Enabling response-ability: Mobilizing Alternative Food Networks as a Vehicle for Greater Health, Sustainability and Social Equity
In response to modern food’s violence, Alternative Food Networks are a civil society-based solution to healthier, more sustainable food.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small NGO (under 50 employees)
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
EkoRural is part of a thematic and regionally distributed team of influential grassroots agencies:
-Ecuador’s Colectivo Agroecológico, an informal network of 200+ CSOs dedicated to healthy, sustainable food and social equity. The Colectivo has been influential in writing the National Constitution (2008), legislating food sovereignty (2010), and continually defending public policy against private interests.
-The Movimiento de Economía Social y Solidaria de Ecuador (MESSE), a network of organizations dedicated to social change through creative means of circulation and exchange of food, goods and services. Since 2006, MESSE has pioneered a number of innovations including food fairs, collective food purchasing and alternative currency. The Colectivo and MESSE champion QueRicoEs!, an informational campaign for consumer and producer social movements.
-Groundswell International, a partnership of organizations dedicated to people-centered development and social change in 10 countries.
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
EkoRural supports grassroots change in the Andean Highlands via coordinated activity from regional offices in Salcedo, Riobamba, and Quito.
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
EkoRural seeks to spark change in networks that operate in three influential city-based foodsheds in the Andes: Quito, Ibarra and Riobamba.
What country is your selected Place located in?
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
EkoRural is composed of farmers, consumers, researchers and development practitioners that have over 20 years of experience working with grassroots agents for social change in the Andean Highlands of Ecuador, in particular the three locations of this initiative. In 2009, we created EkoRural as a means of consolidating our work, and we entered a strategic partnership with Groundswell International, where we can both learn from and contribute to like-minded initiatives at a global level.
While our primary interest is the well-being of rural families and their communities, in particular of indigenous peoples, over time we have discovered the complementarities with urban-based consumers, in particular with regard to our common interests in access to healthy, sustainable Andean foods. Interested in broadening our influence, we joined force with the Colectivo Agroecologico -- a rich combination of hundreds of organizations and individuals dedicated to transformation to healthier, more sustainable living and being though agroecology. Through this collaboration, EkoRural has been able to contribute to relevant agriculture and food innovations in the 2008 Constitution as well as subsequent legislation, including bills for placing into motion food sovereignty, agrobiodiversity and seeds, and responsible consumption.
In 2009, the Colectivo joined force with MESSE to place responsibility for transition in food into the hands of “the people who eat,” which led to the launching of an open-ended, citizen-led national campaign: QueRicoEs! Presently, the QueRicoEs! Campaign seeks to unite 250,000 Families, a critical mass of 5% of Ecuador’s population that is publicly committed to responsible consumption. Through its leadership in these networks, EkoRural has been able to expand the depth and breadth of its influence into the political and institutional spaces that arguable shape the trends of food practice throughout the country.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The Andean region, also known as the highlands or the Ecuadorian Sierra, has extensive topographical and ecological diversity which includes glacier-capped peaks, active volcanoes, thermal baths and quaint colonial cities, both large and small. Quito, Ecuador’s capital, is nestled in the northern end of this valley at 2,900 meters above sea level, just 22km south of the equator, with Ibarra to the north and Riobamba to the south.
For generations of indigenous people in Ecuador, farming has been a way of life. Their way of farming shares many characteristics with what is now known as agroecology. Today, the highlands of Ecuador are composed of about 35% indigenous, Kichwa-speaking people. However, highland diets have experienced massive shifts since the Incan conquest. The starchy core of Andean cuisine was developed from wild species into thousands of varieties of potato and other traditional tubers. Over time, quinoa, amaranth and maize were supplemented by other grains, and native camelids have been practically replaced by horses, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens; introduced species have been gradually indigenized into highland diets.
Over the last 25 years, dietary shifts have accelerated, as technological innovations tied to modernization allow for the relatively inexpensive production and distribution of novel foodstuffs. Alongside traditional foods, processed foods, such as refined sugar and grains found in white rice, bread, and pasta, have been incorporated into local diets. These are formed almost entirely of industrialized products and, although they may imitate a food’s appearance, generally contain no or minimal whole foods. Their levels of salt, sugar and fat far outstrip the levels in whole foods and promote overweight/obesity and damaged health.
