Capitalist reforms usually drive outmigration of peasants to cities, while elders, children, and women responsible for their care are “left behind” in the countryside. The plight of these “left behind” populations is a major focus of recent agrarian studies in China. However, rural women are not merely passive victims of these transformations. Building on ethnographic research in Guangxi and Henan provinces from 2013 to 2017, and drawing on critical gender studies and feminist political ecology, I show how the food safety crisis in China creates conditions for peasant women to increase control and income from organic food production, often establishing alternative food networks with the support of female scholars and NGO organizers. Thus, I shift focus of scholarship on rural women from “left behind” to leaders in struggles for justice and food sovereignty.
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AFNs contrast with mainstream agri-food commercial channels (such as major agribusiness companies, wholesalers, supermarkets, institutional canteens and restaurants), and include community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiatives, farmers’ markets, buying clubs, peasant cooperatives and even informal (e.g. family) producer-consumer connections that embed agri-food distribution in stronger social and ecological relations. For more details see Si and Scott (2019).
Remarks made by Luo Cheng, professor at the Shaanxi Academy of Social Sciences, prefacing his presentation “Current situation and recommendations of support for poor rural left behind families”, at the seminar on Rural Left Behind Populations: New Questions, New Characters, New Actions, China Agricultural University, College of Humanities and Development Studies (COHD), Beijing, March 23, 2019.
Since the publication of the Chinese Central Government Document Number 1 of 2008, for example, the government utilizes the explicit terms of this scholarship in its rural development efforts.
Field site observations in 2014, 2015, and 2017, and various surveys and interviews with peasant households and key informants in and around Bian village, Henan.
The information in this and the following paragraphs comes from my field site observations in 2014, 2015, and 2017, and various interviews with peasant households and key informants in and around Gu village, Guangxi.
Personal interview with Lu Yanyan, Gu village, Guangxi, January 15, 2017.
Their production was not certified organic, because the cost of obtaining and renewing government certification was beyond their capacity, so it was marketed as "green food" instead. But the cooperative members and its CSA consumers both recognized it as "organic" (绿色有机的). I verified through field site visits in 2014, 2015, and 2017 that in fact they do not use chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and so in this article I follow their convention in calling it "organic".
Personal interview with Lu Yanyan, Gu village, Guangxi, January 15, 2017.
Personal interview with Lu Yanyan, Gu village, Guangxi, May 12, 2015.
Personal interview with Lu Yanyan, Gu village, Guangxi, June 5, 2015.
Alternative Food Network
Beijing Organic Farmers’ Market
Chinese Communist Party
College of Humanities and Development Studies, China Agricultural University
Community Supported Agriculture
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For their constructive criticism, support, and feedback on earlier versions of this paper, I would like to thank Qi Gubo, Philip McMichael, Ewan Robinson, Hilary Faxon, Gustavo Oliveira, the anonymous reviewers, and colleagues at the 2016 conference of the Sociology of Development section of the American Sociology Association (ASA), the 2018 International Conference of the BRICS Initiative for Critical Agrarian Studies (BICAS), and the 2019 Scaling Out Agroecology Practices in China conference at Nanjing University. I would also like to thank Lu Yanyan, Song Yiqing, He Huili, and all others who agreed to participate in my research.
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Zhang, L. From left behind to leader: gender, agency, and food sovereignty in China. Agric Hum Values 37, 1111–1123 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-020-10114-9
- Left-behind populations
- Alternative food networks
- Food sovereignty