Alternative Food Provisioning Networks

As a continuation of my food series, I would like to take a look at alternative food provisioning networks, via a review of Italian anthropologist Cristina Grasseni’s new book ‘Beyond Alternative Food Networks’. The book describes strategies used by groups to avoid interaction with the industrialized food mechanism, much of which I have debated in the other posts in the series.

Beyond Alternative Food Networks

Beyond Alternative Food Networks

Grasseni’s book gives an account of the inner workings of Italy’s solidarity purchase groups. These groups are informal collections of families, working together to procure food and other products from mainly local producers in order to reclaim sovereignty over their purchasing.

The model is extremely innovative, both in terms of its positive health and social benefits and financial implications. Groups make agreements with local farmers to buy their produce in return for guarantees regarding production processes (organic, tax paid, worker’s rights etc). The producer benefits because they can sell their produce directly to the consumer, and so is not held hostage by distributors and retailers. The consumer gains because they know who has produced their product, how, where and under which conditions. Group members can buy hygiene and baby products, detergents and a range of household goods through the network, offering a source of income to specialist socially and environmentally friendly producers.

Although this system might sound like a Utopian fringe, Grasseni points out that the groups spend about 80 million Euro a year in Italy alone (about $110 million), in effect moving this sum from the regular economy into this more direct exchange. The number of groups is in rapid expansion and has led to the creation of networks of groups, national conferences and organizations and even the creation of ‘districts of solidarity economies’.

The book argues that this alternative economics structure is trust based, with all parties within the transaction knowing and directly relating with the others. Several organizations work entirely within the structure providing goods only for the groups. The following examples of the dairy and the shoemaker really show the potential of the model.

In 2009 a local dairy farmer converted to organic production in order to supply these groups. This involved downsizing and specialization, but several years later the farm found itself in financial difficulty. Members of the groups ran an email campaign and in about a month raised 150 000 Euro (more than $200 000) to bail the dairy out. The money was passed on, the dairy survived and now produces milk and cheese for the very same groups that saved it. With the banks no longer involved, the farmer can sell the produce at retail prices directly to the groups and make enough money to live and repay the initial bailout loan.

The story of the shoemaker is similar. After being forced into downsizing the shoemaker was left with capability but little market. He withdrew from the mainstream economy and now provides made to measure shoes through the network. There is a traveling catalog, so once found you can choose a style and size and order your new shoes that then arrive through the post. They are also sold through a network of non profit organizations that have relationships with the groups.

This book certainly leads the reader into a new way of thinking about food production. The cover contains a quote from Peter Utting, Deputy Director of the united Nations Research Institute for Social Development. He states that “Grasseni provides fascinating insights into how alternative approaches to food provisioning can transform social and economic relationships in ways that bode well for contemporary global challenges of sustainability, social justice and rebuilding human relations built on trust”.

If you would like to learn more about these alternative approaches, take a look at the following links:

Rete Gas is the Italian national GAS network.

The Food Alergy and Anaphylaxis Network has a dedicated page.

The Grassroots Innovation website also has plenty of information.

Beyond Alternative Food Networks by Cristina Grasseni is published by Bloomsbury and available through Amazon via the link above.

I would like to add that although this review is not paid, I do know the author very well. I am also a GAS member.

Technology in Food Production

Over the coming weeks I am going to write a series of posts about technology and food production. Food is a topic that I have been interested in from a sociological perspective for several years, and I have a few topics that I would like to address, from GM, to regulation, sustainability and organic alternatives.

Technology plays a huge part in food production. If we just think about GM products, transport issues, industrial farming techniques and globalization in generic terms, it becomes immediately apparent that this sector is the largest in the world. According to these statistics agriculture accounts for between 14 and 24% of all global emissions of CO2, and 19 to 29% of total greenhouse pollutant emissions. An interesting point here is that in the so-called developed countries post-farm emissions are very high, so in the UK for example 50% of these emissions are produced after the food has left the farm, presumably through processing and transport techniques.

But it seems to me that processing is where the money is. According to Forbes, Pepsi for example made almost $45 billion in 2009 and Nestle’ made $110 billion, and these profits only refer to US sales. This year the sector is one of the very few that is still growing.

If you look at vegetables though they make less money. Dole is the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world, but in the same year made only $6.8 billion, leading me to conclude that the profit is in the processing and not in the actual foodstuffs themselves.

And this leads on to the question of what goes into these products. The answer is, largely, genetically modified (GM) organisms.

