Food systems are the subject of much interest and contemporary debate. The public is very interested in having their food produced in ways that provide high quality food, promote equitable employment, and protect the environment. The interests of farmers and other food system advocates have led to the development, or redevelopment, of new businesses models, policy efforts, and organizations dedicated to improving the way our food is produced and to improving the effects of that production on the environment and on the people involved in raising our food, among others.
Three areas inside the agri-food system are of particular interest for us: the use of public/private ecolabels for developing farmer and community friendly food systems, the development of food hubs as socially responsible enterprises, and the inclusion of women in agriculture.
Public/Private Partnerships for Ecolabels: France’s Label Rouge Ecolabels are voluntary marketing programs where production standards are overseen by government agencies, non-profits, or the private sector. Ecolabels can help institutions and consumers make more informed decisions when purchasing though non-transparent outlets like national food service distributors or grocery stores. They can also enable small and mid-scale farmers to gain new markets for their products in order to build profitability. Eco-labels with long-term staying power can be created through public/private partnerships. Examples of these include France’s Label Rouge quality program and Geographic Indications. Both of these are forms of place-based labeling and serve as regional food business models. In my blog post (links above and on the right hand side of the page) I will talk more about the Label Rouge quality ecolabel.
Another type of business model that is proving its potential for regional food system development is the “food hub.”
Food hubs, businesses that aggregate and distribute local or regional source identified food, have become important organizations for connecting producers with local food demanding businesses, institutions and consumers. Social entrepreneurs, non-profits and other non-government organizations (NGOs) invest in food hubs as way to promote local food not only as a way to get more fresh, healthy foods into communities, but also as a community and equity building activity. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also provides opportunities for food hubs. The USDA views food hubs as vehicles of rural development with the ability to help stabilize and promote the shrinking population of small and mid-sized farms. But how can food hubs be successful businesses and have a strong mission around social or environmental goals at the same time?
Some of the social goals that food hubs have the potential to assist with are equity and diversity within agriculture, including the inclusion of more women in agriculture.
Women in agriculture have always played an crucial part in the homestead and farming communities, but their voices have not been heard until recently. With the global call to action surrounding agriculture and climate change, a door has opened for those marginalized by traditional agriculture practices. However, the barriers for women and particularly women of color in the United States still keep many from viably participating in the industry. From sustainable farming to running Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) and beyond, women are able to open doors typically closed to them purely due to the gender roles assigned to women in rural America, but there is still work to be done.
We hope to highlight just a few of the issues in agriculture. Communities, academics, and public policy makers are showing concern about many other issues, such as the loss of rural culture and the sharp decrease of plant and animal diversity in agricultural systems. These would be great to include in this blog given the time and resources. However, the question for all of these issues becomes,
“How do we achieve these food system improvements and social goals?”
Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet.
No single policy effort will take care of all of the current agricultural issues in the United States, even if its implementation were flawless and widespread. No single business or marketing model having even the most lofty and well-implemented pro-social goals will provide a widespread market solution. No one open door to women or minorities will produce a robust and diverse farming community.
The problems in agriculture are wicked: they are multifaceted issues where improvements in one area might not improve other areas, and can even lead to negative results in other areas. Additions to atmospheric CO2 from clearing land and from the general business of agriculture; water pollution arising from livestock, fertilizer and pesticides; human health issues; unfair labor practices and racial and gender inequity- all wicked problems in themselves- are pieces of the agricultural puzzle. Food policy makers, nonprofits, and politicians have an incentive to try to use one promising food system initiative to answer multiple problems so that they can continue to obtain public and private funding for their programs. However, this sometimes leads to the failure of the promising initiative, because it has been hitched, perhaps inappropriately, to another related but distinct issue.
But there is reason to be optimistic. Conscious, sustained efforts in multiple areas, involving networking and collaboration between various efforts, can certainly make differences. In fact, it has been the sustained efforts, along with citizen awareness of these issues, that has brought food system issues to the forefront where they are today. Right now, there is an opportunity to bring these issues to the tipping point and turn around the direction of our food system. Public/private hybrid institutional efforts may have an important place in providing answers to many of these problems, stepping beyond the simple for profit money making/non profit social concern paradigm. Social oriented business enterprises can also be part of the difference. These, in conjunction with grass roots efforts at improving our communities, have the potential to change the way we produce and even enjoy our food.