the main challenges to alternative food networks

socially inclusive farming

Alternative food networks (AFNs) aim to help connect food consumers with food producers in the hope that the resocialization of consumption will drive change within the food system. Such changes are generally geared towards promoting social and environmental sustainability. However, even with holistic intentions, alternative food networks [AFNs] are not without their challenges, limitations, and criticisms.

At the most basic level, the label of alternative can be considered offensive as practitioners do not necessarily consider themselves to be alternative, rather they consider themselves ‘just’ farmers (1). In contrast, many consumers take pride in their choice to purchase food from so-called alternative producers. Such a dichotomy is evidence of the divergence in the perspectives of consumers and producers which can lead to challenges in creating agricultural policy and promoting agricultural development.

To develop holistic solutions that incorporate both supply and demand-side needs, there are several challenges that must be addressed. Sustainability, accessibility, and quality are at the forefront of such debates (2). In this respect, sustainability is necessary, both in terms of the operational and external environment and the economic health of an operation. Accessibility refers to who can participate in the AFN, how easy it is to practice, and how available the network is to interested parties. Moreover, there must be actual interest in participation, from both producers and consumers (3). For interested parties to be able to participate in the AFN, both geographic and social proximity are necessary to encourage the development of relationships that are both trusting and fair. In other words, “place matters” (3). If factors relating to sustainability, accessibility and quality are not thoughtfully addressed to achieve the best results, the intended purpose(s) of alternatives are unlikely to be achieved.

With this in mind, several factors must first be considered when transitioning towards the adoption of alternative approaches to food production. For instance, farmers must consider their complete food system and they must be willing to innovate because traditional venues available for farmer support will not be available (4). Food producers must also be motivated to enter the so-called alternative scene. Reluctance in this respect suggests that crises related to commodity-centric production are often the primary motivators to shift towards more socially inclusive food production system (3).

Still, alternatives, e.g. organics or direct marketing, do sometimes evolve out of proactive efforts to address criticisms to long-standing practices and traditional values. However, such efforts may be seen as pandering to urban elite (10). In such cases AFNs are viewed as mere manifestations of middle and upper-class [White] angst that serves to allow these socioeconomic segments to opt-out of the mainstream food arena, something more in-line with the individualistic nature of neoliberal agendas than the development of socially and culturally-inclusive food systems. In doing so, they are expressing their supposedly self-proclaimed morality (11, 12), which can shape the economic landscape of developing spaces [often in the “underdeveloped” South (10)].

However, despite claiming to be inclusive, these newly created spaces are often interpreted as strictly White Spaces that very narrowly address the issue of social justice in respect to food access (12). Moreover, when advocating for the adoption of alternative food practices, White people may have the propensity to approach the subject naively with the belief they are “bringing good food to others”, or that and that people [of color] “Just need to know where their food is coming from” to trigger a desire for participation in these “alternative [White] spaces”. However, they [White people] do not always consider whether people of color want to participate (12).

Exploring such criticisms and incorporating viable alternatives and voices is essential to long-term viability because it strengthens the ties between nodes [e.g. the people, the produce, or the enterprises] of the network (1). By developing strong social ties, it becomes more possible to create strong hybrid alternatives, i.e. those that incorporate social, economic and environmental components often touted as “utopian” and capable of creating a better future (1).

Thus, it is also important not to excessively emphasize the food, but to focus on the relationships within a given AFN. It then becomes more feasible to curb corporate appropriation [e.g. the organic movement] (1, 15). In a similar vein, according to (16), AFNs may only be perpetuating existing neoliberal ideals because they [AFNs] are typically dependent on parts of the existing model and therefore adopt some of the qualities of this model. Moreover, they do not offer direct opposition to the “corporate food regime”, particularly because AFNs are still grounded in the market-based mechanisms, which often exclude or further marginalize sensitive populations.

In this respect, AFNs can also be viewed as efforts to develop private or community-based solutions to food system problems, which again, align with the ideals of neoliberalism and the shift of responsibility away from the state. In a sense, this is shifting blame and subsequently the responsibility for generating solutions to problematic conditions within society onto individuals of groups which are not the cause of the problems at hand.

inclusive farming


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  2. Barbera, F., & Dagnes, J. (2016). Building alternatives from the bottom-up: The case of alternative food networks. Agriculture and agricultural science procedia, 8, 324-331.
  3. Qazi, J. A., & Selfa, T. L. (2005). The Politics of Building Alternative Agro-food Networks in the Belly of Agro-industry. Food, Culture & Society, 8(1), pp. 45–72.
  4. Duram, L., & Larson, K. (2001): Agricultural Research and Alternative Farmers’ Information Needs. In RTPG 53 (1), pp. 84–96.
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  11. Carlisle, L. (2015). Audits and agrarianism: The moral economy of an alternative food network. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, pp. 3(66).
  12. Guthman, J. (2008a) Bringing Good Food to Others. Cultural Geographies, 15, pp. 431-447.
  13. Guthman, J. (2008b) If They Only Knew: Colorblindness and universalism in California alternative food institutions. Professional Geographer, 60(3), pp. 387-397.
  14. Maye, D., Holloway, L., & Kneafsey, M. (2007). Alternative food geographies. Elsevier.
  15. Goodman, D., Dupuis, E., & Goodman, M. (2014). Alternative Food Networks: Knowledge, Practice and Politics. Oxon, New York: Routledge.
  16. Alkon, A. H., & Mares, T. M. (2012). Food sovereignty in US food movements: radical visions and neoliberal constraints. Agriculture and Human Values, 29(3), pp. 347–359.

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