Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 787–804 | Cite as

A quantitative analysis of food movement convergence in four Canadian provinces

  • Ashley McInnes
  • Evan Fraser
  • Ze’ev Gedalof
  • Jennifer Silver
Article

Abstract

Whether the food movement is most likely to transform the food system through ‘alternative’ or ‘oppositional’ initiatives has been the focus of considerable scholarly debate. Alternative initiatives are widespread but risk reinforcing the conventional food system by supporting neoliberal discourse and governance mechanisms, including localism, consumer choice, entrepreneurialism and self-help. While oppositional initiatives such as political advocacy have the potential for system-wide change, the current neoliberal political and ideological context dominant in Canada poses difficulties for initiatives that explicitly oppose the conventional food system. As such, some argue that the food movement requires convergence between alternative and oppositional initiatives. In this paper, we investigate convergence using survey results from 143 food movement organizations in four Canadian provinces. Results based on cluster analysis and descriptive statistics on organizational discourse, activities and visions of sustainable food systems demonstrate convergence around neoliberal discourse and governance mechanisms. Localism and consumer education characteristics are particularly prominent, with a majority of respondents describing their organizations as ‘local’, engaging in consumer education activities, and stating the importance of consumer education activities, indicating convergence around alternative, rather than oppositional, initiatives. While convergence around these discourse and strategies may limit the transformative potential of the food system when interpreted as neoliberalisation of the movement, such a reading does not demonstrate their full potential, as survey results also indicate trends of transformative visions of change and political engagement, particularly at the municipal level. This research demonstrates that the movement can work simultaneously within, and opposed to, the conventional food system, and provides understanding of both neoliberal leanings and the politics of the possible of the food movement.

Keywords

Alternative food movement Local food systems Neoliberalisation Convergence Quantitative methods 

Abbreviations

AFMA

Alberta farmers’ market association

AFM

Alberta food matters

BCAFM

British Columbia association of farmers’ markets

BCFSN

British Columbia food systems network

FMNS

Farmers’ markets of Nova Scotia

FMO

Farmers’ markets Ontario

FSC

Food secure Canada

NSFSN

Nova Scotia food security network

SO

Sustain Ontario

Introduction

In an effort to build a food system that is socially just, environmentally sustainable and supports community economies, the food movement engages in a variety of initiatives, including organics, local, food security, farmers’ markets, and food sovereignty, among others. Given this diversity, scholars have begun considering whether these initiatives are too fractured to be effective in transforming the food system (Friedland 2010) and are examining the extent to which diverse initiatives have converged into a cohesive food movement (Constance et al. 2014a). Convergence could occur either through shared visions and strategies, or strategic alliances (Constance et al. 2014b; Holt-Giménez and Shattuck 2011). A key point of this body of scholarship centers on the extent to which initiatives are ‘alternative’ or ‘oppositional’, sometimes referred to as ‘progressive’ or ‘radical’ (e.g. Allen 2014; Holt-Giménez and Shattuck 2011). Alternative initiatives work at incremental reform of the food system by providing opportunities to ‘opt out’, while oppositional initiatives aim to protest against, and fundamentally transform, the existing food system (Allen et al. 2003). Farmers’ markets, for example, are interpreted as “a wonderful alternative” that does little to challenge the conventional food system (Allen 2014, p. 51). In contrast, oppositional initiatives are argued to be more likely to transform the food system since they directly oppose the dominant discourse, values and practices of the industrial food system, typically through movement mobilization, advocacy and engagement in policy processes and political change (Allen 2014; Holt-Giménez and Wang 2011). Initiatives can also incorporate both alternative and oppositional elements, such as social justice initiatives that include goals such as education, health care, and protection of natural resources (‘alternatives’) along with addressing income caps, equitable distribution of wealth, and communal ownership of resources such as land (‘oppositional’ initiatives) (Allen 2014).

Precisely which types of food movement initiatives are most likely to transform the food system – and thus represent the most promising avenues for convergence – has been the focus of considerable scholarly debate (see McInnes and Mount 2017 for a conceptual framework outlining strategies for food system transformation). Emphasizing active and ongoing citizen participation in the food system may bring more transformative change than key words such as ‘food sovereignty’ or ‘local food’ that have the potential for cooptation by advocates of the conventional food system (Kloppenburg et al. 2000). Additionally, incremental policy change provides a pragmatic strategy within a neoliberal context (Hassanein 2003). Incremental change may be more palatable, and appear more feasible, to policy makers, and possibly fall under the radar as minor adjustments (Mount and Andrée 2013). Yet some argue that without more oppositional elements, alternative food initiatives may not have the potential to change the food system in the long term, and may in fact do more to (unintentionally) reinforce the conventional food system, which is characterized by neoliberal policy, through neoliberal subject formation (Guthman 2008a). Neoliberalism in practice adjusts political economic policies to emphasize privatization of resources, deregulated markets, liberalized trade, and shifts regulatory and welfare responsibility to individuals, voluntary organizations and public–private partnerships; yet it may also influence how people understand the world and what types of activities are possible (Eaton 2013). Some argue that neoliberal policy and ideology shapes possibilities for food system change strategies (Hinrichs and Eshleman 2014), and that the food movement has embraced neoliberal rationalities and governance mechanisms through discourse, goals and activities (Guthman 2008a). While not necessarily directly resulting in neoliberal policy formation (the realm of governments), the acceptance of neoliberal rationalities and strategies within food movement action and discourse may reproduce neoliberal mentalities, both discursively and in practice, reinforcing neoliberal structures by defining “the rhetoric and practice of the politically possible” (Guthman 2008a).

Guthman (2008a) highlights four key characteristics of alternative food initiatives that intrinsically support neoliberal rationalities, including ‘local’ discourse, consumer choice, entrepreneurialism and self-improvement. These characteristics broadly support neoliberal rationalities through: (1) turning away from political arenas that traditionally govern food politics (localism; entrepreneurialism); (2) prioritizing economic values over social and environmental values (localism); (3) placing responsibility for food systems change on individuals, in some cases reducing citizens to consumers (consumer choice; self-help); and (4) conceding secession of state responsibilities for social and environmental programs and regulations (entrepreneurialism; consumer choice; self-help) (Guthman 2008a; Levkoe 2011). Yet this is a contentious issue: Kloppenburg and Hassanein (2006) argue that requiring true opposition to conventionalization in all elements of a sustainable food initiative must result in conventionalization of any such initiative given the variability of ‘oppositionality’ in initiatives. Harris (2009) also critiques the conventionalization/neoliberalisation reading of the food movement, arguing that in such an analysis “neoliberalism is represented not only as self-reproducing, but also as able to colonise all alternatives even as they emerge” (60) and instead advocates following Gibson-Graham (2006) in ‘reading for difference’. Rather than viewing alternative food movement strategies as neoliberalisation of the food movement, some scholars promote viewing alternative initiatives as case studies that demonstrate possibilities for the future; that is, a politics of the possible (Cameron and Wright 2014). The ‘politics of the possible’ framework examines the widespread impact of alternative initiatives (Goodman et al. 2014), and the ways in which these initiatives are meaningfully different from the conventional food system (Andrée et al. 2014).

Despite the considerable amount of literature published debating the transformative potential of the food movement and the extent to which the movement – and various initiatives within it – can be considered ‘alternative’ or ‘oppositional’, little research to date has included systematic assessments of the extent of convergence within the food movement around alternative or oppositional initiatives (Constance et al. 2014a). Therefore, the aim of this paper is to:

  1. 1.

