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Standard fare or fairer standards: Feminist reflections on agri-food governance


In 2007 new meat inspection regulations standardizing meat production throughout the Province of British Columbia (BC), Canada came into effect moving food for local consumption closer to continentally harmonized production standards. Critics argue that the economic viability of small-scale livestock farmers is threatened. Small-scale women farmers are central to the creation of alternative local agri-food networks in BC. Using gender as an analytically enabling tool this paper argues that public food-safety regulation can create the conditions for the dominance of private agri-food governance. The discursive creation of a feminized privileged consumer legitimates much non-democratic agri-food governance. The paper argues that more just and ecologically sustainable futures require a ‘gender troubling’ of agri-food governance in which the privileged identity of the food consumer is reconstructed as global citizen in the context of the food sovereignty of the farmers who produce their food.

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  1. Most simply defined as a people’s, countries’ or state unions’ right to define their own food and agriculture policy without any dumping vis a vis third countries. See La Via Campesina

  2. Economic textbooks used to talk of the consumer being king. The supermarket food shopper is gendered female, whatever his/her sex. As ‘queen’ she is both privileged but also powerless in many ways.

  3. An international network of peasants, small farmer, landless and other rural dwellers’ organizations and probably the world largest social movement. Its origins lie in resistance to the neo-liberalization of agriculture.

  4. Although strictly speaking it was a singular regulation but in common usage it took on a plural meaning and thus will be referred to as MIRs in the rest of the document.

  5. Explanations and justifications depended on context and audience and the branch of government. It is also clear that there was pressure for this kind of universal HACCP based food-safety regulation and for provincial, national and international harmonization of food-safety regimes from a variety of sources for quite some time (Blay-Palmer 2008; Haines 2004; Skogstad 2008). Animals diseases issues and trade consequences are also raised. Similar regulation is in the future for small-scale vegetable producers.

  6. Some argue that the presence of federal CFIA agents brought an unnecessarily restrictive interpretation to the provincial legislation.

  7. The Haines (2004) report from Ontario greatly influenced BC regulators. The Haines inquiry was in response to reports of dead cows being accepted by an Ontario abattoir. Ironically that abattoir was both federally and provincially licensed. The eventual prosecution was for selling meat that was not inspected rather than selling contaminated meat. It was failure to follow proper process that rendered the meat ‘unfit’. accessed July 10, 2009.

  8. Activists argued that it was corporate industrial scale agriculture which creates the conditions for Mad Cow Disease (BSE), E. coli 0157, and Avian Flu and which constitutes a greater danger to public health.

  9. Some may argue that global export oriented agri-food regulation creates global market access and economic viability to small farmers in the Global South, whether for organic vegetables, fair trade coffee etc. Analysis needs to be crop, commodity and context specific. The focus here is on livestock farming.

  10. See 2009 video posted via youtube by Assen and Tudge. Our right to BC farmgate food: make it an election issue.

  11. The federal CFIA seemed very active around the MIRs despite these merely being provincial standards, supporting those who saw trade concerns as a driving force. There were noticeable differences within and between government departments. Their final shape is partly explained by the waning power of the state assistance model of agriculture (and thus Ministries of Agriculture) vis a vis the State’s interest in the legitimation functions of consumer protection and business confidence at home and international competitiveness abroad.

  12. Coping required complying with up to eight separate regulatory bodies that informants said gave contradictory and confusing information about requirements. See also Marr (2007).

  13. As the MIRs became a public issue there was quite vocal resistance from members of the opposition in parliament.

  14. The BC government is temporarily paying for the inspector. In one case an inspector’s trip to a licensed plant to oversee their regular full capacity of 15 lambs took a full day, plus overtime. Clearly this arrangement is not economically sustainable.

  15. Based on the North Okanagan Food Action Committee survey of a sample of the 1,227 farms in the region. Farms in the RDNO are typically small-scale: 60% are under 52 hectares in size, livestock rearing being a central activity, and 70% of farms in the region earned less than $24,999 in 2006 (

  16. These included arguing that safety and traceability were already embedded in the (dialogical) relationships of trust in local food; scale, context or regionally appropriate standards etc. See Marr (2007).

  17. In June 2008 the new Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport announced a concession creating a new temporary (until December 2009) Class C license. This allows uninspected facilities intending to upgrade to continue operating but only producing meat destined for direct market to consumers (not restaurants or local stores). Meat has to be labeled as uninspected. There is some evidence that the regulatory authorities have softened somewhat, as I know of two small fairly simple facilities that were licensed. Both however are on small islands and serve a very limited area. By June 2008 there were 51 provincially licensed facilities in BC, however, 20 of these were temporary Class C (BC Sheep Federation 2008), and many do not provide custom services.

  18. For BC farmers, the new MIRs feel like just the tip of a regulatory iceberg; a lot more is coming. Large-scale farmers and processors can spread the costs in time and money over higher output, so lower per unit cost.

  19. I have been told informally by a high level source that this is indeed part of what was going on.

  20. It is questionable that food is safer (Gouveia and Juska 2000). As operationalized, the MIRs contain some HACCP-like characteristics.

  21. Some, but not all in this struggle connects global justice and the local. A key website of resistance, the BC Food Systems Network, increasingly refers to food sovereignty, La Via Campesina and food democracy.

  22. One young woman farmer told me how a supermarket chain bought cherry tomatoes from her 1 year and made her their local farmer poster-girl, only to dump her next year for a cheaper non-local supplier.

  23. For example, between 1995 and 2000 almost half of the abattoirs in the UK closed largely due to the increasing regulatory burden. Yet this centralization of processing in the name of food-safety itself was later blamed for the rapid spread of foot and mouth disease when it occurred in the UK. Centralized processing also means that even small amounts of contaminated products become very widely distributed.


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Correspondence to Martha McMahon.

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McMahon, M. Standard fare or fairer standards: Feminist reflections on agri-food governance. Agric Hum Values 28, 401–412 (2011).

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  • Gender
  • Agri-food governance
  • Food-safety
  • Local food and food sovereignty
  • Women farmers
  • Feminism
  • Regulation
  • Canada