Food and the Future Environment

Period 4: Sustainability Movements Towards the Future of Food: Quasi-Parallel Ecological Modernization and Alternative Food Networks (2000 – Present)


Period 4: Sustainability Movements Towards the Future of Food: Quasi-Parallel Ecological Modernization and Alternative Food Networks (2000 – Present)

In recent history (since 2000) significant new directions have entered the spectrum of existing environment-food systems. The future of food will depend on these newer systems, in addition to modern industrial agriculture that was introduced on the previous page. The new directions---which we refer to here as “ecological modernization” and “alternative community-based food systems”---are a response to concerns over environmental sustainability, human health, and food safety in addition to the attempt to reinvigorate rural society and address social justice issues, a concept we introduced in module 1 as "social sustainability". Each of these new directions also has its own environmental and social impacts. These impacts are introduced here and then taken up again in module 10.1 when we consider them as "global" and "local community" variants of new, alternative food system types. In both these new directions, a major role is taken by ecological methods and techniques replacing to a significant degree the use of synthetic chemicals. Substantial success can be seen in some cases: for example, organically certified lettuce and carrots with reduced use of synthetic pesticides now account for more than 10% of the land producing these crops in the United States.

Social changes---remember we use this term broadly to refer to economic impacts as well---vary widely in the environment-food systems associated with ecological modernization. Large corporations as well as a substantial number of large family-managed farms, for example, predominate in the large-scale sector of organic agriculture and organic food production and distribution, where these companies and large farms occupy a "quasi-parallel" role to their role in supporting modern industrial food production (previous page). We and other authors describe their style of adoption of organic production techniques as ecological modernization because they seek environmentally sustainable methods as relatively interchangeable replacements for synthetic chemical inputs in modern agriculture (previous page). Ecological modernization also retains modern forms of organization, for example, large scale and efficiency of cropping and shipping of food, corporate management, and sales through mass outlets such as supermarkets. Food distribution companies in this system can offer organic foods at lower prices in the case of fresh vegetables and fruits. This advantage is significant since affordability is a major issue among potential consumers of organic food, and such "corporate organic" foods may be more accessible at the present for a larger proportion of the population. Others argue that issues of cost and accessibility resulting from transitions towards organic and other more ecologically-based ways of managing agriculture merely reflect the artificially low financial, environmental, and social costs of comparable products from the modern industrial food system, for example, the carbon dioxide emitted in the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides (see module 10). In any case, the rules, regulations, and preferences of human systems designed to foster organic agriculture (such as organic certification and labeling) may be effective in improving the natural system, though the feedbacks to human systems may be ones mostly supporting large agribusiness through positive feedback effects introduced in Module 2.1.

Take for example the case of organic produce such as lettuce and carrots where natural conditions in climatically optimum growing areas (e.g., organic vegetable-growing areas in California) favor the capacity of large corporations and family farms able to access the high-quality land, resource systems (such as water), and deal with the regulatory tasks associated with large-scale national markets. The large scale of these corporate actors becomes a positive feedback driver which strengthens the transition towards this "ecological modernization" mode of a new food production system. This case is considered further in this Module’s Summative Assessment.

“Alternative community-based food networks” is a term that is applied to various smaller though increasingly important types of environment-food systems. We use this term to focus on local environment-food systems. Proponents and activists supporting these types of environment-food systems center much of their attention on the process known as re-localization. This process brings food producers into closer contact with consumers. Local farmers' markets, where farmers sell food directly to consumers, are an example of re-localization. Local environment-food systems are seen as an alternative to the concentrated corporate control of environment-food systems. A major goal of re-localization is supporting small- and medium-scale farmers, including the majority of family-owned farms, as a means of reinvigorating rural life among a range of small businesses---not just a larger number of farms but also the corresponding number of small business that support and benefit rural areas. This interest in “alternative food systems” is committed to increasing the percentage of the “food dollar” that goes directly to farmers. This percentage is estimated currently at 8-10% in modern industrial environment-food systems where a large share of the food dollar goes to food processors and farm input suppliers. For this reason, the local food emphasis in alternative food movements is also sometimes referred to as an emphasis on short food supply chains exemplified by farmers' markets or regional sourcing of food in supermarkets and restaurants. These alternative food systems are presented further in Module 10.