    Build on the systematic assessment initiated in Constance et al. (2014a) to address this gap;

     
  2. 2.

    Provide a new analytical perspective in the food movement literature, which commonly utilizes conceptual and qualitative analysis (Marsden and Franklin 2013), by completing quantitative analysis of survey results from 143 food movement organizations in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia; and

     
  3. 3.

    Examine neoliberal tendencies and politics of the possible within the food movement.

     

Following a brief summary of neoliberal policy in Canada’s food system, we outline our research methods and present survey results on organizational visions of a ‘sustainable food system’, policy goals, activities, and discourse in four provinces across Canada, examining patterns of convergence with cluster analysis and descriptive statistics. We then consider the implications of the results for both neoliberalisation of the food movement and a politics of the possible.

Research context: Canadian food policy

Canadian food policy today is characterized by neoliberal policy emphasizing trade liberalization and economic growth (AAFC 2012; Blay-Palmer 2012). Such policies ensure that the food system plays an important role in the Canadian economy, supplying one in eight jobs and accounting for 8.1% of the total GDP in 2010 (AAFC 2012). Canada, a strong competitor in the global market, was the fifth largest exporter ($35.5 billion) and sixth largest importer ($28 billion) of food products in 2010 (AAFC 2012). Despite the apparent (financial) successes of Canadian agriculture, scholars criticize contemporary Canadian food policy for failing to maintain a socially and environmentally just food system. In an effort to lower production costs and reduce impediments to business to enhance economic growth, neoliberal policy allows corporations to externalize environmental costs of agriculture (Eaton 2013; MacRae 2011). Without regulatory responsibility for environmental destruction, some environmental thresholds have been surpassed (e.g. some fisheries) and others are threatened (e.g. water, soil, biodiversity) (MacRae 2011). In addition, nearly 2.5 million Canadians are classified as food insecure (Wiebe and Wipf 2011) and low commodity prices have caused declining farmer incomes while corporations experience record profits (Magnan 2011; Qualman 2011). While the Canadian government has recognized the social and environmental issues associated with conventional production, there have been no significant changes towards sustainability (MacRae et al. 2012a). The federal government has recently tabled the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, which includes sustainable food in its 13 goals (ECCC 2016). While promising, the strategy is in its early stages. As such, an examination of neoliberal tendencies within food movements is particularly relevant in Canada, where organizations are working within a context of federal agrifood policy that is based on neoliberalism (AAFC 2012; Blay-Palmer 2012). Some argue that the food movement must operate in explicit opposition to this policy, given its contribution to problems in Canada’s food system (Eaton 2013; Rosset 2008).

Methods

In this paper, we present the results from an online survey distributed to food movement organizations in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia between February and June 2015. The survey, which took most participants approximately 20 min to complete, included closed-ended and Likert style questions based on scholarship regarding the ‘transformative potential’ of the food movement (e.g. Holt-Giménez and Shattuck 2011; Allen et al. 2003; Guthman 2008b; Mount et al. 2013; Levkoe 2011). These studies utilized open-ended research and critical analysis to examine food movement discourse, visions and strategies. Though the survey questions in this study were closed-ended, we reduced potential researcher bias by building on this work and including responses previously used by organizations, as well as space for additional responses not considered by the researchers. The survey asked respondents to reflect on their work over the past two years, focusing on organizational discourse, engaged activities, visions of sustainable food systems, and the actions and policies needed to achieve these visions. Specific questions are noted in the relevant tables.

Population

While individuals undoubtedly play an important role in the food movement, organizations and groups working on food-related initiatives explicitly represent the collective effort of the food movement (Levkoe and Wakefield 2014). Such a population is suitable for this project, which aims to investigate convergence within the broad Canadian food movement. Levkoe and Wakefield (2014) provide one of few studies that focus on the Canadian food movement as a collective unit, rather than individual food initiatives; as such, their sampling methods provide rare direction for researchers seeking to investigate the food movement as a whole, since “even scholars who make reference to an elusive ‘food movement’ rarely explain what it is” (Levkoe and Wakefield 2014). Following Levkoe and Wakefield (2014), we used provincial food networks to define the population of organizations and groups working on food issues, including the British Columbia Food Systems Network (BCFSN), Alberta Food Matters (AFM), Sustain Ontario (SO), and the Nova Scotia Food Security Network (NSFSN). Provincial food movement networks aim to foster collective action amongst food movement organizations to achieve food systems change, and researchers suggest these networks have the potential to achieve transformative systemic change (Levkoe 2014). We also used the national food movement network Food Secure Canada (FSC), which is aimed at advancing food security and food sovereignty in Canada (Food Secure Canada 2016). The emphasis on food sovereignty suggests that the work of members of this network may be considered transformative (Holt-Giménez and Shattuck 2011).

Aiming to investigate similarities and differences between the (potentially) opposition-oriented national and provincial networks, and alternative-oriented organizations, we also distributed the survey to farmers’ market networks in each province: the British Columbia Association of Farmers’ Markets (BCAFM), Alberta Farmers’ Market Association (AFMA), Farmers’ Markets Ontario (FMO), and Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia (FMNS). We chose farmers’ markets to represent alternative-oriented initiatives because they are critiqued for separating from the conventional food system without challenging it (Allen et al. 2003), but also recognized for having widespread impact (Beckie et al. 2012).

Sampling design

To survey a diverse sample of food movement organizations, our recruitment letter asked for participation by organizations working on building a sustainable food system, rather than participation in specific movements such as the local food movement, or specific initiatives. For instance, though the organizations based their work in Canada, participant organizations included those aimed at global issues including sustainable seafood, food security and biotechnology, as well as local issues such as community supported agriculture and farmers’ markets. We determined organization members from national and provincial network websites, and sent the survey to all organizations with updated contact information. This included 33 organizations in British Columbia, 14 in Alberta, 64 in Ontario, and 43 in Nova Scotia, for a total of 154 organizations. We contacted provincial farmers’ market associations for email lists of their member organizations, and again sent the survey to all organizations with updated contact information in three provinces: 86 in British Columbia, 159 in Ontario and 43 in Nova Scotia. AFMA preferred to send the recruitment email to their 121 organization members.

We sent four follow-up reminder emails, and completed follow-up phone calls with the remaining provincial network member organizations in British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia to boost responses from these groups. Some organizations sent the survey to other members of their informal networks, and distributed it on provincial listservs and social media accounts, making response rate difficult to determine. Estimated response rates based on the total number of responses by the number of organizations initially contacted for each network indicate higher response rates for national and provincial networks (BCFSN—30.3%; AFM—71.4%; SO—50.0%; NSFSN—20.9%; FSC—77.1%) than farmers’ market networks (BCAFM—14.0%; AFMA—7.4%; FMO—15.1%; FMNS—32.6%).

