Social dynamics for sustainable food systems. Actors’ orientations towards sustainability in primary production and public consumption

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Title: Social dynamics for sustainable food systems. Actors’ orientations towards sustainability in primary production and public consumption
Author: Mikkola, Minna
Belongs to series: Publications 21
ISSN: 1796-0649
1796-0657 (pdf)
ISBN: 978-952-10-6483-8
Abstract: Abstract The modern food system and sustainable development form a conceptual combination that suggests sustainability deficits in the ways we deal with food consumption and production - in terms of economic relations, environmental impacts and nutritional status of western population. This study explores actors’ orientations towards sustainability by taking into account actors’ embedded positions within structures of the food system, actors’ economic relations and views about sustainability as well as their possibilities for progressive activities. The study looks particularly at social dynamics for sustainability within primary production and public consumption. If actors within these two worlds were to express converging orientations for sustainability, the system dynamics of the market would enable more sustainable growth in terms of production dictated by consumption. The study is based on a constructivist research approach with qualitative text analyses. The data consisted of three text corpora, the ‘local food corpus’, the ‘catering corpus’ and the ‘mixed corpus’. The local food actors were interviewed about their economic exchange relations. The caterers’ interviews dealt with their professional identity for sustainability. Finally, the mixed corpus assembled a dialogue as a participatory research approach, which was applied in order to enable researcher and caterer learning about the use of organic milk in public catering. The data were analysed for theoretically conceptualised relations, expressing behavioural patterns in actors’ everyday work as interpreted by the researcher. The findings were corroborated by the internal and external communities of food system actors. The interpretations have some validity, although they only present abstractions of everyday life and its rich, even opaque, fabric of meanings and aims. The key findings included primary producers’ social skilfulness, which enabled networking with other actors in very different paths of life, learning in order to promote one’s trade, and trusting reflectively in partners in order to extend business. These activities expanded the supply chain in a spiral fashion by horizontal and vertical forward integration, until large retailers were met for negotiations on a more equal or ‘other regarding’ basis. This kind of chain level coordination, typically building around the core of social and partnership relations, was coined as a socially overlaid network. It supported market access of local farmers, rooted in their farms, who were able to draw on local capital and labour in promotion of competitive business; the growth was endogenous. These kinds of chains – one conventional and one organic – were different from the strategic chain, which was more profit based and while highly competitive, presented exogenous growth as it depended on imported capital and local employees. However, the strategic chain offered learning opportunities and support for the local economy. The caterers exhibited more or less committed professional identity for sustainability within their reach. The facilitating and balanced approaches for professional identities dealt successfully with local and organic food in addition to domestic food, and also imported food. The co-operation with supply chains created innovative solutions and savings for the business parties to be shared. The rule-abiding approach for sustainability only made choices among organic supply chains without extending into co-operation with actors. There were also more complicated and troubled identities as juggling, critical and delimited approaches for sustainability, with less productive efforts due to restrictions such as absence of organisational sustainability strategy, weak presence of local and organic suppliers, limited understanding about sustainability and no organisational resources to develop changes towards a sustainable food system. Learning in the workplace about food system reality in terms of supply chain co-operation may prove to be a change engine that leads to advanced network operations and a more sustainable food system. The convergence between primary producers and caterers existed to an extent allowing suggestion that increased clarity about sustainable consumption and production by actors could be approached using advanced tools. The study looks for introduction of more profound environmental and socio-economic knowledge through participatory research with supply chain actors in order to promote more sustainable food systems. Summary of original publications and the authors’ contribution I Mikkola, M. & Seppänen, L. 2006. Farmers’ new participation in food chains: making horizontal and vertical progress by networking. In: Langeveld, H. & Röling N. (Eds.). Changing European farming systems for a better future. New visions for rural areas. Wageningen, The Netherlands. Wageningen Academic Publishers: 267–271. II Mikkola, M. 2008. Coordinative structures and development of food supply chains. British Food Journal 110 (2): 189–205. III Mikkola, M. 2009. Shaping professional identity for sustainability. Evidence in Finnish public catering. Appetite 53 (1): 56–65. IV Mikkola, M. 2009. Catering for sustainability: building a dialogue on organic milk. Agronomy Research 7 (Special issue 2): 668–676. Minna Mikkola has been responsible for developing the generic research frame, particular research questions, the planning and collection of the data, their qualitative analysis and writing the articles I, II, III and IV. Dr Laura Seppänen has contributed to the development of the generic research frame and article I by introducing the author to the basic concepts of economic sociology and by supporting the writing of article II with her critical comments. Articles are printed with permission from the publishers.
Date: 2011

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