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Transformation of the food system through civil society initiatives

Potential for balancing unequal power relations in the value chain

Published onOct 21, 2022
Transformation of the food system through civil society initiatives

Highly concentrated market structures can be found along the entire food value chain. The resulting unequal power relations often lead to structural dependencies on the part of small producers. Their number has been strongly declining for decades. As a result, the current food system is losing acceptance in society. But this pressure also offers the potential for transformative change. Processes of change are increasingly emerging on the consumer side, characterized by bottom-up engagement through civil society movements. However, various conditions are necessary for successful transformation to a more equally just food system. This article shows that the food system is facing a profound change that requires not just new political frameworks, but also reflexive exchange between different actors in the value chain.

Unequal market structures and power relations...

For decades, the guiding principles of farmers - supported by EU agricultural policy - were farm specialization, growth in volume and output per animal and hectare, and striving for cost leadership on the world market (Schulz et al., 2020). At the other end of the value chain, similar principles of growth led to a concentration of very few players in the food industry and trade (BASIC, 2014; Schrode et al., 2019). Large agrifood corporations have gained so much power, that they are shaping markets and displacing smaller competitors due to their size. While very few large companies have benefited, it is mainly smaller actors in the value chain that have been pushed to their economic and social limits (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung et al., 2020).

...a structural phenomenon

Unequal power relationships in the food value chain are a structural phenomenon, which is significantly influenced by the EU agricultural policy and the principles of the market economy, such as price and competitive pressure (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung et al., 2020; Gebhardt, 2021). Very few companies control the value chain due to their domination over others. Best-known examples are the controversial merger between Bayer and Monsanto (Benning, 2020) or the four largest retail companies (Rewe-, Edeka-, Aldi- and Schwarz-Group) that share more than 75% of the total turnover (Bundeskartellamt, 2014). In this context, small-scale agriculture in particular is dependent on agrochemical and seed companies as well as on the food industry and retail companies (Pöpken, 2019; BASIC, 2014). The results are far reaching: from wage labor and low incomes to precarious employment conditions and rural exodus (Peeters, n.d.; Schrode et al., 2019).

Role of the consumer

With the power of disposal on the side of the agri-food industry, the physical and social distance between producers and consumers is growing (Feagan, 2007). With the loss of »food literacy«1 and independence (Stierand, 2014), consumers have distanced themselves also from the social consequences in the value chain (Kimbrell, 2002). Even though they have a potential lever in their hands with their consumption behavior, they have transferred their responsibility to the market (Stierand, 2014). Kimbrell (2002) aptly writes: “This great physical and psychological distance between food production and consumer creates a tragic disconnection between the general public and the social and environmental consequences of the food being grown and eaten“ (p. xi).

The responsibility of all…

The question is how the power of disposal can be given back to society and how to restore the autonomy of small producers (e.g., peasants, family farmers, etc). According to the 'Social connection model of responsibility' by Young (2013), those who contribute to maintain the social structures within which injustice occurs, should take responsibility for structural injustice. The author attributes those actors the obligation to join forces with all actors who share this responsibility in order to transform structural processes (Young, 2013). In the context of the food value chain this involves the responsibility of all of the previously mentioned actors such as the food industry, politics and consumer.

...but not without the right framework

According to Claasen and Herzog (2021), joint forces alone are not sufficient to transform structurally unjust structures. The two authors complement Young's theory by adding the prerequisite of the political agency of the disadvantaged actors. The two concepts »food sovereignty«2 and »food democracy«3 refer to this by strengthening the political agency of small producers and citizens trough democratic structures.

In order to orient towards social and local needs, proximity between the actors is needed (Marsden et al., 2000; Galli & Brunori, 2013). Some civil society initiatives in particular create this proximity by networking various actors within and outside the food system. For instance, the German »Ernährungsrat«4 (in English: food council) connects local actors from politics, administration, farmers, trade, gastronomy and science through a joint dialogue. The aim is to discuss local options for action for a fair food supply and to accompany their implementation (Ernährungsrat Berlin, 2017; Stierand, 2014). While the focus of food councils lies on the physical networking of actors, digital initiatives are independent of physical spaces. »Platform cooperatives«5 of the food sector such as »Fairmondo«6 or »OpenOlitor«7 are seen as an important instrument to counteract unequal power relations, too (Scholz, 2016). Nevertheless, both concepts - food councils and platform-cooperatives - need an infrastructure, be it physical or digital.

