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The conventional approach to agriculture has more recently been questioned and alternative food systems are gaining steam in the battle for reform. The food movement focuses on negative environmental impacts, but there are also many other social injustices and inequalities surrounding food. This review analyzes how agroecology, a form of alternative food, fits into the need for reform and attempts to understand pre-existing food injustices in Oakland. Furthermore, it explains how alternative systems can worsen injustices or give folks of lower socioeconomic statuses less accessibility to fresh food.
Finally, it explains how agroecological farming may influence rises in food prices and result in similar injustices. More research will need to be done to fill the knowledge gap around how agroecology could affect the livelihood of people in Oakland.
Diversified farming systems, such as agroecology, provide a way to work with the land as opposed to typical conventional ideals, in which farmers manipulate using fertilizers and pesticides (Altieri 2004, Kremen & Iles 2012).
In the midst of a growing population and climate change, interest has peaked in alternative systems to combat these issues. However, environmental impacts and crop yields are not the only aspect of farming – food inequality is prevalent in the United States and alternative options, such as organic, are often unavailable to lower classes (Gutham 2008). With interest in agroecology rising, it is pertinent to understand how a transition to this alternative system may affect pre-existing food injustices. This is relevant to the students of UC Berkeley to understand, as we are so close to Oakland – an area that feels a large amount of food injustice.
The goal of this literature review is to understand how agroecology fits into our current food systems and how it may inflate social injustices around food, specifically in Oakland.
Agroecology, or diversified farming, can be defined as agriculture that incorporates principles of biodiversity and considers relationships within environmental communities. Agroecology goes beyond organic farming because not only does it minimize synthetic inputs, but also integrates local, traditional ecological knowledge and/or scientific knowledge and research on agroecology into it’s practices (Kremen & Iles 2012). By mimicking traditional agricultural practices, farmers often eliminate the need for synthetic external inputs, like pesticides and herbicides, or large machineries and technologies (Kremen & Iles 2012, Altieri 2004). Some of the practices used include polyculture, crop rotation, and other ways of working with the land to create productive systems. These practices can often lead to natural pest resistance, high biodiversity, and more efficient uses of resources like water (Altieri 2004), which is useful in drought times. Agroecological systems are complex and require location specific approaches because each location varies in climate and resource availability (Altieri 2004). This contrasts conventional ideologies in which chemicals can be applied to any system to make it productive. However, unlike the conventional discourse leads to believe, agroecological polycultures can be more productive than monocultures on small scales, as well as more stable and resilient (Altieri 2004, Kremen & Iles 2012).
Our current food system is unsustainable because of the large amounts of synthetic inputs and chemicals put into the land. These systems need constantly increasing amounts of fertilizers year after year to continue producing at high enough levels (Rasul and Thapa 2004). However, coupled with increasing climate issues, we are experiencing an exhaustion of agriculture land due to overexploitation and synthetic inputs (Kremen & Iles 2012). Because of this, here has been a lot of discussion around food system reform and turning to alternative approaches that are better for the land. Agroecology provides farming methods that have less environmental impacts than the conventional system (Kremen & Iles 2012). Much of the resistance to a reform of our food system in the United States circles around the notion that alternative systems, such as organic, cannot be as productive as the conventional system we have. However, agroecological systems have the potential to lessen this yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture because of the diversified and integrative practices used (Ponisio et al. 2014, Kremen & Iles 2008). While this is a great step towards reducing environmental impacts of farming, there are many more concerns around food than just yields, such as food inequalities.
Food injustice generally occurs in the midst of racialized and low-income areas and is characterized by insecurities about food access and availability (Alkon and Norgaard 2009). West Oakland is an example of a “food desert”, or an area that does not have sufficient availability of fresh and healthy foods (Alkon and Norgaard 2009). These “deserts” typically have little to no grocery stores. West Oakland has only one grocery store, Acorn Super, and about 40,000 residents (Alkon and Norgaard 2009, Bell and Berlin 1993). Consumers characterize this market as having “old produce” and “rotten meat”, and prices were higher than other San Francisco Bay neighborhoods studied (Bell and Berlin 1993). Prices were also higher than the Thrifty Food Plan provided by the USDA (Bell and Berlin 1993), similar to findings by a Minnesota study around urban food deserts (Hendrickson et al. 2006). Urbanized areas tend to push farmers farther out to more rural areas, making it more difficult and expensive for urban residents to access local produce (Jarosz 2008). Significant correlations were found between lower income, less grocery stores, and higher percentages of African American residents (Alkon and Norgaard 2009). This lack of access and limited transportation options cause residents in West Oakland to get their food from fast food joints or corner stores, contributing to nutrient deficiencies and nutrition related diseases (Alkon and Norgaard 2009). A study in East Oakland found that affordable, small-scale grocers could contribute to community food security (Short et al. 2007). However, these stores mainly targeted people with Latino identities and were not found in West Oakland, where demographics were majorly African American (Short et al. 2007). In addition, no stores studied in East Oakland accepted EBT, or food stamps, which poses an issue for people with these benefits.
While alternative food systems seek to reduce environmental impacts, they can worsen pre existing food injustices. For example, organic food is more expensive than conventionally grown food, restricting access to people of lower classes. Other than organic, alternative food systems can include farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA), which focus on giving local farmer’s financial security and providing local produce to cities (Gutham 2008). However, these options often speak to mainly white patrons (Gutham 2008). Gutham found that in California most of CSA recipients were white, which some subjects attributed to CSA’s location in expensive, white areas. Farmer’s markets tended to be more diverse, but still had relatively higher prices and fewer were located in African American neighborhoods (Gutham 2008). Farmer’s markets in California accept EBT, but only .02% of overall redemptions are from these benefits (Gutham 2008). Agroecological farming may pose more issues because the transition period from conventional to this system is timely and costly (Cociu and Cizmas 2013), which in turn could inflate the prices much like organic. Currently, there is a lack of research in how sustainable and agroecological farming may affect consumers, specifically those living in food deserts.
It is clear that the food system cannot continue business as usual, but while considering alternative options it is pertinent that the livelihoods of people of low socioeconomic classes is considered. Folks in food deserts do not have high accessibility of fresh, healthy food and food from alternative systems is even less accessible (Gutham 2008). Further research will need to be done to understand if a transition of the food system would worsen environmental injustices around food. I specifically am interested in looking at Oakland as it is an area full of food injustices and very close to my own home.
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