Coreen Jones, BA, MES, completed her BA in International Development in 2008 from Dalhousie University and a Master’s of Environmental Studies in 2011 from York University. She is currently exploring South East Asia. (Coreen.email@example.com)
Image: Flavio Takemoto
The dominant food system can be characterized by words such as industrial, conventional, corporatized, and mainstream. The dominant food system is powered by corporations and governments and is rooted in efficiency and productivity. These underlying characteristics have led to a food system that is highly energy intensive, inputs a catastrophic amount of chemicals in the form of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, highly water intensive, highly resource intensive in general, and inefficient in terms of transportation costs and distances (Horrigen et al 445; Reganold et al 926). It is capital intensive and thus requires large subsidies in the form of fossil fuels, land and water to continue production at such a large scale (Gleissman 253). The food system is extraordinarily convenient (in so-called “developed countries”) though, in that there is lots of food and it comes in what seem like endless varieties. However, the impacts of the dominant food system, as they relate to distancing and durability, effectively alienate consumers such that the environmental and social costs of the current food system become extremely difficult to navigate.
A number of alternative food strategies have emerged to counter the current food system including urban agriculture, community gardens, community shared agriculture, farmer’s markets, etc. Community initiatives coupled with a conscious commitment to ethical consumption make up food citizens. Food citizenship “emerges from people’s active participation in shaping the food system, rather than by accepting the system as passive consumers” (Welsh and MacRae 3). Food citizens are aware consumers but are not only consumers, rather they “also are engaged in their communities and have an ‘intimate’ connection to the food they eat” (Baker 308).
This paper reviews the results of a study that I conducted in 2011 where 10 Toronto, independent and socially conscious café owners and managers were interviewed regarding food citizenship, resistance and education. The research question for this study was “How, if at all, are Toronto’s socially conscious and independent cafés educating café go-ers to resist the dominant food system?” Here I will only focus on one part of the results: Scaling Up & Out: Local Movements and Global Realities, exploring the importance of scaling out or connecting with local movements, an integral piece of food citizenship, and scaling up or paying attention to structural concerns associated with the food system (Johnston & Baker 318).
Exploring the ability and importance of connecting the local with the global in the popular local food movement that all of the participants in this study are committed to has been a critical area of exploration. While a commitment to the local food movement is essential to food citizenship and should be encouraged, it should happen with caution and consideration. Johnston and Baker use the notion “scaling up and scaling out” to assess how well an approach integrates local concerns/movements with structural realities of the food system, which are often global in scale (318). From an environmental justice perspective, Pellow notes, “The intersection of social inequalities with ecological harm produces environmental inequality both domestically (within nations) and on a transnational scale (between northern and southern nations and regions)” (5). The human mastery over nature paradigm is relevant as mastery over nature often acts as justification for mastery over particular populations in today’s capitalist context (Higgins 252). Higgins notes, “In its context of social domination, the pursuit of mastery over nature has resulted in massive environmental pollution, which disproportionately impacts minority communities” (252). Distancing in the food system is of course a significant factor in why the mastery over nature paradigm has been so successful and thus an important reason why a connection between the local and global is essential.
While all the participants highlighted their commitment to the local food movement, they are also interested in global issues such as labour, trade, and the environment and thus serve fair or direct trade and organic coffee (and sometimes other products as well). Most of the participants are very involved with their fair/direct trade decision-making and either know their producers directly or are part of a larger organization that they trust know the producers directly. Some of the participants also noted that the baseline price of the Fair Trade brand is not actually good enough so they take further measures to ensure a proper price. It was also mentioned that transparency within fair trade is a consistent struggle, especially with corporations involving themselves in the movement now.
The participants’ responses are in line with what Hess believes to be fundamental to the success and mobilization of power, what he refers to as the localist movement: to truly build an alternative global economy through “global localism” (7). Practically, local businesses need to be concerned with connecting consumers in one place with products made by other independents in other parts of the world that are also dedicated to social and environmental justice . This fundamental responsibility is also critical to avoid the corporate adoption of “buy local” campaigns, which is already happening in many places. Local independent businesses need to distinguish themselves from simply “buy local” campaigns by incorporating support of social and environmental justice globally and actively resisting that which proceeds otherwise (245). Unfortunately, this final point is challenging though as many of the participants are not interested in actively resisting anything. From the perspective of the consumer, it may be challenging to distinguish between fairly traded goods from a local business with fairly traded goods from a corporate conglomerate. However it is this type of challenging yet truly influential food system problem solving that Johnston & Baker have in mind (318).
