Ethical », « responsible », « critical » or « alternative » consumption around food is growing, whether through organic, fair trade or localism that brings producers and consumers together. It unfolds through multiple so-called alternative agri-food networks and is generally presented, both in the literature and in activist discourses, as the most promising way for individuals to respond to growing social and environmental concerns. But it is also increasingly being debated.
These alternative agri-food networks can be understood as the building blocks around which new forms of governance of agri-food systems could be articulated. Many consider them to be « niches » that incubate socio-technical innovations that make it possible, through processes of translation, to challenge the logic of the dominant system, to develop discursive, political and operational points of support that act directly on it to transform it in depth, to reconfigure it.
But they could also be only an epiphenomenon, utopian and limited to the interstices. Wouldn’t they finally constitute only segments of the dominant logics in which a handful of privileged consumers are engaged, seeking only to differentiate themselves or to enter into partial and ephemeral micro-systems of resistance that would lead only to personal self-valorization? More and more observers are pointing out the ambiguities of the « alternative » label defended by these networks. They would not only remain largely dependent on the dominant regime, which conditions them, but they would also be crossed by its logics, such as the choice and individual responsibility of the consumer-citizen, the spirit of enterprise, or « charity » as a mode of support for the most vulnerable layers of society. Moreover, these networks would participate in the reproduction, or even the reinforcement, of neo-liberal logics, both on the operational level — notably through the reappropriation of technical-economic and cognitive referentials (development of private certification systems, for example) — and on the ideological level, by giving the illusion to civil society actors of a « radicality » that would not in fact lead to any opening of the political space of possibilities.
Finally, other works on social movements in opposition to the dominant system draw attention to the self-reinforcing character that their strategies can take. The practices and discourses that are deployed there could be carried only by a logic of reproduction of the conditions of their own emergence, consequently stifling the aspirations and activism towards truly emancipatory changes.
It is this last point that we propose to briefly explore. The question of barriers to entry into these so-called alternative networks, whether these barriers are material, cultural, symbolic, etc., is obviously fundamental in the debate on the future of these exchange systems and their potential to transform the agri-food landscape.
Many studies have pointed out an economic barrier related to the cost of a differentiated quality diet. They show that in both the United States and Europe, the profile of ethical consumers is dominated by people who are predominantly female, urban, with above-average incomes and a rather high level of education. In France, for example, Claire Lamine notes that the AMAPs clearly do not concern, or very few, disadvantaged households. Important cultural factors also play a role in the motivations of ethical consumers. Social and cultural capital, access to certain types of discourse, and information on agri-food-related issues are also elements that shape adherence to alternative channels. Time availability is still mentioned as a constraining factor, for example for involvement in the operation of these networks or for food preparation.
Organic and micro-localism can appear as niches that perpetuate a stratification of the food system, reserved for a privileged economic class
Perhaps more importantly, social and cultural capital can work both ways; as a barrier, it can also appear as a social marker, or in Marjorie DeVault’s (1991) phrase, « an arena of self-expression. These networks, as they are currently organized, would reintroduce a dynamic of segmentation, of differentiation, of the food system, based on income and social class, whereas this fragmentation linked to the possibilities of access to food goods had been (partially) attenuated by the industrial agri-food system and the logic of mass consumption leading to a democratization of this access. Organic and micro-localism can therefore appear as post-Fordist niches that perpetuate a stratification of the food system, these niches, which capitalize on food anxiety, being reserved for a privileged economic class. In the United States, researchers go so far as to consider that these niches are an instrument of social oppression in the hands of the elites to strengthen their position.
This question of confinement in identity niches maintained by preoccupations that ultimately remain quite individual is central to the renewal of the critique of current consumerism. In relation to this criticism, we want to bring two elements of reflection to emphasize that this naturalization or new segmentation of access to food goods on the basis of economic and socio-cultural cleavages is much more complex than it seems.
The first element concerns the profile of these « responsible » consumers and the economic barrier to accessing the consumption model proposed by alternative agri-food networks such as joint purchasing groups or AMAPs. First, it should be mentioned that the vast majority of studies and surveys that have looked at the profiles of regular participants in these circuits, while they do point to a dominant middle to upper class profile, also show that this profile in no way exhausts the socio-economic characteristics of participants. Observations in some GACs in Wallonia show that they also attract people with low incomes (unemployed, students), who are isolated or marginalized. In terms of effective membership, the economic barrier must certainly be put into perspective. This is in line with work done in the United States on short-haul food purchases (see, for example, Zepeda and Li, 2006, for a summary). In addition, we can also observe the emergence of initiatives, within these collective experiences around food consumption, allowing easier access to people with more modest means. This ranges from the possibility of deferred or staggered payments (in the case of AMAPs), to completely mutualized systems, through differential prices according to the situation of households or forms of financial participation through work.
