Drawing lines in the cornfield: an analysis of discourse and identity relations across agri-food networks

Abstract

In this article, I analyze discourse and identity relations within so-called ‘conventional’ agri-food networks as well as how the conventional sphere perceives, constructs and responds to alternative food movements in Canada. The paper is structured around three primary research questions: (1) How are conventional actors understanding conditions, changes, and challenges within conventional networks? (2) How do conventional actors apply this understanding in advancing conventional interests and discourses, and defending conventional networks? (3) How do conventional actors and discourse construct AFMs? For this research, I draw from survey, focus group, and in-depth interview data alongside text analysis from online sources. I elucidate the interests and motivations behind the identities, stories and messages emerging from the conventional sphere. I conclude that relationship building and communication between diverse agri-food actors may help to expand the range of agricultural knowledge, philosophies and solutions available to farmers, especially those whom are currently quite divided.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    I use the term alternative food ‘movements’ and ‘networks’ interchangeably (Alkon and Agyeman 2011; Cadieux and Slocum 2015). Both terms “refer to a constellation of individuals, NGOs, alliances, initiatives, companies, and government entities arranged in affiliations of different intensities and scales” (Levkoe 2006; Cadieux and Slocum 2015, p .2). ‘Networks’ are defined more specifically as a set of interactions and relations of power encompassing “economic and institutional forms” situated beyond the binaries of state and market (Murdoch 2000; Lockie 2006). Networks evolve through the efforts of government and non-governmental organizations as well as corporate firms to provide capital and material resources, “training, networking and support services in order to facilitate self-help, entrepreneurialism and capacity building” in accordance with shared beliefs, customs and practices (Lockie 2006, p. 23). In doing so, and perhaps most importantly, networks promote and perpetuate these (social, cultural, and political-economic) beliefs, customs and practices.

  2. 2.

    See the following for further insight into the impacts of industrial production on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change (MacRae et al. 2010; Camargo et al. 2013; Higgins et al. 2015), socio-ecological resilience (Rotz and Fraser 2015), soil and water pollution (Matson et al. 1997), animal welfare (Weis 2013; Schneider 2015), and the rise of ‘pseudo foods’ and obesity (Winson 2004, 2013; Guthman and Watts 2011), to name a few.

  3. 3.

    The non—or not so—consumptive work I refer to includes, but is not limited to, sustainable food production (improving land access for aspiring farmers/food gatherers, building Indigenous food systems and supporting farm transitioning), alternative food infrastructure (community food centres and community-based food storage and transport), and food justice (improving access to healthy food for marginalized communities and fighting for the rights of farm and food workers).

  4. 4.

    The control was that they grew grain corn within the past five rotations.

  5. 5.

    The numbers attached to farmer interview quotes refer to the farm number anonymized in the data. Focus group and expert interview quotes are not numbered.

  6. 6.

    This finding has been observed elsewhere (Burton 2004, 2012).

  7. 7.

    The broader political economic and ethical implications of big data in agriculture have been discussed—although rather scarcely—in academia and the popular media (Banham 2014; Bronson and Knezevic 2016; Carbonell 2016; Carolan 2016).

  8. 8.

    Notably, rural farmwomen within the conventional network occupy a rather different space. However, it is also underpinned by its own social, political and economic structures of patriarchy. For example, a farmer explains, “when the guys come in from farming in the morning and they sit at a table they want to talk their own talk, they don’t want some woman talking to them.”

Abbreviations

AFM:

Alternative food movement

DSS:

Decision support systems

GMO:

Genetically modified organism

FCC:

Farm Credit Canada

OMAFRA:

Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs

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Acknowledgements

Thank you to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. As well, thank you to all of the research participants. This work is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships program (Grant No. CGV-SSHRC-00433).

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Rotz, S. Drawing lines in the cornfield: an analysis of discourse and identity relations across agri-food networks. Agric Hum Values 35, 441–456 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-017-9838-0

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Keywords

  • Agri-food networks
  • Power
  • Discourse
  • Identity
  • Conventional agriculture
  • Alternative food movements (AFM)