Sample characteristics

The final sample included 28 organizations in British Columbia, 26 organizations in Alberta, 59 organizations in Ontario, 28 organizations in Nova Scotia, and 1 national organization completing work in all four provinces, for a total of 142 organizations. The sample was fairly evenly distributed between provincial networks and farmers’ market associations (Table 1). The sampled organizations represented diverse interests, such as farmers’ markets (often considered alternative), and policy think tanks and activists groups (often considered oppositional). In all provinces, most organizations were non-profit, educational, community or grassroots groups (Table 2). Some organizations were government institutions, government-community partnerships or marketing boards, and few organizations were for-profit or cooperative organizations. One member of each organization, primarily individuals in higher-level positions, completed the survey. The majority of respondents were board members, managers, presidents, chairs, co-chairs, directors, coordinators or supervisors (105; 73.4%). Other respondents included business owners (3; 2.1%), farmers or gardeners (6; 4.2%), nutritionists or dieticians (7; 4.9%), volunteers (2; 1.4%) or other (e.g. treasurer) (19; 13.3%).

Table 1

Organization membership

 

Number

Percent of total sample

Alberta farmers’ market association

9

6.3

Alberta food matters

10

7.0

British Columbia association of farmers’ markets

12

8.5

British Columbia food systems network

10

7.0

Farmers’ markets Ontario

24

16.9

Sustain Ontario

32

22.5

Farmers’ markets of Nova Scotia

14

9.9

Nova Scotia food security network

9

6.3

Food secure Canada

37

26.1

Table 2

Organization type by province

 

British Columbia

Alberta

Ontario

Nova Scotia

National

Total

n

% (column)

n

% (column)

n

% (column)

n

% (column)

n

% (column)

n

% (column)

Non-profit, educational, community or grassroots group

25

89.3

20

76.9

41

69.5

20

71.4

1

100.0

107

75.4

For-Profit

1

3.6

2

7.7

12

20.3

2

7.1

0

0.0

7

12.0

Cooperative

0

0.0

0

0.0

1

1.7

4

14.3

0

0.0

5

3.5

Government institution, community-government partnership or marketing board

2

7.1

4

15.4

5

8.5

2

7.1

0

0.0

13

9.2

Total

28

100.0

26

100.0

59

100.0

28

100.0

1

0.0

142

100.0

Data analysis

Following Constance et al. (2014b) and (Holt-Giménez and Shattuck 2011), we defined convergence as shared visions for a sustainable food system and strategies for attaining it across organizations involved in a broad ‘sustainable food movement’ with diverse aims. The extent of convergence (or divergence) was determined through cluster analysis, in which clusters of data points (respondents) are identified based on a high similarity in researcher-selected variables. In this case, the organizations were grouped based on their responses to survey questions focusing on organizational discourse, engaged activities, visions of sustainable food systems, and the actions and policies needed to achieve these visions. In addition, descriptive statistics were analyzed to determine whether a high number of participants responded similarly, an additional indication of convergence.

We conducted hierarchical cluster analysis (n = 93) based on organizational perceptions of sustainable food system visions (including visions of a sustainable food system and perceptions of policies needed to achieve a sustainable food system) with the intent to examine whether organizational strategies (measured by engaged activities) differed between models, following frameworks of organizational characteristics and transformative potential of various food initiatives consistent with the food movement literature (e.g. Holt-Giménez and Shattuck 2011; Guthman 2008b; Allen et al. 2003; Mount et al. 2013). We also conducted hierarchical cluster analysis (n = 86) based on both visions and strategies to determine convergence (or divergence) across these characteristics. Organizations with missing data for the relevant variables were excluded from the analysis. We used three diverse distance measures (nearest neighbour, furthest neighbour and Ward’s methods) to ensure that the data, rather than the clustering method, determined the cluster structure (Burns and Burns 2008; Romesburg 1984). We then completed descriptive statistics on each of the variables included in the cluster analysis to examine sample characteristics. All statistics were carried out using SPSS (Version 23.0.0.0).

Results

Cluster analysis

The dendrograms and agglomeration step tables indicated a single cluster solution for all distance measures when the hierarchical cluster analysis included variables to measure organizational perceptions of sustainable food system model, including visions of a sustainable food system and perceptions of policies needed to achieve a sustainable food system (n = 93). A second hierarchical cluster analysis including both model and approach, to determine whether organizational approach could differentiate types of organizations involved in the food movement, again resulted in dendrograms and agglomeration step tables that indicated a single cluster solution for all distance measures (n = 86).

Descriptive statistics

Given the single cluster solution indicating one cohesive group of organizations, we completed descriptive statistics on the full sample (n = 142). We examined the variables included in the cluster analysis to determine the characteristics of the organizations in terms of organizational discourse, activities, and visions of sustainable food systems. When asked to choose a concept that best describes the organization, ‘local food’ was the most commonly chosen concept overall as well as for each province (Table 3).

Table 3

Frequency of concept chosen by organizations to describe their work, by province

 

British Columbia

Alberta

Ontario

Nova Scotia

National

Total

n

% (column)

n

% (column)

n

% (column)

n

% (column)

n

% (column)

n

% (column)

Food security or food aid

5

17.9

5

19.2

3

5.1

2

7.1

0

0

15

10.6

Sustainable agriculture or sustainable seafood

4

14.3

1

3.8

12

20.3

4

14.3

1

100

22

15.5

Food justice

1

3.6

1

3.8

0

0.0

2

7.1

0

0

4

2.8

Food sovereignty

1

3.6

1

3.8

4

6.8

1

3.6

0

0

7

4.9

Food or farming enterprise

2

7.1

0

0.0

5

8.5

1

3.6

0

0

8

5.6

Local food

12

42.9

10

38.5

28

47.5

14

50.0

0

0

64

45.1

Other

3

10.7

8

30.8

7

11.9

4

14.3

0

0

22

15.5

Total

28

100.0

26

100.0

59

100.0

28

100.0

1

100.0

142

100.0

The survey question asked: “which of the following terms most accurately describes the work of your organization?” with respondents able to select one of food security, sustainable agriculture, food justice, food sovereignty, food enterprise, local food or other. where listed in the table, some ‘other’ responses were combined with the listed selections for analytical purposes

Organizations that described themselves as local most commonly listed their primary focus as viable farm income, closely followed by food access (Table 4). While primary focus differed by province, general tendencies towards focusing on either viable farm income or food access (or both) were consistent across the four provinces, with the exception of British Columbia, which had equal responses for environmental sustainability as well as viable farm income and food access.

Table 4

Primary focus and government engagement of local food organizations, by province

 

British Columbia

Alberta

Ontario

Nova Scotia

Total

 

n

% (row)

n

% (row)

n

% (row)

n

% (row)

n

% (row)

Primary Focusa

 Environmental sustainability

3

27.3

2

20.0

4

14.3

0

0.0

9

14.3

 Social justice

0

0.0

1

10.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

1

1.6

 Economic development

1

9.1

0

0.0

1

3.6

2

14.3

4

6.3

 Viable farm income

3

27.3

1

10.0

10

35.7

4

28.6

18

28.6

 Food access

3

27.3

4

40.0

6

21.4

4

28.6

17

27.0

 Diet and health

0

0.0

0

0.0

1

3.6

0

0.0

1

1.6

 Consumer education (e.g. school programs

or community kitchens)

1

9.1

1

10.0

0

0.0

1

7.1

3

4.8

 Consumer awareness (e.g. promotion of local

markets)