This dimension of solidarity leads us to the second and more essential line of thought, which relates to the openness and inclusive potential of these networks, which are intended to be alternative. It touches on the possibilities offered by these spaces for regaining autonomy in choices and practices in the face of the « colonization of the lived world » (Habermas) by the market and systems of power and in the face of a feeling of powerlessness to transform society through the classic channels of representative democracy. They allow us to « get moving » and to put into practice a critique of consumerism, of market institutions reduced to individualistic, privatized and normative monetary exchange and of all the forms of power that reinforce these institutions. The scope of these alternative agri-food networks cannot be reduced to a renewal of exchange practices, to a deployment of variants in marketing circuits. Although individualistic motivations dominate participation in these initiatives (« good products at good prices »), they are also places of concrete experimentation of new relationships to the market and new forms of citizen participation in public debate.
We can identify four axes according to which the critique of consumerism and institutions of power can be concretized through these networks associating producers and consumers.
The first axis is that of relations with nature, through the reconstruction of the links between agriculture and the land that common purchasing groups or AMAP-type systems encourage. We can observe that these initiatives have in their great majority a requirement (or at least a clear will), to be supplied with organic food or produced according to the organic spirit, or even more strict. This demand for agro-ecological practices in short circuits makes it possible to find specific articulations, contextualized locally (soil, climate, topography, .…), between human and non-human (or natural) elements. It is therefore opposed to neoliberal logics which seek, by artificialising the relations of producers with their natural environment, to standardise these relations. This articulation of short bio-circuits allows us to get out of the purely environmentalist discourse on organic (which is a narrative of the neoliberal project). This must also be understood as more than just resistance to the large agribusiness conglomerates. This is why short circuits and especially the basket systems associated with them and even more so the AMAP system are fundamental. By rebuilding the links between consumers and their natural environment, they oppose the liberal-green vision. In association with participatory guarantee (or simply trust) systems, they contribute in this way to a reappropriation by the producer of his agricultural system and free him from certain forms of technical and economic enclosures.
Trust and participatory control over production methods and quality are not the only (re)inventions of market relations that these initiatives propose. The transformation of market rules and institutions offers a second line of analysis that should lead us to see these networks not only from the angle of a new segmentation of consumption. The limitation of choices in products and quantities, the participation of members in production schemes, price negotiation, exchanges
of products (and experiences) between producers for the constitution of common baskets, …, constitute as many practices shaking up the market conventions. These networks are also places for debate, for the circulation of information, for opportunities to increase one’s capacity to be a subject individually and collectively, and thus for subjectivation.
The third axis is the construction, around food, of social economy experiences that go beyond the vision that sees the « ethical » consumer as the armed arm of social protest. The critique of localism leads to the suggestion that these food networks only become truly radical if they break out of the framework defined by the production-consumption chains. However, we observe that from these networks, spaces of solidarity, initiatives of mutualized purchase and renting of land, integration of marginalized or handicapped people, collective gardens, rural development programs are more and more deployed. Around these exchange networks, we see the construction of multiple forms of social justice, anchored in local contexts, non-normative or imposed by over-determining principles. Through this broadening of their raison d’être, these networks can therefore build an « alternativity » clearly distinct from conventional logics. Not in a logic of « niches » or confinement, but by gradually integrating all the components of a true territorialized development, with a reaffirmation of a social economy sector as a major component of this development.
Institutional embedding and scaling up of actions is the fourth axis. We are clearly witnessing movements of structuring and networking of multiple small initiatives that are constantly emerging. Although it manifests itself at different rates and in different ways in different countries and regions, this dynamic can be observed everywhere. Moreover, even if the question of independence from all forms of public authority remains a source of debate and even tension within the networks, institutional anchors and forms of official recognition are emerging. We note that the groups headed by a coordinating structure are not only beginning to receive public funding, but are also increasingly involved in the development of agricultural and rural development policies. We can also see concretely that extended networking facilitates the sharing of experiences, the debate of ideas or the realization of studies. Moreover, through this structuring, we can also see convergences emerging at the regional level between these consumer groups, farmers’ organizations or other associations supporting sustainable production and consumption. Forms of collaboration with public authorities and other food chain actors for coordinated projects on a city or regional scale, such as the Food Councils in North America, are also emerging (for example, we can mention the project of the Ceinture Aliment-Terre of the asbl Barricade in the Liège region). They are reflected in the progressive construction of a common and visible identity around the values of food sovereignty. Finally, at the international level, it makes it easier for representatives of these « solidarity » consumers to take part in various events of the transnational mobilization for food sovereignty. These structures and alliances show that alternative agri-food networks can no longer be considered as a vague collection of actors each pursuing their own agenda.
Etienne Verhaegen Centre for Development Studies, UCL