A common critique of market-based localism is that it can suffer from enclavism, where the upper class can buy local products, which can be more expensive (but not always), and consequently turn their backs on urgent global problems. Hess highlights the importance of local business commitment to social responsibility, which assumes commitment to fair trade practices and/or trading with partners in other places that are also local independents (245). This situates localism within an alternative global economy, rather than the narrow definition of only buying local goods . This is an important distinction as localism can often be associated with an unrealistic “back to the land” mentality that is far removed from today’s globalized reality. Heise reminds us that rather than assume that local is “natural,” and that people desire a rootedness in a particular place, it is important to consider the impact of globalization (150). Heise highlights “the challenge to reimagine our attachments to an environment whose very ‘nature’ may be global rather than local” (150). This concern is exemplified through the need to provide culturally appropriate foods that the food security movement encourages (Lutz 2). Hess’ unwavering commitment to “the local” in the context of “the global” adequately responds to Heise’s challenge.
About half of the participants are interested in supporting local because it makes sense to them; these critiques of the local movement did not resonate with them. The other half, however, provided practical insight to the theoretical local/global debate consistently cited in the localist movement literature. Some of the participants emphasized the connection between the local and the global, and the importance of not being solely connected to one or the other. Often the acknowledgment of contradictions were cited in these conversations. Many of the participants spoke of their commitment to the local supply chain wherever possible but realize, especially in the coffee industry, that a concern for an ethical global approach is a large part of their business.
Environmental justice is concerned with the implications of naturalized ideas and the ways in which such ideas become assumptions or simply the way it is and how this leads to the establishment of particular identities that reinforce the social order (Erickson 314). A conscious connection between local movements and global realities/movements is necessary for countering two often naturalized ideas. First, the environmental movement is often globally homogenized as Gosine and Teelucksingh warn of in their book Environmental Justice and Racism in Canada: An Introduction. They highlight that the image of the blue planet commonly used for environmental purposes or phrases such as “Think Global” can homogenize the environmental movement and suggest that we are all in this together equally (Gosine and Teelucksingh 108). This however is not the reality of today. Populations across the globe are in fact not equal, particularly in the globalized market. Certain populations are more responsible and certain populations do not have a say and cannot make changes even if they wanted to regarding the environment. These concepts largely dominate the way sustainability is used in the environmental movement, i.e. to incorporate the global approach while erasing difference (Gosine and Teelucksingh 111).
On the other hand, the North / South dualism is often naturalized by particular solutions to growing inequality such as fair trade. One of the flaws of fair trade is that it was started in the North to help producers in the South receive a more equitable share of money for their work . This familiar style of aid however does not necessarily empower producers in the South, which is the goal of the fair trade movement, as Southern producers feel like “recipients of aid” (Shreck 25). Involving the struggles of all players affected by environmental injustices is critical to avoid victimization of Global South actors, strengthen movement building potential and disrupt the North / South dualism.
One of my research participant’s, Laurie, provided noteworthy insight regarding her commitment to fair trade and how she reconciles the connection between the local and the global. She emphasized that while fair trade is a global issue, connecting locally through supporting the local supply chain is an example of fair trade here. Fair trade should not be divided along North/South boundaries. Further, she highlighted that although fair trade is often viewed as a kind of aid from the North to the South, Southern producers offer a lot in terms of working cooperatively to the North; something that has not been promoted as part of the fair trade movement here. Laurie’s acknowledgment of the partnership she believes fair trade to be about, with lots to learn from Southern producers about cooperation disrupts this common “North gives to South” aid strategy.
Pellow emphasizes that globalization in local movements must be considered such that changes in the North do not lead to worsening conditions in the South (74). He uses the example of increased regulations in Northern countries that often lead to more destructive exploitation in the South; something Pellow refers to as the “hyperspatiality of risk:” where “victories in one region do not translate into additional burdens in another region” (74). Laurie’s nuanced version of fair trade is one way of avoiding this type of outcome. In some cases fair trade can become an abstract ethical choice that makes people feel good when they do not really know the repercussions of their purchases. This is somewhat frightening considering some of the participants warning of the transparency issues associated with fair trade and the unfair baseline price that the Fair Trade brand promotes. Laurie’s level of commitment to fair trade in a more thoughtful way seems to be what the movement originally had in mind.
Finally, Laurie’s openness to the knowledge to be learned by producing countries, particularly regarding collaboration, speaks to an environmental education goal of including different kinds of knowledge in environmental learning (marino 46; Clover 318; Haraway 195; The Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility Treaty 2.11). Donna Haraway’s notion of “situated knowledges” (195) is helpful here as she speaks to the idea of having a “responsibility for difference” as well the importance of “the joining of partial views” (196). It is important to ask for whom and why different decisions are made. Haraway’s ideas provide grounds for asking such questions. For instance, her idea of joining partial views is “for the sake of the connections and unexpected openings situated knowledges make possible” (196). In other words, by bringing together different kinds of knowledge, new ideas and possibilities are opened up, and less are shut out of the process. The fair trade movement could either be a one-way street, where the North sets the price and decides the rules or it could be a partnership with lessons to be learned from both parties involved . I would imagine that Haraway would respond positively to Laurie’s dedication to the situated knowledges of her producers.
