What the People Want: US Food and Agricultural System

Social Movements in the US Food and Agricultural System

Feeding the world to day and in the future has seen some challenging issues, especially inequity and depletion of natural resource bases. There have been several efforts (from biological to social) to ensure that the world develops adaptive capacities as well as the resilience in order to facilitate sustainable agricultural production (Baker and Crosbie 1994; Turner et al. 2011; and Furman et al. 2013). Significant among these efforts are the calls from the public against unfair practices against nature as well as actions to assist in alleviating some of the inequities. But, are we sure we like what we are doing in the food and agricultural system? In other words, do the people have a say in what becomes of food and agriculture? Well, lets take a quick look at two social food and agricultural movements in the United States of America (civic agricultural movements and animal right movements) and see if people mean anything in what we see today on the shelves of the supermarkets.

imageCivic Agriculture Movement: The involvement of citizens in the entire food chain in a way to ensure that the system remains a part of the people is what is referred to as civic agriculture. This movement appreciates the strong community structure that used to mark American rural farming communities and aims at revitalizing this life. It allows farmers to appreciate the shared identity between themselves and consumers by linking farmers to other farmers as well as consumers with the goal of creating a community committed to sustaining the ecological and social aspects of production. It takes forms such as farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, value-added co-operatives, and community gardens. In civic agricultural communities, three major areas of impact have been identified as the footprints of civic agriculture and these are the intellectual, social and economic aspects of food production. Through farmer-to-farmer engagements that are promoted by civic agriculture, farmers are said to forgo competition and instead collaborate and freely share information with one another and this enhances the intellectual abilities on food production. And again, direct marketing, which comes through civic agriculture, also promotes social benefits out of the sharing of ideas by consumers and other farmers, as well as economic benefits by reshaping the local economy (Otto 2011; Furman et al. 2013; Chung et al. 2005; Obach and Tobin 2014; Lyson 2005; Wright 2006; and Lyson and Guptill 2004).

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): A way by non-profits, consumers and the government of the US work to expand access to locally-produced food with the view that, knowing the person that grows ones food and how that person grows it, is a way of ensuring social change and improving the environment. CSAs are noted mainly for managing labor, dealing with seasonality, and responding to shareholder expectations. CSAs use varied labor forms such as family-only, sharer volunteer labor, wage labor, and a mix of seasonal hired, intern, and volunteer help, as a way to remedy the situation. Also CSAs use technologies and practices that make seasonality an opportunity for farmers. For instance, the extension of seasons through hoop houses or development of new kinds of share types like for winter crops, and also deciding when local foods can be grown and sold and with what tools. Negotiations between growers and buyers with education of shareholders about farm operations help to address concerns about the quality of food (Nost 2014; Obach and Tobin 2014; Johnson et al. 2013; Cone and Myhre 2000; and Francois 2013).


Farmers’ Markets (FMs): Noted for their aesthetic values and the ability to create an avenue for building community life, FMs have been growing extensively in the US for the past few years. FMs are mainly a strategy for making healthy food accessible for low-income communities (Project for Public Spaces). Customers of FMs are described as people who like cooking at home, pay more attention to the nutritional value of food than to its costs, and usually have specific health needs. And these kinds of customers go to FMs because they are associated with: food in season (fresh) and considered to be of higher quality; produced locally; and grown by someone known. To the farmer, FMs present an opportunity to escape transactions with middlemen and sell produce at retail prices. Farmers who take advantage of this opportunity include full-time or part-time growers as well as non-growers (produce dealers) and they are usually small-scale fruit and vegetable growers and dealers (Ruelas et al. 2008; Connel et al. 2008; and Griffin and Frongillo 2003).

Number of Farmers’ Markets in the US, 1994 – 2006


Source: Philips, 2007

Community Gardens: With a history dating back to the end of the 20th century, community gardens are ascribed with the ability to address several public health issues. They give people an opportunity to eat nutritious food, engage in physical activity, and build social capital. Community gardens have also proven to be useful tools in managing crisis and food insecurity especially in urban areas. Key elements of community gardens that make them successful include local leadership and staffing, volunteers and community partners and skill building opportunities. Community gardens however face the treat of being removed in the name of other developmental needs such as housing and other public uses. Looking forward into the future of community gardens, there is the need for stakeholder education, integration of community gardens into development, supporting more research on the issues and investment with long-term goals (Twiss et al. 2003; Turner et al. 2011; Shisanya and Hendriks 2011; and Voicu and Been 2008).

Animal Welfare Movement:

 image Another area in the food and agricultural system of the United States (as in many other parts of the developed world) that has seen lots of consumers concerns in recent times is the well being of farm animals. From as early as 1877, there have been struggles between scientists and animal advocates. Individuals like Robert Gesell and his daughter Christine Stevens(Animal Welfare Institute) and institutions like the American Physiological Society, National Society of Medical Research (now National Association for Biomedical Research), American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Society for the Prevention of Abuse in Animal Experimentation, American Humane Association and the Humane Society of the US are noted to have been involved in these struggles. The early stages of the struggles had to do with what should and what should not be allowed in animal research. And in recent times, they have had to do with the methods of production used in animal husbandry and their effects on animal behavior (Parascandola 2007; Gonyou 1994; and Croney and Millman 2007). The basic reason for this growing concern is the fact that livestock that were raised on diversified farms with plentiful space and outdoor access for the animals, are now housed indoors for their entire lives, often in space allotments slightly larger than the animal itself. Interest groups formed by people who believe that animals suffer in confinement have opposed the so-called ‘factory’ farms to the extent that animal welfare issues are said to be the most controversial and publicized animal agriculture topic in recent times (Prickett et al., 2010). Some other animal protection advocacies and laws see animals as property and source of livelihood for humans. And so they see the protection of animals as protecting their owners from losing property and livelihood. Controversies over animal welfare are usually related to the conflict of interests between the benefits derived from practices on animals and the consequences of such practices on the lives and wellbeing of the animals (Croney and Millman 2007). Although animal welfare is very well talked about, it still remains contested among advocates and interest groups. The debate has been on what the definition of animal welfare should be and a consensus is yet to be reached. The inability to reach a consensus is attributed to the fact that different interests groups view quality of life for animals in different ways based on how they value animals (Lund and Rocklinsberg 2001).


People all over the world are increasingly becoming aware of and accepting the fact that we live in a complex socio-ecological system. The ability of this system to support the lives of all of us that are part of it lies in its resilience. It is therefore apparent that we all contribute our quota in making the world what we want it to be. The civic agriculture and animal rights movements in the United States of America, briefly described in this article demonstrate how people can make a difference by taking action.

About the author: Ebenezer offei Ansah is a first year masters student at the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State and is interested in looking at the implications of farmer participation on the sustainability of cocoa certification in Ghana.


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