We need a shift of norms, values & guiding principles

Whether there will be an overarching social change ultimately also depends on a paradigm shift in the entire food value chain. Consumers will only change their consumption behavior if principles of fairness, transparency and solidarity become more important to them (Stierand, 2014). According to Smith et al. (2005), if norms, values and guiding principles change, the power of the controlling actors in the value chain also shifts. At present, guiding principles for increasing productivity and efficiency still determine the agriculture and food industry (Schulz et al., 2020). Accompanied by concentration processes, the market power of the large corporations is thus promoted. If the focus shifts to societal and social values instead, more holistic goals come to the fore. These can include, for example, principles of fairness or appreciation of producers. But also, the balancing of economic imbalances, the transparency of the value chain or opportunities for participation could be given greater value in the food system (Stierand, 2014). Raising consumer awareness of social values will be a crucial step in this transformation process.

Recognizing food literacy as a resource for a paradigm shift

In the context of raising awareness, the before mentioned food literacy will play a crucial role. Food literacy is to be understood as a resource of knowledge and according to Smith et al. (2005) „[…] those resources have to be brought into play against the power relations that pervade the regime, conditioning the structures of demand, use and supply“ (S. 1505). Food literacy is therefore an important component for exerting influence through conscious action. When consumers act in their role as responsible and political citizens, they can play a crucial key role in influencing the food value chain (Stierand, 2014).

Willingness and ability to cooperate

Civil society movements already show that citizens are increasingly addressing problems in the value chain and thus taking responsibility for social values in the food system. Their doubt about the effectiveness of existing norms and values lead to tensions within the conventional food system (Marsden, 2013). These movements are still outnumbered and thus operate in a niche. When it comes to the question of whether the movements will remain in the niche or move into the mainstream market to realize their full transformation potential in the future, several scenarios are conceivable, depending on the degree of interaction between the niche and the actors of the mainstream market (Ingram, 2015):

  1. high adaptation,

  2. parallel development,

  3. reflexive exchange.

Figure 1: Interaction between niche and mainstream

Source: Own illustration

In the scenario of ‘high adaptation’ there is a high degree of adaptation of the niches to the mainstream structures of the food system. Conventional market structures and value systems are strengthened and maintained (Ingram, 2015).

In the opposite pole, niches develop parallel to the mainstream food system. The focus is on mergers with other niches. Through cross-connections with niches with a similar value system and motivation, pressure is jointly exerted to reorient mainstream actors (Ingram, 2015). However, due to little interaction with the mainstream actors of the food system, the niches often remain unknown or unnoticed in conventional agriculture. Due to this weak connection to conventional agriculture, the niches have little chance to establish themselves on the level of the mainstream market and thus do not offer direct solutions for the transformation of the food system (Ingram, 2015). In both poles, the transformation potential is thus low.

According to Ingram (2015), the greatest effects for transforming the food system arise in a ‘reflexive exchange’ between both actors. Through mutual learning, exchange and experimentation, the potentials can be used in the best possible way. Therefore, the goal should be radical systemic change that creates new kinds of relationships between the actors as well as alternative and more diverse value chain structures (Marsden, 2013). This means that civil society movements should build relationships with conventional actors in the food system, even if they maintain the prevailing structures. Ignoring the powerful players would hinder rather than promote transformation towards a just food system, as there is a risk of the niche and mainstream levels developing in parallel (López & Gugerell, 2021).


Unequal power relations in the food value chain are a structural issue. By maintaining the structures and dependencies through concentration of power, large agrifood businesses profit the most. But at the same time, negative macroeconomic developments such as the market liberalization and the decline of small-scale farms are driver of change processes. By losing acceptance in society, pressure is created within the system. Initiatives or movements of the civil society are increasingly using this pressure as an opportunity for change, oriented towards the demands of society. If consumers are in their function as politically active citizens, they can play a decisive role for counteracting unequal power relations in the food value chain. Whether the initiatives succeed in moving from a niche to the mainstream market and bring about a transformation of the food system remains to be seen. The approaches used here from transformation research show that transformative change arises from the interplay of developments at different levels and thus depends on various preconditions. Above all, the willingness to engage in a reflexive exchange with the actors of the food system. Some initiatives, such as the food councils, already demonstrate extensive networking of actors inside and outside the food system. However, when niches enter the mainstream market, there is a certain risk of also succumbing to the compulsion of growth. All the more important is a holistic paradigm shift in society, economy and politics that does not only focus on economic principles but follows the values of a just food supply. The sensitization of consumers to social aspects is already being demonstrated by the civil society initiatives. In addition to educational work, however, political framework conditions are also needed to steer consumer behavior. The topics of food literacy and food sovereignty have demonstrated this. If we exchange our previous guiding principles such as increasing productivity and efficiency for societal and social values, space is created for an alternative form of economy based on cooperation and solidarity. The question remains whether the developments at the macro level also generate sufficient pressure on the political structures so that political decision-makers align their strategy in favor of a just food value chain. It is clear that we need both – top-down regulations by policy as well as bottom-up engagement by civil society to change the current food system.


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