Alternative food initiatives to restore the connection between food and society. Will this be the cultivation model of the future?
Our current cultivation model is under pressure: we know less and less about where our food comes from and under what conditions it was produced. Producer and consumer have become anonymous to each other.
Alternative food initiatives are looking for an answer to this. These are small-scale, local initiatives that seek to establish new connections between agriculture, horticulture and society in order to arrive at a sustainable cultivation model. For example, it concerns initiatives that combine food production with other social interests, such as social employment or sustainable waste processing.
For her doctorate at the University of Ghent and the Flemish Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Research (ILVO), Marlinde Koopmans researched what these initiatives stimulate, and what their obstacles are. She and her colleagues studied 26 food initiatives in 12 countries, all European except one.
"In contrast to the regular agricultural system, alternative food initiatives want to connect social, economic and ecological dimensions," says Koopmans. "And as a result, these initiatives not only ensure innovation within the agricultural sector, but also in relation to other sectors. Examples are new forms of employment and land use."
A specific example is the kitchen garden project The Site in Ghent, where local residents could grow vegetables on an old industrial estate. Homeless people and undocumented migrants were also employed there; they received their wages in a local currency (called Torekes) that could be used in local shops. Moreover, the entire management of this public site was in the hands of the users themselves.
Koopmans: "In this project you can see how growing food also strengthens social ties, stimulates the neighborhood economy and brings nature into the city in a place where industry used to be. The involvement of users with the site and the decision-making space they were given to manage the site was of great importance to make this a success."
Cultivation model of the future?
Would such projects then be the way to agriculture and horticulture of the future? "Not in terms of pure production capacity," Koopmans says. "But their strength lies in their capacity to connect and respond to new opportunities, in short their ability to change," says Koopmans.
"Over the past decades, the current agricultural system has mainly focused on the adaptability of agriculture, but it has lost a lot on the ability to maintain change. A resilient system needs both. Alternative food initiatives offer many interesting examples in which this change is strongly developed."
To maintain this ability to change, a lot of flexibility is needed, both within the organization and in relation to other organizations. And that's often the biggest obstacle. After all, growth means for alternative food initiatives that not only must they grow, but that all parties must grow. Without the willingness of the parties involved to follow the path of change, the initiatives lose the necessary flexibility and their innovative development potential.
Policy with room for experiments
Koopmans argues: "Innovative practices initiated by these initiatives should lead to new policy experiments more often. Experimenting on a structural basis can involve actors from different political levels and sectors to explore possible new development paths for the agricultural sector."
"In addition, the policy should provide better support for maintaining flexibility. And instead of strict legal regulations, there should be a shift to goals and priorities that act as a steering mechanism to achieve policy objectives," the researcher concludes.