Unfortunately, Laurie was the only participant, out of ten, to mention this kind of disruption. While the other participants are committed to fair and direct trade, their approaches may exacerbate the North / South dualism that fair trade can promote and intensify the global image (based on the notion “we are all in this together”) of the environmental movement. Further, the kind of potential of the fair trade movement that Laurie’s interpretation offers is disappointingly not what is promoted by the larger fair trade movement in the North.
The insight of the participants regarding connecting local movements with global realities is interesting, especially in relation to the literature on localist movements and environmental justice. Again, Johnston & Baker’s notion of scales in the food system is helpful here: “To be both ‘scaled out’ to other local contexts and ‘scaled up’ to incorporate structural critiques of agricultural subsidizations, unemployment, and inequality lying within the regulatory capacity of states” (318) is a significant part of localist potential. Johnston & Baker believe that by understanding the way that a business or organization can scale out/scale up is telling of the strengths and weaknesses of a local framework.
Those interviewed do not all practice profound acts of scaling out and scaling up as Johnston & Baker emphasize. Unfortunately only half of the interviewees seemed to show signs of incorporating structural critiques other than the triple bottom line and a modest use of fair trade into their business approach. The ability to think critically about fair trade and be cognizant of the global implications of the supply chain in one’s local focus is one way to scale up. One way to scale out would be to give greater attention to the mobilization potential of socially conscious cafés in Toronto.
This is a challenge for localism, to mobilize localist leaders to adopt a strategy that extends to the global, political, social and sustainable. Although, Hess describes localism as an already established movement in some ways, that has considerable potential for greater mobilization as local owners and organizers are fundamentally against the consolidation of power within transnational and national levels and can thus be coupled with other anti-corporate/anti-globalization approaches by playing the market-role (62). Hess thus couples wider political goals with a market-oriented approach. Local business organizations and alliances such as BALLE: the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, Hess notes, will be (and are already) fundamental in mobilizing localists (65).
Unfortunately, at different points in the interviews, a number of the participants mentioned the “cliquey” or “unwelcoming” attitude of a lot cafés in Toronto. This is disappointing for local business mobilizing potential, especially considering the massive growth of independent cafés in Toronto over the last decade. The interviewees did see this as a problem, however. If localist leaders can mobilize and find common goals based on social and environmental justice, the potential to mobilize others in that society is that much greater.
Finally, the critique of localism associated with it being catered to the wealthy elite is problematic for the cafés interviewed. The style of product offered is often one of luxury that is mostly catered to the elite echelons of society. While a number of the participants did mention their commitment to donating coffee to the local community, working with social justice organizations, trying to create a more equitable playing field between the North and South through fair trade, having a large student customer base and having a reasonably priced Americano on the menu, those that frequent trendy cafés in Toronto are generally of a higher socioeconomic status or are students that, in my experience, grew up in a higher socioeconomic home and thus feel more comfortable in such places. The products served do not cater to everyone and this is problematic for the environmental justice movement, which is very much concerned with issues of equality. This is also problematic for the local food movement which is consistently criticized for catering only to the wealthy. DeLind for example stresses the problems with using your dollar to support a movement as not everyone can afford to support it (4). These types of inequalities exacerbate the same inequalities already entrenched in the capitalist system.
In this paper I considered the responses of the participants in relation to connecting the local and the global in localist movements. Pellow highlights the importance of considering the global in localized strategies such that conditions in the South do not worsen from local Northern strategies (75). Hess also believes that local movements ought to be concerned with global economic reform if they are to be sustainable (7). Issues of enclavism and elitism in localist movements can undermine the potential of the movement and thus localism needs to be handled with care . Laurie’s nuanced involvement in the fair trade movement has substantial potential for breaking down barriers between the North and the South and could be quite influential for the independent café movement in Toronto, if the cafés could work to mobilize. These messy spaces of localism however need to be extended to consumers; in the long version of this paper I explore how this can, and in some cases is happening through a process of education and leading by example.
 Distancing is defined as “increasing the physical distance between the point at which the food is actually grown or raised and the point at which it is consumed; and the extent to which the finished product is removed from its raw state by processing” (Kneen 31). Durability of foods is also a result of the industrial food system that combined with distancing, acts as “the suppression of particularities of time and place in both agriculture and diets” (Friedmann 379). Distancing and durability act in contrast to variables of locality and seasonality, which often enhance community food security. Distancing has been fundamental to the modernizing of the food system and touted as a trait to progress in this sector, leading to a number of unquestioned assumptions.
2 A dualism occurs when one side of opposing ideas is more valued than the other (i.e. male is valued over female), the higher side is usually described as alien to the lower side, and the ‘lower’ side is often defined in relation to the ‘higher’ side. Theorists such as Val Plumwood and Karen J. Warren see the emphasis of dualisms in Western thinking as critical to the oppression of women, nature, indigenous peoples, culture and other forms of domination.
3 All of the participant names have been changed for confidentiality purposes.
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