0

0.0

1

10.0

4

14.3

2

14.3

7

11.1

 Producer education or training

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

 Political change

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

 Other

0

0.0

0

0.0

2

7.1

1

7.1

3

4.8

Pressured or targetedb

 Municipal government

7

58.3

5

62.5

10

40.0

7

50.0

29

49.2

 Provincial government

5

41.7

2

25.0

4

16.0

3

21.4

14

23.7

 Federal government

0

0.0

1

12.5

1

4.0

0

0.0

2

3.4

Partnered withc

 Municipal government

9

75.0

7

70.0

11

40.7

10

71.4

37

58.7

 Provincial government

0

0.0

4

40.0

4

14.8

5

35.7

22

34.9

 Federal government

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

0

0.0

aThe survey question asked: “what is the primary focus (goal) of your organization (Rank top 3 in order of importance)” with response options listed in the table; the most important (rank = 1) was included in analysis; BC: n = 11; AB: n = 10; ON: n = 28; NS: n = 14; Total: n = 63

bThe survey question asked: “which of the following groups has your organization pressured or targeted for engagement (e.g. outreach or lobbying to change practices) in the past 2 years? (Select all that apply)” with relevant response options listed in the table; BC: n = 12; AB: n = 8; ON: n = 25; NS: n = 14; Total: n = 59

cThe survey question asked: “which of the following groups has your organization partnered with to implement projects in the past 2 years (e.g. partnered on grant applications, or planning or implementation of activities or programs)? (Select all that apply)” with relevant response options listed in the table; BC: n = 12; AB: n = 10; ON: n = 27; NS: n = 14; Total: n = 63

A total of 12 organizations in BC, 10 in AB, 28 in ON, 14 in NS, and 64 total described as local food organizations. Missing data accounts for variation in the numbers

Although no local food organizations listed political change as their primary focus, nearly half of all local food organizations stated that they have reached out or lobbied to a municipal government and nearly a quarter stated that they have reached out or lobbied to a provincial government (Table 4). Few organizations have reached out or lobbied the federal government in a similar manner. Over half of local food organizations have partnered with municipal governments on project implementation, with fewer organizations partnering with provincial governments and no organizations partnering with the federal government. These general trends were consistent across each of the four provinces.

Activities that prioritize consumer choice and entrepreneurial activities, including consumer awareness or education, farmers’ markets, and other distribution services were common across the four provinces, although political advocacy activities were also common (Table 5). Self-help activities were also somewhat common, including producer education or training, and community, school or urban gardens. Of those organizations engaged in consumer awareness activities, cultural value of food and advertisement of local markets were the most common foci.

Table 5

Organizational strategies, including activity engagement, consumer education activities, policy goals, and government lobbying and partnerships, by province

 

British Columbia

Alberta

Ontario

Nova Scotia

Overall

 

At least once a month

Total

At least once a month

Total

At least once a month

Total

At least once a month

Total

At least once a month

Total

 

#

% (row)

#

#

% (row)

#

#

% (row)

#

#

% (row)

#

#

% (row)

#

Activity engagementa

 Producer education

10

37.0

27

10

38.5

26

29

51.8

56

15

53.6

28

65

47.1

138

 Gardens (community, school urban)

9

33.3

27

14

53.8

26

15

26.8

56

10

35.7

28

48

34.8

138

 Emergency Food Provision

4

16.0

25

4

15.4

26

8

14.8

54

3

10.7

28

19

14.2

134

 Locally-sourced emergency food provision

6

23.1

26

2

7.7

26

9

16.7

54

1

3.6

28

18

13.3

135

 Food labelling

8

29.6

27

9

34.6

26

15

26.8

56

9

32.1

28

41

29.7

138

 Farmland preservation

7

25.0

28

3

11.5

26

13

23.6

55

2

7.1

28

26

18.8

138

 Agricultural research

2

7.4

27

4

15.4

26

11

20.0

55

8

28.6

28

26

19.0

137

 Political advocacy

11

40.7

27

8

30.8

26

25

43.9

57

10

35.7

28

55

39.6

139

 Consumer education or awareness

19

70.4

27

18

69.2

26

34

59.6

57

20

71.4

28

92

66.2

139

 Farmers’ market

12

44.4

27

11

42.3

26

31

54.4

57

18

64.3

28

72

51.8

139

 Other distribution service

12

46.2

26

10

40.0

25

24

45.3

53

10

37.0

27

56

42.4

132

 Other

3

100

3

3

100

3

1

20.0

5

2

66.7

3

9

56.3

16

Consumer awareness/education Activitiesb

 Student nutrition

8

32.0

25

11

50.0

22

12

24.5

49

8

32.0

25

39

32.0

122

 Community health or nutrition

15

60.0

25

11

50.0

22

20

40.8

49

10

40.0

25

56

45.9

122

 Value of food

18

72.0

25

17

77.3

22

35

71.4

49

18

72.0

25

89

73.0

122

 Environmental impacts of conventional food production

13

52.0

25

9

40.9

22

19

38.8

49

7

28.0

25

49

40.2

122

 Food safety

12

48.0

25

10

45.5

22

23

46.9

49

12

48.0

25

58

47.5

122

 Knowledge networks or coalitions

18

72.0

25

12

54.5

22

29

59.2

49

15

60.0

25

75

61.5

122

 Promotion of local markets

18

72.0

25

14

63.6

22

36

73.5

49

19

76.0

25

87

71.3

122

Policy Goalsc

 Reduce/eliminate government interventions in the market

3

13.0

23

1

6.7

15

6

15.4

39

5

29.4

17

15

15.8

95

 Local procurement

20

87.0

23

9

60.0

15

31

79.5

39

14

82.4

17

75

78.9

95

 Poverty elimination

8

34.8

23

10

66.7

15

14

35.9

39

4

23.5

17

36

37.9

95

 Gender equity

4

17.4

23

2

13.3

15

6

15.4

39

4

23.5

17

17

17.9

95

 Farmworker rights

4

17.4

23

1

6.7

15

8

20.5

39

5

29.4

17

19

20.0

95

 Indigenous agricultural capacity

7

30.4

23

0

0.0

15

7

17.9

39

2

11.8

17

17

17.9

95

 Local/regional policy councils

14

60.9

23

7

46.7

15

16

41.0

39

4

23.5

17

42

44.2

95

 Support for new farmers

15

65.2

23

5

33.3

15

29

74.4

39

14

82.4

17

64

67.4

95

 Support for small-scale farmers

18

78.3

23

8

53.3

15

32

82.1

39

13

76.5

17

72

75.8

95

 Participatory democracy/inclusive public consultations

12

52.2

23

4

26.7

15

15

38.5

39

5

29.4

17

37

38.9

95

 Environmental incentives (e.g payments for ecosystem services)

5

21.7

23

1

6.7

15

11

28.2

39

0

0.0

17

18

18.9

95

 Environmental regulations (e.g restriction of chemical inputs on farms)

7

30.4

23

4

26.7

15

15

38.5

39

2

11.8

17

29

30.5

95

 Resource equity (e.g. land, seed water)

10

43.5

23

3

20.0

15

13

33.3

39

4

23.5

17

31

32.6

95

 Incentives for socially just practices (e.g. tax incentives for fair trade initiatives)

