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    Rachel Winch

    ENVI 313: Sustainable Development Final Research Paper

    December 9, 2005

    Community Supported Agriculture: A Model for Combating Distancing Abstract “Distancing,” or the separation of producers and consumers, is at the center of some of the fundamental problems of the current food industry. As consumers become more disconnected from producers and the food that they are consuming, some people in developed countries have made a concerted effort to shift to more locally grown food products and embedded markets. One major component of this local food movement is the development of farming cooperatives known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). The premise of CSAs is that members buy a share and then receive a portion of the produce grown throughout the season. In many aspects, CSAs have potential to improve environments, to bridge the disconnect between producer and consumer, to facilitate community organizing, and to provide people with fresh, healthy food which with they feel connected. This paper examines trends in CSAs and their potential for promoting sustainable development through focusing on two examples of CSAs in the Berkshires—Indian Line Farm in Great Barrington, MA and Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA. While CSAs have grown rapidly in the US over the past two decades, they have a limited potential for growth; they will not replace the current industrial food industry, but they may be one among many ways to improve the American food system. Distancing

    Distancing, as defined by Thomas Princen, is “the separation between primary resource extraction

    decisions and ultimate consumption decisions” (Princen 2002, 116). Put another way, distancing is the

    separation between the producer and the consumer. This can be geographical, meaning that the good is

    produced in a spatially distant location from the ultimate consumer. It can also be cultural, as barriers to

    cross-cultural communication inhibit accurate flow of information. Cultural distancing can increase

    consumer apathy about harming the people involved in production—a result of reduction of “sympathetic

    identification” of consumer with producer (Conca 2002, 145). Monitoring is difficult across geographic

    and cultural divides, and as more actors become involved, each new actor assumes less responsibility:

    “diminished accountability via the distance of multiple agency also separates rights for resource use from

    the responsibilities of that use” (Princen 2002, 124). Distancing the rights from the responsibilities for a

    resource allows for easy exploitation. When there is a great geographical distance between producer and

    consumer, producers generally sell to a single large-scale buyer. Because there is only one purchaser, the

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    purchaser holds considerable bargaining power over the producer, often driving prices artificially low.

    This problem of distancing is not new; the “sugar colonies” and other sites of imperial exploitation of

    natural and human resources in far off regions has been a significant site of distancing for centuries.

    However, improvements in transportation, information, and communication technology as well as

    increasing trade liberalization, opening up of new markets, and other aspects of globalization have

    recently increased the frequency and impact of distancing.

    Distancing can take place among people from the same country. For example, an urban dweller

    who buys all of his or her food from a grocery store and has no conception of who produced it or how it

    was produced may be culturally distant from a farm just twenty or thirty miles away. Recent trends in

    agriculture in the US have led to a startling disconnect between the majority of Americans and the people

    who produce food. In 1900, almost 40% of the US population lived on a farm. By 1980, that number had

    dropped to just 2.7% and by 1990, just 1.9%. In 1993, the percentage was so small that the Census

    Bureau declared that it was no longer significant enough to measure (McFadden 1997, 60). Over the past

    century, agriculture has shifted dramatically away from small family farms to larger, more industrial ones.

    Low prices for agricultural products (which is partially a result of government subsidies) coupled with

    high land values for farmland because of its potential for real estate development are some of the sources

    driving this decline in farming numbers (Stagl 2002, 76). This decline in the percentage of people who

    are farmers has contributed to a disconnect between people, the land, and the food that they are

    consuming. The Industrial Agriculture farms that these small family farms are replaced with are largely

    untransparent. Even for people within the same community, it may be difficult to find out what the

    specific practices of that farm are. This disconnect has played a part in the commodification of food and

    an ignorance about the processes through which it is produced. This disconnect is compounded by

    greater distances between producers and consumers.

    The average food product consumed in the US travels 1300 miles to get there, and when it does

    arrive it is often packaged in a manner that suggests that it never originated from the ground. As

    Elizabeth Henderson articulates, “From the consumer’s point of view, the source of food lies hidden

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    behind an almost impenetrable wall of plastic and petroleum” (Henderson 1999, 17). Because food is

    traveling such long distances, more energy is consumed for refrigeration and transport. Consumers are

    often unaware of where their food came from or how it was grown, thus making the producers less

    accountable for their practices. The true costs of agriculture production are not immediately apparent to

    the consumer; what these consumers do not know about the way that their food is produced can

    potentially harm themselves and the environment: “When purchasing strawberries in the winter, for

    example, few consumers are aware of the highly toxic pesticides needed to grow that crop in a tropical

    climate or the impact of those pesticides on wildlife, the environment, or farmworker health” (Spector

    2002, 352). Using pesticides and chemical fertilizers has become standard practice in many farms to the

    extent that agriculture accounts for a significant portion of groundwater pollution. A study done by the

    Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found “Forty-six different pesticides and nitrates from nitrogen

    fertilizers have been found in the groundwater of twenty-five states, with the largest residues in big

    agriculture states, such as California and Iowa” (Henderson 1999, 14). Additionally, farm laborers may

    be exploited without the consumers’ knowledge.

    In addition to the exploitation and environmental degradation that the current industrial food

    system lends itself too, it also homogenizes food; most large producers use monoculture techniques that

    disrupt biodiversity. Not only does this have the harmful effect of losing species and degrading land,

    monoculture carries over to American diets as the foods available for purchase become more limited.

    Food quality is often of lower quality and not as fresh.

    Buy Local

    One way to decrease some of the harmful aspects of being disconnected from food, farmers, and

    the land is to shift to a more locally based food system. In a local system the consumer is more likely to

    know the producer and to share cultural values, thus removing cross-cultural borders involved in much of

    the global food industry. Local farmers are held much more accountable for their actions since the

    consumer—or local authorities, a reporter, an environmental inspector—can monitor the producer’s

    practices. Additionally, in local food markets the producer cannot pass blame off to others within the

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    system because there are fewer actors: “They cannot be absolved from responsibility by, in effect, hiding

    behind the backs of numerous agents” (Princen 2002, 123). At the same time, producers are less

    vulnerable to exploitation because buying is decentralized; instead of one corporate buyer, there are often

    several smaller-scale buyers. Thus the producer is not overly dependent on any one customer to the

    degree that she or he can be significantly exploited.

    When food is produced and consumed locally, it becomes more socially embedded.

    Embeddedness is the concept (introduced by Karl Polanyi in the 1950s) that “economic decisions are not

    made purely on the basis of supply and demand; rather, they are embedded and enmeshed in institutions,

    economic and non-economic” (Polanyi 1957, 250 quoted in Hinrichs 2000, 296). In a highly embedded

    market, other factors—such as the conditions under which the food was produced, the relationship

    between the producer and consumer—are taken into account along with food price and quality. The local

    food market, in contrast to large-scale international food corporations, is highly embedded in social

    institutions; factors which are not directly economic can become motivation for consumers to buy locally

    produced food. Some forms of locally