Ask AGC: What's the Role of 'Ethical Brands' in Food Systems Change?
The team tackles local food movements, conscious consumerism, and more
The first edition of Ask AGC is finally here! We wanted to take some time to address a few questions that you all had for us about topics ranging from ethical brands to local food movements to how food sovereignty can be realized in Western/Minority World contexts. After receiving all of your brilliant questions, we came together to talk about them together and begin formulating some ideas. Although this will take the form of a Q&A, which usually implies some kind of authority on the topic, we want to emphasize that these are just ideas; there are so many ways of thinking about these questions depending on the nuances of a particular context. We just hope that these might serve as a jumping-off point to think about these questions in your own life. With all of that said, let’s dive into the questions!
“I want to better understand the role of food companies like Patagonia Provisions, Clif Bar, or Annie's Homegrown that are trying to pioneer in ‘Regenerative Agriculture.’
For example, the Land Institute has trademarked the ancient Kernza perennial grain and Patagonia uses this for their long-root beers. Patagonia works with Sol Simple to source all their mangoes from peasant farmers in Nicaragua — offering interest rate free credit loans, literacy training, free agroforestry workshops, and guaranteed set prices for the year.
I understand the important and positive role these companies are having in increasing acreages of farmland that use more regenerative, soil-health building practices. But I ultimately still hold a skepticism with transnational corporations and want to know what you all think.
What is the role of food companies we can imagine when mobilising for food sovereignty and agroecology? How can we hold food companies accountable and to what? Are there already negative impacts happening or is Patagonia Provisions genuinely supporting traditional, less industrial, smaller-scale food productions?”
There’s a lot to unpack here. The first thing to mention here is that, at least in our perspective, we don’t envision the private sector having a huge role in the fight for food sovereignty. That doesn’t mean that they can’t have a positive impact on the environment, or contribute to healthier soil practices etc., but it gets sticky when we start talking about social justice or liberation in the same breath as these companies who are ultimately driven by profit. At some point, the corporation would need to choose between their bottom line and the people or environments they are trying to help. So it’s nice when they choose to carry out actions that benefit the environment or producers, but they don’t have to—it’s kind of like how relying on charity or food banks to solve food insecurity is not bad, but it’s not going to shift the underlying dynamics of inequality that caused it in the first place. Similarly, there are fundamental structural issues with capitalist agriculture (and capitalism in general) that a corporation reducing their carbon footprint or developing healthier soil practices is not going to solve.
The other reason we see corporations as less integral actors when it comes to food sovereignty is because it’s much easier for corporations to make promises about environmental practices like regenerative agriculture than it is for them to develop truly reciprocal, fair relationships with those producing their food. Food sovereignty, ultimately, is about the rights of those food producers. And corporations, even though we do have to contend with their outsized role in our society, don’t really have any business being the guarantor of rights, because at the end of the day they are not accountable to the people whose rights they would affect.
So, of course, there’s a heavy dose of skepticism when it comes to their role. But it’s also unrealistic to say that corporations simply have no role in change, because we live in a capitalist society with a food system that is increasingly controlled by these corporations. It would be naive to say that we can just ignore them and focus our efforts elsewhere. In this vein, demanding accountability, like you mention, seems to us like the most promising route.
The first place it’s important to demand accountability is in the development of these certifications, programs, and labels like the one you mention in Nicaragua. These always look great on paper, and they might really be great, but it’s crucial that the producers themselves were at the helm of designing them. More transparency about these programs and more relationships and communication with the producers is one way to promote this kind of accountability. In response to your question of how we demand this accountability, we think one compelling place to look is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Campaign for Fair Food. The program is an agreement between farmworkers in Florida and certain corporations to ensure fair prices and working conditions. CIW had to protest and boycott companies like Taco Bell for over four years in order to get them to sign the agreement. Then, they targeted companies like McDonald’s and Walmart, who have also signed agreements to pay more per pound for crops like tomatoes that will go straight to workers, and to comply with certain standards to ensure safer working conditions. It’s a huge testament to the power of organising and mobilisation to shift standards and force companies to comply with fairer practices.
The last tiny point we’ll say here is that we should always remember that food hasn’t always been treated as a commodity, and if we wish to see a truly just world, we must stop seeing it this way. This topic of moving towards non-commodified systems wherein corporations simply have a marginal role could be a newsletter in and of itself, but we recommend reading about the food policies of Belo Horizonte in Brazil to get some inspiration from a city government that declared food insecurity a market failure, made food a right of citizenship, and eradicated food insecurity within its borders. It’s a fascinating story, and shows just how achievable it actually is for governments to take responsibility back from the market for guaranteeing this right.
“In the current capitalist system that we live in, how can we try to create mini, localised food systems in our neighbourhoods? And is it a good idea? I struggle to find a good alternative beyond buying local.”
Local food movements can certainly be transformative, but like we’ve written about before, they do require some careful consideration. Local movements are complex and highly context-specific, but it’s important to understand that local and just are not synonymous. Creating farmers’ markets and CSAs can be great ways to divest from industrialised, corporate agriculture, but localisation also requires asking some difficult questions about the place it’s occurring. Who used to live here? Who has been displaced? Who can access this new food system, and who cannot? Who is being represented?
So much of localisation comes down to reconnecting with the land, acknowledging its history, and retelling a collective story, which can be a powerful process of healing and holding space. But often, local movements are kind of plopped on top of whatever underlying inequalities or injustices already existed in a place, so they end up unintentionally perpetuating those same dynamics. Basically, localisation can be a transformative force if it's used as the vehicle for a deeper look at the dynamics of a place and a space for healing, and it can easily backslide into the opposite if it’s approached without that same care (because often the people spearheading these movements are also those with comparatively more power, and those who are more likely to be less aware of the dynamics of inequality).
We think the best first step is just to start talking about it, to get curious about the place you live, and start mapping out what a just local food system might look like in your context. See how many people can get involved from all walks of life, how the process can be a democratic one. Try to understand the needs and desires of different stakeholders, and hold them with the appropriate weight. Through processes like these, we can begin to tell new collective stories, which is a powerful force for change.
“What should the West’s next step be towards small scale agriculture?”
This is a good question, because currently, most efforts to protect small-scale agriculture are happening in the parts of the world where it’s still more prevalent. In places like Europe and, especially, the United States, large-scale agriculture has come to dominate the food system.
There are a few pathways forward, though. One more top-down political shift is to push for more antitrust legislation to begin dismantling the monopolisation of the food system by a small handful of corporations, or to push against farmland consolidation like we’re seeing in the United States.
But there are also bottom-up shifts that are more paradigmatic in nature. There has been a real loss in the value that we see in agriculture in Western contexts. We’ve been cut off from its importance to culture, to community, to our rootedness to a particular place. Reconceptualising these linkages is equally important, because it will help to facilitate grassroots actions like urban farming that can revitalise our connection to agriculture, even in places like cities. Of course, the same caveats to localised movements from the previous answer apply. But it’s most definitely a place to start.
That just about wraps up our questions this week! As always, we would love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with our answers? Did we miss something? Do you have something to add? The comments are always open and we will be engaging with you all there. If you’ve got a question to ask for the next instalment, send it over to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask AGC.” (Questions may be edited for length and/or clarity.)