3

13.0

23

2

13.3

15

6

15.4

39

3

17.6

17

15

15.8

95

 Student nutrition programs

7

30.4

23

15

100.0

15

12

30.8

39

4

23.5

17

34

35.8

95

Pressured or targetedd

 Municipal government

22

78.6

28

12

54.5

22

25

45.5

55

12

42.9

28

71

53.0

134

 Provincial government

14

50.0

28

7

31.8

22

21

38.2

55

11

39.3

28

53

39.6

134

 Federal government

3

10.7

28

3

13.6

22

13

23.6

55

3

10.7

28

23

17.2

134

Partnered withe

 Municipal government

21

75.0

28

16

61.5

26

26

45.6

57

15

53.6

28

78

55.7

140

 Provincial government

15

53.6

28

10

38.5

26

20

35.1

57

15

53.6

28

60

42.9

140

 Federal government

2

7.1

28

1

3.8

26

7

12.3

57

3

10.7

28

14

10.0

140

aThe survey question asked: “Over the past 2 years, how frequently has your organization engaged in each of the following activities?” with response options listed in the table

bAs follow-up to those engaged in consumer awareness or education, the survey question asked: “Which of the following consumer education/awareness/conscious raising activities does your organization engage in? (Select all that apply)” with response options listed in the table

cAs follow-up to those engaged in political advocacy, the survey question asked: “Which of the following policy goals does your organization’s activities work toward? (Select all that apply)” with response options listed in the table

dThe survey question asked: “Which of the following groups has your organization pressured or targeted for engagement (e.g. outreach or lobbying to change practices) in the past 2 years? (Select all that apply)” with relevant response options listed in the table

eThe survey question asked: “Which of the following groups has your organization partnered with to implement projects in the past 2 years (e.g. partnered on grant applications, or planning or implementation of activities or programs)? (Select all that apply)” with relevant response options listed in the table

A total of 28 organizations in BC, 26 in AB, 59 in ON and 28 in NS completed the survey. Totals differ due to missing data

Between 30.8 and 43.9% of organizations in each province engaged in political advocacy at least once a month, although, when asked specifically, more organizations indicated that they have lobbied, targeted or pressured municipal governments to create change. Fewer organizations in each province have targeted provincial governments, and fewer again have targeted the federal government. More organizations in each province indicated that they have partnered with governments to create change than lobbied governments. Similar to lobbying governments, there were trends towards more partnerships at the municipal level, with declining partnerships at the provincial and federal levels.

Of those organizations engaged in policy change, the most common policy goals included local procurement, and support for new and small-scale farmers. In terms of environmental policy goals, regulations were more common than incentives. In terms of social justice policy goals, poverty elimination, student nutrition programs, participatory democracy and resource equity were more common than gender equity, farmworker rights, Indigenous agricultural capacity, and incentives, but not prevalent in the sample.

Examining the highest average ‘importance’ ranking of each activity, consumer education or awareness activities were considered the most important activities to engage in, even by organizations that engage in political advocacy at least once a month (Table 6). Political advocacy did not have the highest average importance ranking by any group of organizations, including those working on political advocacy. Organizations working on community or school gardens, farmland preservation, consumer awareness or education, farmers’ markets, and other distribution services all had the highest average importance ranking for their respective activities, although organizations engaged in farmland preservation and distribution services ranked consumer education and awareness activities as equally important on average.

Table 6

Importance of alternative food activities by engaged activity

Activity engaged in at least once a month

Level of importance attributed to engaged activity (mean)

n

Activity considered most important by activity engagement

Level of importance attributed to most important activity (mean)

n

Producer education

4.58

64

Consumer education or awareness

4.69

64

Gardens (community, school, urban)

4.67

48

Gardens

N/A

N/A

Emergency food provision

4.11

18

Gardens

4.68

19

Locally-sourced emergency food provision

4.17

18

Consumer education or awareness

4.59

17

Food labelling

4.18

40

Consumer education or awareness

4.64

39

Farmland preservation

4.73

26

Farmland preservation tied with consumer education or awareness

N/A

N/A

Agricultural research

4.4

25

Consumer education or awareness

4.76

25

Political advocacy

4.53

53

Consumer education or awareness

4.69

54

Consumer education or awareness

4.71

90

Consumer education or awareness

N/A

N/A

Farmers’ market

4.76

71

Farmers’ markets

N/A

N/A

Other distribution service

4.49

55

Distribution services tied with consumer education or awareness

N/A

N/A

Total

N/A

N/A

Consumer education or awareness

4.56

140

The survey question asked: “According to your organization, how important are the following actions for creating a more sustainable food system? You do not need to confine your responses to activities with which your organization is engaged.” with Likert scale responses from 1 (Not at all important) to 5 (Extremely important)

Overall, food organizations found regulations more important than incentives, and environmentally oriented policies more important than social justice oriented policies, although both incentives and regulations, and environmentally and socially just policies, were all considered important. Policy that dismantles corporate monopolies was also considered important by most organizations (64.5%). Twenty-seven percent of organizations considered trade liberalization as “neither important nor unimportant”, and 34.7% of organizations considered liberalization policies “unimportant” (Table 7).

Table 7

Food organizations perceptions of the importance and likelihood of enacting government policies

Importancea

(1) Not important

2

3

4

(5) Extremely important

Unsure

Total

#

% (row)

#

% (row)

#

% (row)

#

% (row)

#

% (row)

#

% (row)

#

Environmental

incentives

2

1.4

3

2.1

19

13.5

56

39.7

44

31.2

17

12.1

141

Social

incentives

4

2.8

4

2.8

25

17.6

50

35.2

42

29.6

17

12.0

142

Environmental

regulations

1

0.7

4

2.8

24

17.0

42

29.8

57

40.4

13

9.2

141

Social

regulations

4

2.8

3

2.1

21

14.9

50

35.5

49

34.8

14

9.9

141

Dismantle

corporate

monopolies

7

5.0

5

3.5

23

16.3

43

30.5

48

34.0

15

10.6

141

Trade

liberalization

27

19.1

22

15.6

38

27.0

23

16.3

5

3.5

26

18.4

141

Likelihoodb

(1) Extremely unlikely

2

3

4

(5) Extremely likely

Unsure

Total

#

% (row)

#

% (row)

#

% (row)

#

% (row)

#

% (row)

#

% (row)

#

Environmental

incentives

4

2.8

38

27.0

26

18.4

47

33.3

7

5.0

19

13.5

141

Social

incentives

10

7.1

56

39.7

29

20.6

21

14.9

6

4.3

19

13.5

141

Environmental

regulations

15

10.6

56

39.7

16

11.3

32

22.7

5

3.5

17

12.1

141

Social

regulations

10

7.1

59

41.8

35

24.8

14

9.9

5

3.5

18

12.8

141

Dismantle

corporate

monopolies

73

51.8

37

26.2

9

6.4

3

2.1

4

2.8

15

10.6

141

Trade

liberalization

9

6.4

21

15.0

24

17.1

27

19.3

33

23.6

26

18.6

140

aThe survey question asked: “according to your organization, how important are the following governmental policies for creating a more sustainable food system?”

bThe survey question asked: “based on your understanding of Canadian food policy, how likely do you think the following policies are to be implemented?”

Despite organizational efforts towards regulations (as opposed to incentives), organizations generally perceived incentives as more likely to be implemented than regulations, and environmentally-focused policies more likely to be implemented than socially just policies (Table 7). Most organizations viewed policy that dismantles corporate monopolies as extremely unlikely, and policies that support trade liberalization as more likely than unlikely.

Discussion: convergence around alternatives: neoliberalism or politics of the possible?