Genetic Modification

Genetic Modification

Yes if we look at the statistics that the US Department of Agriculture publish, we find the following:

93% of soybeans grown in the USA are GM

90% of all corn produced in the US is GM

95% of US sugar beat is GM

40% of all cropland in the US is used for Monsanto (the largest GM seed producer) production

40% of all global GM crops are produced in the US

35% of all the corn grown in the world is GM

81% of all the soybeans grown in the world are GM

I take some of my information from here, the Organic Consumers Association website and the rest from US government sources.

So as you can see it is big business. It is estimated that 70% of all the foods in our supermarkets contains GM organisms. 16.5 million people work in the industry in the US and it accounts for more than 10% of GDP.

And it is not just plants, there is a request for FDA approval for GM salmon. It grows at twice the speed of regular salmon.

The GM salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies contains a gene from a Chinook salmon that produces a growth hormone, and a genetic “on-switch” from an ocean pout (an eel-like fish) that keeps the growth hormone pumping out year round. The company state that GM salmon will consume 25 percent less feed, half of which can be plant protein.

Oh and in the US none of this is labeled, although currently 64 other countries do require labeling.

GM organisms have been found in many countries that do not allow their production however, Mexico comes to mind as the closest example to the USA. Seeds have blown across the borders from the US, over the mountains, across the seas, possibly even from Brazil and Argentina and landed and grown. Not to mention imports of contaminated produce. Read the scientific report here.

Corn is socially extremely important in Mexico, its cultivation all started there, and this contamination has caused some serious soul searching. In a related issue GM companies are currently trying to get permission for huge plantations in Mexico, as this Reuters article explains. We await the court’s decision.

For now I stop here, I think that is enough food for thought for this week (groan). Next week I shall delve once more into the murky waters of the global food industry however, and who knows what we might find. Comments please below.

Aquaculture – mankind’s future?

A photograph of a fishery at sunsetAs the world’s fisheries come under ever increasing demand and pressure, many companies and countries around the world are turning to aquaculture, the farming of fish, crustaceans, aquatic plants, and shellfish. But is this method of producing food the “green” answer it is often claimed to be?

Aquaculture is not a new concept by any means, there is evidence that suggests the farming of aquatic life was taking place as early as 6000bc on what could be called a commercial scale.

The modern age has mechanised, computerised, and scaled up this concept of food production into one of truly immense proportions. South America alone produces over a startling one million metric tons of farmed salmon per year, with methods some have described as unsustainable.

Globally, aquaculture has been a very erratic business in the last 40 years, with major outbreaks of disease wiping out hundreds of thousands of tons of fish at a time, and poor practices responsible for localised environmental changes, and pollution on a large scale.

A huge steel or plastic floating structure, anchored in place and powered by massive diesel generators has become the standard sea farm with what is described as a “footprint” devoid of life beneath it, that may extend some distance depending on local currents and conditions.

Fish being caught in Te Pangu BayIs this what Jacques Yves Cousteau envisioned when he made the following famous quote?

“We must plant the sea and herd its animals using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about – farming replacing hunting.”

But then, if one considers the reality of the world we live in, where violent conflict is an everyday occurrence, populations continue to grow and people go hungry …… then I think aquaculture is a step in the right direction.

Aquaculture in New ZealandIt could be argued that most aquacultural products demand a premium and in many countries are beyond the means of the average consumer. And this would be quite correct in many cases, but may in some part be off-set by the direct benefits to the local economy through job creation and a direct boost to the local economy.

The single greatest benefit aquaculture is receiving at the moment is technology. Automated systems deliver pellets to fish in a highly measured manner and consumption is monitored in points of a percentage. Geneticists are carrying out selective breeding programs so only the most efficient of stock are sent to sea and environmental monitoring is carried out using an array of high tech sensors and systems.

Water quality tests and histologies are carried out on site and the training requirements of staff are increasing exponentially in order to keep up. Thousands of scientists are busy scuttling about, working day and night on improving “feed conversion ratios” or the amount of feed in kilograms it takes to grow a kilogram of product.

Swimming fishSomething that possibly started out as an art form has become a science.

New Zealand fisheryWith increased use of technology, coupled with a strong social conscience, aquaculture just may be the answer to many of the world’s problems, which it could be argued are largely driven by increasing population and dwindling resources.

As long as mankind uses this tool as a farmer and not the hunter we have descended from, then I see aquaculture playing a very strong role in mankind’s future.