Dubois (2010) and Robinson (2004) have commented on how production, distribution, retailing and consumption are structured across the world, proposing the notion of agri-food networks. There is wide consensus that these networks are intricate connections on a global scale, dominated by oligopolies and trans-national companies. In fact, Nestle’s (2007) analysis shows the power of the food industry by being able to frame nutrition and health discussions in the United States, which is globally influential. According to Dubois (2010) and Robinson (2004), in the Global South vast areas and many farmers are disconnected from the global agri-food networks, sometimes by systems of subsistence interrelated with the persistence of human hunger. In any case, the domination of these networks by strong and coercive processes such as land grabbing is pervasive. These are particularly relevant in Africa and Latin America (Liberti, 2011); for example, violent dispossession, a case in point being Colombia (Reyes, 2016).
Since the early 2000s academics have identified the emergence of alternative agri-food networks, embracing a wide range of possibilities in production, distribution and consumption: farmers’ markets, social farming, organic farming, direct sales, fair trade, protected designations of origin, etc. The commonalities of these networks are that they offer an alternative to the dominant industrial, conventional and bulk agri-food systems (Paül and Haslam McKenzie, 2013). The development of alternative agri-food networks is leading towards profound changes in community self-reliance and natural resource management, reinforcing peasant organisations and challenging the dominant food industry regionally (Altieri and Toledo, 2011). The idea of ‘alternativeness’ itself is controversial because in most countries what is considered “alternative” it is not new at all. Furthermore, big retailers offer ‘alternativeness’ in their stores by engaging with organic and fair trade food, amongst other possibilities. In addition, ‘alternativeness’ is often linked to short supply chains (as opposed to long supply chains dominant in the global arena) but in reality many of these alternative food networks are globalised. In this sense, Morgan (2010) has provoked a discussion on the schism existing between alternative food practices considered (i) “local and green”, based on the promotion of agri-food sustainability by reducing carbon emissions related to production and transport; and (ii) “global and fair”, promoting an ethical commitment to social justice with regard to poor farmers in the Global South.
This thematic session welcomes contributions around these questions:
> Is there a possible compatibility between “conventional” and “alternative” agri-food networks? Is the discussion itself on this duality unnecessary and irrelevant, somewhat “black and white”?
> Why do the agri-food networks existing between the Global South and North remain unequal and uneven? How can they be managed?
> What are the connections, relations and contradictions between the agri-food networks and human hunger?
> Is there room for non-globalised spaces of production, distribution and consumption? To what extent is there room for innovation in these systems?
> Are alternative food networks really alternative? Who creates these networks and why? How can we assess their sustainability and performance? How can “contradictions” within alternative food networks (e.g. non-organic protected designations of origin, farmers’ markets selling overseas products) be conceptualised and managed?
> How can we bridge the gap between the two big alternative agri-food networks conceptualised by Morgan (2010)?
> Which policies can be implemented to promote sustainable agri-food networks?