Results from the cluster analysis indicate that the organizations surveyed in this project are not substantially different from one another, providing evidence of convergence within the Canadian food movement. One interpretation of the results is that there are no ‘oppositional’ organizations in the sample, yet many organizations engaged in policy work, typically considered an ‘oppositional’ strategy. As such, the results support critiques of the assumption that initiatives can be neatly categorized (Allen 2014; Mooney et al. 2014; Mount and Andrée 2013). Convergence may be due to internal hybridity of many organizations, as previous research suggests that individual organizations encompass a diversity of goals and strategies and blur the lines between various organization ‘types’ (Mount and Andrée 2013). The results contrast with conceptual frameworks that group organizations into ‘alternative’ or ‘oppositional’, ‘progressive’ or ‘radical’ (Allen et al. 2003; Holt-Giménez and Shattuck 2011), and are commensurate with previous research investigating pragmatic initiatives that questions the clear distinction between alternative and oppositional initiatives in practice (Mooney et al. 2014). The sample’s convergence around food movement goals and strategies suggests that the Canadian context may influence the organizational operations. The evident convergence of the Canadian food movement may be due to systemic constraints of neoliberal policy, yet whether these constraints will ultimately limit the efficacy of the food movement or simply adjust the ways in which the movement operates is open to debate.

The descriptive statistics demonstrate a sample that supports previous theorisation of food movement trends towards localism, consumer choice, entrepreneurialism and self-help (Guthman 2008a). Scholars agree that these four characteristics are commensurate with alternative, rather than oppositional, initiatives, but debate the extent to which alternative initiatives reinforce neoliberal rationalities (Andrée et al. 2014; Guthman 2008a). One way to interpret convergence in the food movement is through the increasing neoliberalisation of the movement (Guthman 2008a). A second reading—a reading for difference (Harris 2009)—of food movement visions, actions, and discourses, however, suggests convergence around points of success; areas where the food movement has increased operations due to the limitations of neoliberal policy but without defining their actions in relation to neoliberal rationalities. Following Guthman’s (2008a) framework and its critiques (Harris 2009; Andrée et al. 2014), we discuss the survey results in terms of these four trends, considering both neoliberal rationalities and the politics of the possible .

Localism

The prevalence of local food discourse within the sample is consistent with the food movement’s local trend described by Guthman (2008a). Few local food organizations partnered with or lobbied provincial and federal governments to implement programs, or change policy or practice, supporting the notion that the emphasis on local food indicates a turn away from the political levels that traditionally govern food and agriculture policy. Yet a high proportion of the local food organizations in this study have engaged municipal governments, indicating that organizations have not given up on political change, and may instead be focusing their efforts on a political level more open to change. To date, the Canadian food movement has experienced little success impacting federal food policy (Mendes 2008). Kneen (2011), a leader in Canada’s food movement, points out that while Food Secure Canada (a federal network of alternative food organizations and activists) aims to engage the federal government, it has had relatively little influence on federal policy, which has remained effectively unchanged since 1969. In 2016, the federal government included sustainable food in its sustainable development strategy, and a key focus is the development of a federal food policy (ECCC 2016). During the election campaign, the current Liberal party promised a strong role for civil society in public consultations to develop of a federal food policy (Food Secure Canada 2015). While promising, thus far, federal government-driven initiatives to engage civil society in policy processes have been unsuccessful. For instance, the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee was established by the Government of Canada to address biotech policy through public consultation and expert advice, but was ultimately boycotted by civil society organizations (Abergel 2012). Critics have suggested that its only function was to permit pre-existing policies to proceed unhindered, demonstrating the lack of meaningful public engagement in federal decision making surrounding the food system (Abergel 2012). In an analysis of Canada’s Action Plan for Food Security (CAPFS), Koc and Bas (2012) found that organizations invited to consult did not find it truly consultative as they were given no opportunity to speak directly to policymakers, negotiate or engage in discussion over conflicting viewpoints. The authors argue that while the CAPFS process provided space for civil society voices in policymaking, it simultaneously demonstrates further neoliberalisation of the food system by hollowing out the welfare state, as the document emphasized unfunded civil society service delivery (Koc and Bas 2012). Given the lack of progress at the federal level until 2015, the high engagement at the municipal level in this study may represent a turn away from processes of neoliberalisation that occur when attempting to engage the federal government, and a politics of hope at the municipal level.

The closer proximity of organizations to municipal governments may provide further opportunities for organizations to achieve political change at this level. Given the complex nature of the Canadian agrifood regulatory environment, political movements with specific targets may be more successful in achieving their political goals than the broad food movement has accomplished so far. In-depth knowledge of relevant regulatory bodies and relationships with key representatives from the appropriate departments facilitate civil society impact on policy change (MacRae et al. 2012b). In-depth knowledge and close relationships with policymakers may be more achievable at the municipal level than the provincial or federal levels.

The widespread prevalence of local food discourse may support collective action for systemic change. Local food is considered an ‘issues-specific’ frame focused on geographically small-scale economic exchange, as opposed to a ‘master frame’ that brings together diverse interests and actors within the food movement (Schiff and Levkoe 2014). Yet the popularity of local food in the Canadian food movement may support its utility as a collective action frame. While master frames may ultimately be better suited to collective action, issues specific frames can mobilize individual interest and action (Schiff and Levkoe 2014).

Emphasizing the local allows organizations to create context-specific solutions to local challenges created by the global, conventional food system (Blay-Palmer et al. 2015). In addition, if the global food system creates common challenges at different localities, networks of local initiatives can share examples of successful community-based initiatives, leading to solidarity and collective action, and, ultimately, transformation of the food system (Blay-Palmer et al. 2015). The development of new food policy centered on the local in each of the four provinces (see OMAFRA 2015; Authority of the Speaker of the House of Assembly Halifax 2013; The Legislative Assembly of Alberta 2015; Legislative Assembly of British Columbia 2015) suggests that the prevalence of local food discourse may be opening doors for policy change across Canada.

Few local food organizations focused primarily on social justice, instead selecting viable farm income and food access as their primary focus, demonstrating the lack of oppositional social justice qualities at the local scale that is frequently presented in the local food literature (e.g. Born and Purcell 2006; Hinrichs 2003; Levkoe 2011). The prevalence of viable farm income and food access as key foci indicate a strong emphasis on economic values and alternative (rather than oppositional) social justice, consistent with previous research (Allen 2014). Yet widespread improvement of farmer incomes and food access through alternative initiatives help support more equitable distribution of wealth than the conventional food system allots, and as such challenges the notion that oppositional efforts via systemic critique are required for fundamental change. That is, alternative initiatives may appear minor, but can support fundamental change by scaling out across the food system (Mount 2012) and emphasizing the transformative social justice aspects of such initiatives, namely wealth redistribution. While some aspects of the local food movement may reinforce neoliberalisation of the food system, the prevalence of local food discourse may be considered an opportunity for the food movement to expand its transformative potential.

Consumer choice

Consumer education was considered the most important activity by a majority of participants for nearly every activity type, providing empirical support for the increasing reliance on consumers for both transforming and regulating the food system as theorized by Guthman (2008a). Consistent with other case studies, the organizations surveyed here appear to accept the current structures of the food system and choose projects within, rather than opposed, to these structures (Allen et al. 2003). Consumer choice is perhaps the most common neoliberal rhetoric, as some argue it reflects a loss of faith in the state as a regulator, and reduces citizens to consumers and responsibility for food system change onto their ability (and knowledge) to make ‘good choices’ with their dollars (Guthman 2008a; Levkoe 2011). Consumer choice may encourage a neoliberal orientation among food movement organizations by providing more options for consumers without challenging the commodification of food (Allen et al. 2003). An additional challenge for consumer-choice activities is that ‘good choices’ are not affordable, and thus accessible, to all people.

