industrial agrifood. Through a social movement lens, the authors explain the origins of these protests and the inroads that are being made by anti-GMO adherents. In the final chapter of Part II, Mike Skladany attributes agency to salmon technology and science when he finds that struggle over salmon is a highly contested ordering of salmon, human, and nonhuman actors. Like Munro and Schurman, Skladany finds signs of hope in the collective action networks of salmon advocates.

The case studies in Part III address less successful inroads into reforming the agrifood system. The chapters in this section deliver informative lessons about the difficulty of exercising agency in transforming the agrifood system. Amy Guptill launches this section by asking why Puerto Rico has watched other areas of the Caribbean invest in organic production yet has not done so itself. She suggests that the answer is that agency manifests itself in the form of resistance exercised by a powerful business class that promotes the consumption of imported goods over local organic production, often employing political manipulation and outright violence to achieve these ends. Such dependence on imports functions as a formidable obstacle to moving toward a sustainable food system.

Raymond A. Jussaume and Kazumi Kondoh take us to the Pacific Northwest to examine the extent to which a consensus may be emerging between consumers and farmers in response to the organization of new agrifood systems. For these authors, agency is manifest on the part of producers as they move into direct-marketing arrangements, but this is often a response to structural obstacles found in conventional channels. Analyzing the differences in how producers and consumers are participating in emerging direct-marketing activities, they conclude that structural forces are mediated by social, demographic, historical, and ecological factors that are unique to each locality.

The final chapter, by Keiko Tanaka and Elizabeth Ransom, conceptualizes agency as a network effect. By focusing on changes in the food safety regulatory framework in the New Zealand and South African red meat commodity chains, they show how multiple agencies are constructed and implicated in the red meat chain to justify economic and political interests.

We have included a number of resources designed to help readers enrich their learning experience. At the close of each chapter, the authors have developed a list of key concepts and terms taken from the chapter and two or three discussion questions to test comprehension and inspire classroom engagement. Instructors who adopt this book will also find the Internet sources, additional reading, and video selections of interest for developing meaningful assignments that allow students to explore these issues more thoroughly.

As a whole, the chapters in this volume provide new insights into the ways that actors in various regions around the world are reshaping their agrifood systems to realize the goal of sustainability. We hope that these case studies will demystify the process of agrifood change and stimulate an interest in carrying on this important dialogue, as well as reach out to new readers unfamiliar with these issues, for such readers are critical if the transformative promise of food system renewal is to be realized.

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