Food and food production – a commodity and business endeavour
Growing up in Stockholm, Sweden, I thought of food as readily available. It was organised in aiels, often pre-packaged and I could take it with me home in exchange for a specified sum. Now, living in Sydney, Australia, it remains no more than a car drive away. Indeed, in the world’s urban centres, refilling an empty fridge or replacing unappealing leftovers are usually easily done just around the block. Food, quite simply, is just something that is there, unquestionably.
Over the last 20 years, the interest in buying sustainably sourced food has increased, arguably fuelled by an awareness of the relationship between industrial agricultural production and environmental degradation, animal cruelty and human health issues. A new understanding of the human costs associated with certain everyday consumables, such as child labour and forced labour, has further helped to inform consumption practices. In other words, while food for many remains unquestionably available, the choice of what to buy is not necessarily problem-free or uncomplicated.
While the impact of the war in Ukraine on global food prices has put into question the access, if not availability, of food for many that hitherto have been oblivious to such an eventuality, it has not led to – at least not in Sweden and Australia where I am based – a sincere questioning of how the food economy is structured. It has not caused us to question who has access to what food and why and, importantly, who should be concerned about it. It has not led to a public debate about the structural conditions that created a dependence on global supply chains and industrially produced food in the first place, to say nothing of a discussion of the impact these structures have had and continue to have on local, small-scale farmers, First Nations peoples, and rural communities.
Arguably, that food and food production remain outside popular public debate can in part be seen as a testament to the relative de-politicisation of food system relations. Food, located in the free market, is primarily framed as a commodity with a market value. As such, it is locked into a web of economic relationships, exchanged between individual entities through often globalised supply chains. If considered at all, farming is likewise locked into economic relationships of suppliers, distributors, and consumers. It is considered a business endeavour, something engaged in by an individual, a number of individuals or a family that produce a product subject to the unpredictable forces of supply and demand. Simultaneously, while for many farmers, in particular small-scale farmers, a just financial return for the labour invested rarely becomes a reality, the risks they experience, are frequently deeply personal and private with, for instance, the loss of the farm entailing the loss of one’s family home.
CSA – local food, food sovereignty, and the re-politicisation of our food systems
The relative de-politicisation of food and food production is being continually challenged by millions of individuals and multiple local, regional and transnational organisations that seek and succeed in bringing food to the political debate. For my Master’s thesis, I had the opportunity to research community-supported agriculture, or CSA. This essay draws from that experience and what farmers and eaters so generously shared with me.
While CSA has various iterations across different contexts, they tend to share certain characteristics. They generally entail a direct relationship between farmers and eaters, the sharing of risk, responsibilities, and rewards through long-term agreements, the adoption of socially and environmentally friendly practices, and the localisation of operations. In practice, it may mean that farmers agree to feed members of their local community for a set period, while the members, in turn, pay in advance for the labour and harvest. This enables the farmers to plan, so that they can meet the needs of their communities without transgressing ecological limits and cover their costs. Importantly, the communities, by agreeing to pay in advance, share the risks involved in food production, which the farmers usually take on themselves and have limited possibility to foresee. Though the community members may risk a lean harvest with the farmer, they also share in the years of abundance and can get more than what they initially paid for.
By incorporating these characteristics, CSAs seek to grow and share food in ways that are more environmentally, socially, and financially sustainable and just. Apart from being associated with different forms of sustainable and regenerative farming practices, CSAs are often self-limiting. That is, they determine ahead of the growing season how many community members and families they can feed, a number that corresponds to the ecological limits of the land they are working on. By engaging in ecologically cognisant agricultural practices and by being self-limiting, CSAs strive to care for local ecosystems and to bolster biodiversity. In growing locally and sharing food with the food insecure, they also strive to ensure local food availability and access. Furthermore, by taking on the risk of food production together with the farmers, the communities ensure that the farmers earn a liveable income.
The CSA model of farming is associated with the transnational food sovereignty movement. Food sovereignty, as formulated in the Declaration of Nyéléni by La Vía Campesina, refers in part to “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. While not all those involved in CSA necessarily are aware of the model’s political connotations or the wider political context in which they operate, the initiatives are often sites for food system democratisation. A pronounced characteristic of CSAs in Australia, for instance, is the ongoing engagement in educating people about the multifaceted issues facing food systems today. Discussions range from the depletion of soil nutrients and biodiversity loss, to the unequal distribution of land and the ongoing impact of the colonial heritage on indigenous communities.
By contributing to a heightened awareness of the many interconnected challenges facing our food systems, CSAs can be understood to help foster a dialogue and posit these issues as a collective concern. In so doing, they arguably contribute to moving food, food production, distribution, and consumption from the private sphere of the individual to the political arena. That is, many CSAs contribute with fertile soil to the re-politicisation of food and food production.
Josefine Jacobsson was a previous intern at SIANI and a recent graduate from the Master´s Program in Human Rights at Uppsala University, Sweden. She is interested in on how people individually and collectively engender change as they face issues arising at the intersection of human rights and environmental sustainability. Her Master thesis focused on CSAs as sites of transition, transforming how people relate to each other and the natural world, as well as the non-human animals we share the planet with.