Yet while the high acceptance of consumer choice as a tactic for developing a sustainable food system may intrinsically support and reinforce neoliberal logic, it also indicates that organizations are taking advantage of the tactics available to them under current neoliberal policy. Given the movement’s previous success in using consumer choice to prohibit Roundup Ready wheat in Canada (see Eaton 2013), and Monsanto’s attempts to limit consumer choice by not labeling genetically modified products (see Monsanto 2013), it is perhaps not surprising that the movement sees value in consumer choice activities consistent with researchers that recognize the power of everyday practice and call on consumers to recognize their ability to change the food system through consumption choices (Goodman et al. 2014).

Alternative food organizations may understand that consumer-oriented initiatives are vital to mobilizing communities around food issues (Fairbairn 2012). For instance, previous research on a consumer-based program in Edmonton, Alberta demonstrated that educational initiatives can motivate consumers to move beyond their initial interest in niche markets, and engage in food culture events and policy councils (Desmarais and Wittman 2014). Additionally, consumer choice initiatives may further support smaller movements for specific policy change through first supporting broad value change amongst Canadians that motivates and facilitates acceptance of political change amongst decision makers by demonstrating desire for change and creating a politics of the possible. Previous research has indicated that consumer choice activities are not end goals; rather, organizations use consumer choice activities as strategies for instigating systemic change through re-valuing social and environmental relationships via food (Andrée et al. 2014).

Results of this study indicate that while simply ‘promoting local markets’ was a common consumer education activity, more organizations engaged in educational activities that promote the value of food. Knowledge networks or coalitions were also common amongst the sampled organizations. These educational activities demonstrate strategies to add value beyond economics to food and use food as a means for collective action. As such, while many food organizations are engaged on the ‘consumer’ end of the food chain as opposed to the ‘producer’ end (Goodman and DuPuis 2002; Fairbairn 2012), these initiatives do not necessarily reduce citizens to consumers (Levkoe 2011). The results provide evidence that consumer-based initiatives cannot be reduced to consumer choice; rather, such initiatives include efforts to educate Canadians on the value of food, as well as promote a sense of community based around food (e.g. community kitchens).

While viewing consumer choice solely as a neoliberal tendency provides a narrow view of their potential, putting too much stock into consumer choice may limit the transformative potential of the food movement if the movement ignores the need for policy change. By emphasizing the potential collective impact of the food movement, this analysis demonstrates that there is space for both consumer-oriented and policy-oriented initiatives in the food movement. Indeed, many scholars argue that at the very least, consumer-choice initiatives must occur in tandem with state-targeted initiatives (e.g. Holt-Giménez and Shattuck 2011; Levkoe 2011; Fairbairn 2012). Behaviour and value change may be a vital prerequisite to such activism to ensure that the public will support advocacy for fundamental change in the food system. Ethical consumerism is important for creating behaviour and value change in much of the population, however individual and collective action cannot end there and must use popular support of alternative food initiatives as a catalyst for state-targeted activism to create long-term change.

Entrepreneurialism

The emphasis on consumer choice necessitates entrepreneurial activities at the community level to provide choices, but may also distract from (Levkoe 2011), or extend to, political advocacy (Guthman 2008b). Research on alternative food initiatives in California has shown that organizations recognize the importance of political initiatives in achieving sustainable food systems yet engage more in entrepreneurial activities such as direct marketing through farmers’ markets or community-supported agriculture (Allen et al. 2003). Even when organizations engage in political initiatives, they may focus more on entrepreneurial mechanisms such as incentives, rather than strict regulations, which are generally considered more transformative than incentives (Guthman 2008b).

In this study, entrepreneurial activities (e.g. farmers’ markets and other distribution services) and support for entrepreneurial policies (e.g. local food procurement; incentives-based policy) were common across the four provinces surveyed. Yet organizations generally indicated that regulations-based policies were more important than incentives, although on average less likely. Rather than indicating a turn away from the state as Guthman (2008a) suggests, these results indicate that while organizations have transformative goals, they are simultaneously working on activities and policies where they may be more likely to achieve success. Additionally, while organizations are more likely to partner with governments than to lobby governments, they nonetheless lobby governments, indicating that organizations may use their relationships with government departments to have their voices heard (Andrée et al. 2014). Additionally, these partnerships provide hope that over time, public institutions may value and integrate food movement priorities into public policy (Allen et al. 2003).

In general, environmental policies were viewed as both more important and more likely than social justice policies, and social justice policy goals tended towards alternatives (e.g. support for new- and small-scale farmers) rather than transformative policies (e.g. resource equity, gender equity and farmworker rights). These findings are consistent with Allen’s (2014) argument that the food movement is generally more comfortable with providing alternatives to, and modifying, the conventional food system than transforming it, particularly in terms of social justice, and Friedmann’s (2005) analysis that the food system may be moving towards green capitalism with little in place to support a more equitable food system.

Yet this analysis is incomplete without recognizing the ways in which such initiatives and policies challenge the conventional, productionist food system by bringing social and environmental values back into production (Donald 2010; Cameron and Wright 2014), support collective action by appealing to the general public (Stevenson et al. 2007) and appeal to policymakers due the minor changes that such policies would instigate (Hassanein 2003; Mount and Andrée 2013). Distinguishing the ways in which alternatives are both recognizably different from dominant market structures and familiar to the general public is important because “we must be ready with strategies for confronting what forcefully pushes back against the discursive imaginings and practical enactments we associate with building a different economy” or political system (Gibson-Graham 2006). That is, building a different food system requires alternative strategies for replacing the conventional food system as much as it does a willingness to oppose and transform the food system. There is a need for pragmatic everyday practice to supplement the broader movements for political change, and entrepreneurial initiatives may provide these practices (Marsden and Franklin 2013). The widespread prevalence of on-the-ground entrepreneurial activities such as farmers’ markets demonstrates the “materially effective” alternative economy needed to demonstrate possibilities for a different type of food system (Goodman et al. 2014). The diversity of economies and growing emphasis on the social economy, including non-profits, cooperatives and community initiatives that aim to reestablish trust between producers and consumers, is a growing trend within food movement activism and scholarship (Cameron and Wright 2014), one that represents producers and local businesses taking some control over the food system back from transnational corporations. While such initiatives may not reflect the oppositional politics that scholars advocate, they nonetheless represent a politics of the possible (Goodman et al. 2014).

Self-help

A final neoliberal trend that characterizes the food movement is the emphasis on personal responsibility to create change within the food system, as demonstrated by the emphasis on community gardens and farm-to-school programs (Guthman 2008a). Self-improvement reinforces neoliberal ideology by implicitly acknowledging the lack of state responsibility over public welfare through social programming (Guthman 2008b) and further contributes to individualization within the food movement, superseding collective action (Dolhinow 2005). Combined with the tactic of consumer choice, self-reliance alternatives further exacerbates existing social inequalities by implying that low-income people must grow their own fresh food while everyone else can purchase theirs (Donald 2010).