Supermarkets and fast food restaurants have been major contributors to the transition. Unlike in the Global North, in Ecuador, prices at fast food chains tend to be higher than traditional restaurants that serve home-cooked food, making them popular among wealthy urbanites. Rates of overweight and obesity in Ecuador are highest in urban areas and among children under five. These trends reflect the global four-fold increase in obesity since 1980 and suggest that many elements of the current food system are unable to sustain human health.
Economically, the advent of modern food in Ecuador has shifted the benefit away from Andean producers of whole foods to factory owners who are part of transnational conglomerates that capture a much greater portion of the food price than farmers. Furthermore, whole foods destined for processing must be uniform and available in large quantities, giving further advantage to large agribusinesses. These impacts on human health, land, biodiversity, and rural economies point to ways in which modern food is not sustainable. Growing public awareness of this situation has inspired us to organize around common cause and seek greater control over our food!
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
It is increasingly clear that agricultural “modernization” and the industrialization of food, (‘modern food’), has become a major force of global environmental degradation. Modern food has been identified as a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions and has led to major destruction of soils from tillage regimes and reliance on synthetic fertilizers, loss of crop genetic resources, and planet level ecosystem decline. Modern food has also been linked to the unprecedented pandemic of non-communicable, chronic disease tied to overweight/obesity, now the leading cause of death in most countries, including Ecuador. Relationships between rural producers and urban consumers have suffered from systematic market exclusion, such as usurious credit schemes, supermarket monopolies and volatile global financial markets. Rising rates of climatic variability add new complexities and uncertainties to the already overwhelming challenges of meeting people’s ever-growing food demands.
There is increasing international consensus that the expert-based model of prescriptive development has reached a limit, and there is a need to fundamentally re-imagine and revisit dominant institutional designs and purposes. Knowledge of this situation has led to a call for global institutional change towards more productive and sustainable food, echoed by the FAO, CGIAR, and others. Yet, as EkoRural has experienced in Ecuador and Groundswell more broadly, actors in the expert system have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, especially in the Global South. Strategic perpetuation of harmful highly toxic pesticides and institutional resistance to agroecology and responsible consumption are examples. Regardless of curative claims, expert-based institutions appear to be structurally tied to the same logic and value systems that induce and perpetuate the problematic qualities of modernization, namely: commoditization of life, reliance on currency and financial systems to fundamentally intermediate human-human and human-environment relationships, geographic and social distancing of markets, and dependence on externally based knowledge and technology.
In summary, we find that it is not the tractors, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, or highly processed food that degrades the environment and harms people’s health but technology linked to science and state-based regulation that forms the basis of power. In this way, regulations against harmful technologies become complicit and sustain the continuation of such technologies. The shadow effects of regulation are not mere ‘externalities’ of the system, but intrinsic elements of it. As a result of institutional intransigence and “organized irresponsibility” (where the people and institutions that make decisions do not live the consequences of those decisions), today in places such as Ecuador, we are facing collapse of the fundamental, self-correcting socio-biological feedback mechanisms in agriculture and food.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Concerned about the inability or unwillingness of expert institutions to seriously engage with institutional change, we seek to enable greater citizen involvement to bring forth improvements in human health, productivity, sustainability and social equity in and through “more responsible” food. We find that space for change does not come about only (or even mainly) through deliberate processes of planning and intervention; societal change arises largely from ongoing interactions among people, acting as individuals and collectives, outside the designs of formal institutional frameworks. Rather than being controlled and engineered, people in their roles as social agents perform societal change through their practices of daily living and being. Over the last decade in Ecuador, we have found that people’s self-organization, in particular as expressed in emergent Alternative Food Movements (AFNs), has grown in size, diversity and organization, to the point where they have begun to inform and shape social practice in families and in society, in particular through means of production, circulation, procurement and eating. We find the creativity of AFNs to be a radical force for increasing the social and environmental response-ability as well as a largely neglected, untapped resource for needed agri-food policy reform.
According to literature on adaptive management, sustainability requires a constant connection with, or immersion in, an area and demands socio-environmental responsibility. In this context, a sustainable agri-food system depends on institutions that have high levels of connection with local farmers and are creative and innovate in a way that is coherent with the local context. Based on our policy efforts in Ecuador, such an institutional movement today would face strong resistance. Nevertheless, this fact does not deny the importance and necessity of fundamental change.