Programs (e.g. community gardens) and policies (e.g. student nutrition) promoted as self-improvement by scholars (e.g. Guthman 2008a) were common across the four provinces, yet it is notable that student nutrition programs were the least common consumer awareness activities. Details on the motivations behind the Canadian food movement’s 2015 campaign for a student nutrition program reveal the neoliberal rhetoric around healthy eating, healthy bodies and improved learning that Guthman (2008b) asserts, but also a call for collective action for institutional support (in the form of 1 billion dollars of federal investment over 5 years) for universal access to healthy food (see Members and Collaborators of the Coalition for Healthy School Food 2015). Collective action, institutional support and universal access are all themes more in line with a ‘politics of the possible’ than neoliberal arguments for individual responsibility. While the popularity of these initiatives supports Guthman’s (2008a) analysis on neoliberal tendencies within the food movement, there is also a tendency within these initiatives towards community building and political advocacy (Andrée et al. 2014). The Members and Collaborators of the Coalition for Healthy School Food (2015) justify their political ‘asks’ by seeking to build on existing programs. This justification represents a politics of the possible by using existing on-the-ground community-based activities to demonstrate what is possible at the policy level (McInnes and Mount 2017). Further, these organizations are calling on the federal government to invest, indicating that the food movement has not focused on the individual because they have lost faith in the federal government, but that successful local initiatives are used as a strategy to achieve their visions of a vastly different food system (Andrée et al. 2014).

Even so-called ‘individual’ initiatives eventually become collective as they scale up in the number of people reached and scale out across space (Goodman et al. 2014). The widening reach of various alternative initiatives, even at the individual level, serves “to produce a discursive and material shift of tectonic proportions (Gibson-Graham and Cameron 2007). The food system is a social construct built through everyday practice, and as such everyday practice via individual action is necessary to rebuild the food system (Gibson-Graham 2006).

Conclusion

In this paper, we conduct a systematic assessment of the extent of convergence or divergence in the Canadian food movement, and provide evidence for convergence around organizational discourse, activities and visions of sustainable food systems. Using cluster analysis and descriptive statistics, we examined discourse, activities and visions of a sustainable food system, and demonstrate that trends of localism, consumer choice, entrepreneurialism and self-help are prevalent overall and within each of the four provinces surveyed. Localism and consumer-based activities are particularly prominent, with a majority of survey respondents describing their organizations as local, engaging in consumer education activities, and touting the importance of consumer education activities. Yet the results provide empirical evidence that consumer education cannot be reduced to consumer choice. The prevalence of these four trends demonstrates convergence around alternatives, rather than oppositional initiatives, in the food movement across the four Canadian provinces examined. The consistency between the four provinces is notable, and indicates that the neoliberal context provided by federal policy may be a key factor in determining the types of initiatives that are possible for the food movement. Future research investigating changes in food movement strategies under different federal policies would provide valuable insight into the importance of the federal political context. While the four provinces are geographically diverse, territories in Northern Canada were not included and may provide important insights given their unique population and geography relative to the rest of Canada.

The quantitative methods used in this project provide a unique perspective to a body of literature that currently relies heavily on individual case studies (Marsden and Franklin 2013). Even when examining broad trends, much of the food movement literature has a tendency towards conceptual and qualitative analysis without quantifying the extent to which these trends prevail within the food movement (Constance et al. 2014a; Guthman 2008a; e.g., Andrée et al. 2014). There are limitations to quantitative methods: while knowing that a particular number of organizations are working on projects that are (arguably) more or less neoliberal does not necessarily indicate that the movement as whole is more or less neoliberal. For instance, while it is worth noting that the number of organizations that characterize themselves as ‘food sovereignty’ organizations is small, this number does not reflect the impact that the discourse may have on the Canadian food movement if used by few highly influential organizations. Nonetheless, the prevalence of various forms of neoliberal discourse and governance mechanisms may be useful for arguing whether there are indeed ‘trends’ within the food movement, and provides a new method of insight on the potential collective impact of the food movement.

If convergence is required for a transformative food movement, the Canadian food movement may have the potential to change the food system. Yet scholars caution that convergence around alternatives, rather than opposition to the conventional food system model may weaken the transformative potential of the movement and further reinforce neoliberalism within the food system (Rivera-Ferre et al. 2014). This convergence around alternatives may represent neoliberalisation, but also demonstrates a politics of the possible. Interpreting the survey results through the four neoliberal tendencies presented by Guthman (2008a) provides empirical support for Guthman’s theorization but also paints a more complex picture, as outlined by other scholars (e.g. Harris 2009; Andrée et al. 2014; Gibson-Graham and Cameron 2007). Reading for difference interprets unified goals of the food movement as a demonstration of the capacity for strong alliances across Canada, and considers convergence around initiatives that are most successful given the neoliberal context that organizations are working in. That is, organizations working under neoliberal policy may be taking strategic advantage of activities with demonstrated success in this context. In addition, the widespread impact of the organizations surveyed here demonstrates possibilities for how the food system might look in the future, providing pragmatic examples of how to restructure the food system. Further, these initiatives provide the means to engage large numbers of Canadians, who engage with the food system primarily as consumers, allowing Canadians to engage in food systems change every day in ways similar to their daily routines, which may be more appealing, and thus more likely to have widespread impact, than advocacy (Stevenson et al. 2007). To work outside the Canadian policy context may require civil disobedience, possibly alienating many Canadians from engaging in food systems change (Fairbairn 2012).

Gibson-Graham (2006) note that while theorizing (around oppositional or not; transformative or not; or neoliberal or not) is useful in framing existing tendencies within the movement, and envisioning possibilities for food systems change (Allen 2014), when initiatives—or the food movement as a whole—are generalized as reinforcing the conventional food system, such characterizations may serve to weaken broad public support for these initiatives. Scholarly emphasis on neoliberal tendencies underestimates the potential of the initiatives pursued by a diversity of nonprofits, co-operatives, small businesses and community groups across Canada. In particular, the results indicate that convergence around localism, consumer-based activities, entrepreneurialism and self-help cannot be reduced to neoliberal logic. The emphasis on ‘local’ discourse may represent a turn to the municipal political sphere where change may be perceived as more accessible, and provides an opportunity for a collective discourse to unify the food movement. Convergence around consumer-based, rather than producer-based, action is not limited to consumer choice. Instead, consumer-based initiatives are providing spaces for Canadians to create communities based around food, offering opportunities for Canadians to enter food-based activism, and demonstrating possibilities for a new food system in Canada. The turn to entrepreneurialism provides producers and local businesses an opportunity to push back against corporate control of the food system. In terms of entrepreneurial policy, results indicate that the food movement supports regulations over incentives, but may be focusing their efforts on policy initiatives less alienating to governments, such as procurement. Finally, self-help programs tend to be based around communities (e.g. community gardens) and collective action, as groups across Canada are uniting to ask the federal government to institutionalize support for universal access to healthy food via student nutrition programs.

Although the achievements of individual alternative initiatives may be partial, their collective impact is widespread (Gibson-Graham 2006). Given that the food movement has so far been more successful in providing alternatives than enacting the political change envisioned by early activists (Goodman et al. 2014), some scholars are calling for re-energizing the ‘radical left’ by rethinking alternatives as possibilities for restructuring the world (Gibson-Graham and Cameron 2007). Such a politics of the possible provides a means for cracking open spaces of possibility within the current food system by examining alternatives as case studies that help us envision what a different type of food system might look like, and demonstrate widespread support for this different, more sustainable food system (Gibson-Graham 2006; Andrée et al. 2014). Reducing alternative initiatives to neoliberal logic ultimately underestimates the potential of the alternative food movement.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of GuelphGuelphCanada

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