According to this perspective, an overall proposal for sustainable development is the organization of a society based on connectivity, adaptability and transformability. Connectivity is a system's capacity to absorb disturbances and reorganize itself while retaining the same essential function, structure and identity. Adaptability is the capacity of actors within the system to manage connectivity and remain stable or forge a new path forward. Transformability is the capacity for reorganization geared toward an essentially different system, when ecological, social or economic conditions make the existing system unsustainable. In the case of Ecuador, where the result of the policy has been a high level of self-destruction of social organization in general, the institutional reorganization surrounding transformability has become a priority for a more promising future.
The growing flow of self-organized creativity (farmer, agroecology and consumer food movements) rises outside of the formalized spaces of expert institutions to confront modern food, challenging the existing order.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
In exploring the social dynamics of agrofood movements in Ecuador as examples of self-organization (locally distributed and resolved development), our vision for the future departs from a preoccupation with innovation by means of design and the use of scaling as a metaphor for furthering in-the-box responses to the agriculture and food system. The experience of EkoRural and Groundswell over the last decade highlights that much development is contingent, unpredictable, and unmanageable as well as unbound to fixed spaces or places. In our engagement with people’s daily practice, we do not find clear boundaries between common internal–external, lay–expert, traditional–modern, or local–global dichotomies of organization, but heterogeneous blends of each. In the transition to sustainable food, this highlights the need to pay attention to relationships (social, material and biological), adaptation (innovation), and responsibility (adherence to norms of health, sustainability and social equity). Far from romanticizing self-organization, we acknowledge that people and their institutions share varying degrees of complicity for the goods as well as the ‘bads’ of their social and economic activity, such as mass soil degradation, agrobiodiversity loss, and poisoning by pesticides. Nevertheless, even under highly difficult conditions, we find that certain families effectively bypass the limitations of formal institutions in forging a social course of action (policy) for relatively healthy living and being. As such, we have come to appreciate self-organization as a neglected, if paradoxical, resource for policy transition towards more sustainable agriculture and food. Drawing on the potentiality of AFNs in three, regionally distributed city-based, highland foodsheds, we will continue to organize and leverage an inspirational, informative and increasingly influential network of actors capable of opening up change in present-day, self-harmful and destructive food practice.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
From expert-based to people-centered food
Through our work, we have come to call attention to promising alternative forms of social organization that have emerged in response to the different harmful consequences tied to modern food. The problematic history of agricultural modernization in Ecuador reveals how expert agencies endlessly spin off technologically-induced risks that can undermine their own institutional legitimacy, thereby opening space for self-organization and the arrival of emergent counter-movements organized for overcoming, undermining, or bypassing everyday politics. Over time, these forms of self-organization have grown to challenge, change, and, we find, even become an alternative to seemingly overwhelming institutional frameworks.
In making public the transformative experience of food, actors effectively forge relationships through the collective confrontation of similar circumstances related to agricultural modernization; we see this in particular related to the harmful health effects of pesticide technology, in Ecuador and beyond. In addition to increasing engagement locally, actors become part of a new constellation of sub-politics as championed by AFNs. Marginalized and estranged by country-level bureaucracy, the emergence of AFNs appears as a means of providing representation for a growing liberalizing and emancipating force, forging new spaces of social interaction (in markets, food sovereignty and responsible consumption) and making alternative realities visible. New possibilities for change are envisioned that previously could not be imagined. What begins as merely a belief system now becomes a new reality, as illustrated by what has become a politically-viable local–global agroecology movement capable of transcending and re-drawing organizational boundaries.
The institutional change that we have observed in agriculture and food is quite different from that of the international calls for transition by expert policy makers, which prescribes adjustment either from within existing institutions or the involvement of these institutions as a necessary prerequisite for corrective change. They assume that amendments can be deliberately guided through careful planning and intervention. On the contrary, at EkoRural and Groundswell, we find that the forms of self-organization have the following characteristics: (1) they come from outside of formal institutions; (2) they are the main (or even the only) force that has brought transformative change in agriculture and food; and (3) commonly changes are only partially intended and anticipated, for example, with regard to the 2008 Constitution and ensuing legislation. This experience shows that existing institutional frameworks are questionable points of departure when searching for fundamental transition out of modernization.
The literature on institutional change endlessly draws on designs and metaphors that emphasize rationality, pre-planning, universality, and thus coherence. Experiences in Ecuador reveal a process of self-organization that is not fully rational, designed, or planned; it also is not entirely situated or singular and thus not necessarily coherent. So instead of thinking about institutional change as a unidirectional process, our research finds that it is a messy and highly unpredictable process, which no method, however sophisticated and refined, will manage to completely master or even guide.
In light of the concerns over the limitations of metaphors in describing the social, we examined how new institutional possibilities for more sustainable agriculture and food emerge and take social hold in seemingly closed and intractable circumstances. Social differentiation within a landscape of practices is a matter of commitment to it: one needs to be more than just a visitor or tourist. In the case of alternative food, one must become a knowledgeable practitioner and an actor capable of nuanced application, public performance, and opening up space for new expressions. S/he must have made the necessary investment in the activity to move beyond its mere reproduction. In other words, self-organization involves learning and appropriating a practice to the point where development of that practice becomes a possibility. In the example of food movements in Ecuador, the arc of agroecology moved from the exclusive activity of radical farmers and hybrid farmer–development practitioners to the everyday activity of urban-based consumers, who in turn have translated food into a lifestyle of alternative living and being.
Today, the accepted landscape of practice of alternative food in Ecuador has expanded to include the co-production of direct purchasing, the use of alternative currency and barter, biodegradable soaps, recycling, bio-construction, as well as the reclaiming of urban space for bicycling. In this sense, alternative food is not merely limited to class-based categories, but rather processes of recruitment to and activity within particular ideals and interrelated communities of practice. The self-organization inherent in flow involves both construction of knowledge in a landscape of practices and the creative processes of constitution and social differentiation.
A central problem of agricultural science and development in general and modern food in particular lies in the process of institutionalized science’s social distance from the public that depends on its products and processes and that benefits or suffers from its unanticipated and unpredictable, but nonetheless very real and enduring consequences. Steeped in 17th-century thinking, science depends on solutions based on knowledge and power that are in a constant state of growth and advancement, supplanting the ignorance and impotence of the commoners—people conceived as committed to particular society-determined categories as producers, middle people, or consumers. In order to overcome the modern predicament of our pressing food and ecosystem challenges, much of which is deeply rooted in science itself, there is a growing consensus that a more promising future depends on taking a new direction.
We live in a period where expertise is necessary, but it is not enough for enabling the required socio-technical change. For us, the first step towards a more promising future depends not on bridging the gap between centuries-old notions of science and society, but by altogether bypassing it. Any reform will need to be part of a general reform of the way people see and act with regard to agriculture and food. As per the experiences summarized here, we find hope that in many ways expertise has never existed outside of society, and in the sense that scientists are denizens of households, communities, and social networks that reach and connect into other parts of life (and death), including food embodiments and their consequences. We find hope in the ways that researchers who break with their normative practices and ranks can make important contributions, but not necessarily in an official or professional capacity. Whenever researchers interact with policymakers, industry representatives, or farmers, their communication is not only carried out through words, but also by deeds. The practices involved in the research process itself include continual interactions with other stakeholders, but moreso, involves researchers becoming vulnerable, being open to new practices and social relationships, and ultimately taking on roles as actors in social networks. Stepping outside of their formal activity as scientists can free up energy and generate creative new social arrangements and entanglements. This is evident in their at times catalytic contributions in social movements, such as agroecology.
As an alternative to the model of prescriptive agricultural development, we call for a shift away from a preoccupation with the end products of agricultural science and development (i.e., the technological artifact) to the productive activity of agricultural science and development itself: the social space of knowledge production. With regard to the activity of researchers, we feel that it is important to engage with existing alternatives to dominant institutional frameworks. If the world is heterogeneous, then we are moved to the conclusion that different social practices coexist, intersect, and interact. Shedding light on neglected or hidden practices is a potentially important responsibility for researchers because it enables them to imagine different futures that have, so far, been deliberately denied or even forbidden and thus remain outside the scope of permitted institutional practice. This implies that researchers need to go looking for gaps and subaltern realities. To make a difference requires engagement with difference.
Instead of acting on notions of a norm and commonality, we need to search out a rich diversity of performances and practices in distinct situations, places, and contexts, and support new possibilities and desirabilities. If different practices sustain different realities, then we may hope to make a political difference by making such heterogeneity visible in the articulation of more sustainable futures, thereby rendering normativities discussable and contestable in ways that constitute new realities in agriculture and food.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?