Alternative Food Networks, An Interdisciplinary Assessment

Alessandro Corsi, Filippo Barbera, Egidio Dansero & Cristiana Peano (2018)

Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

About the book. In recent years, Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) have been a key issue both in the scientific community and in public debates. This is due to their profound implications for rural development, local sustainability, and bio-economics. This edited collection discusses what the main determinants of the participation of operators – both consumers and producers – in AFNs are, what the conditions for their sustainability are, what their social and environmental effects are, and how they are distributed geographically. Further discussions include the effect of AFNs in structuring the food chain and how AFNs can be successfully scaled up.

The authors explicitly take an interdisciplinary approach to analyse AFNs from different perspectives, using as an example the Italian region of Piedmont, a particularly interesting case study due to the diffusion of AFNs in the area, as well as due to the fact that it was in this region that the ‘Slow Food’ movement originated.

In this chapter, Corsi, Barbera, Dansero, Orlando, and Peano present the general theoretical framework for the research described in this volume. They discuss the concept of Alternative Food Networks as presented in the literature and the criteria of “alternativeness” on which it is based (length of the chain, local origin, embeddedness), arguing that the main factor that determines whether a chain can be considered alternative is the quality of the exchange relationship, that is, the fact that in AFNs the exchange is not only a question of selling a commodity for money, but produces benefits in itself. They review the current approaches to AFNs in different disciplines—economics, sociology, geography, anthropology, and environmental sciences—and present the approach followed in this book.

This chapter focuses on the analysis of quality conventions in five different food chains, both alternative and conventional ones. In line with quality conventions theory, we consider quality as an emergent social construct of a specific social field where strategic maneuvering takes place. After a descriptive analysis of how quality conventions are connected to consumers’ conventions and chains’ attributes, Barbera, Dagnes, and Di Monaco illustrate the interplay and overlapping of quality conventions in alternative, conventional, and high-end food chains. Specifically, they argue that high-end food retailers mimic AFNs in order to satisfy consumers’ desire for “alternative” quality conventions.

Nadia Tecco, Cristiana Peano: “The Environmental Quality Factors Sought by Consumers in Alternative and Conventional Market Channels” (Pages 119-136)

In alternative as in conventional market channels, environmental sustainability has become increasingly relevant in guiding and orienting consumers’ purchasing behaviour. In the case of fruit and vegetables, where most of the green attributes cannot be verified even after the consumption experience, green consumption takes different context-dependent forms or nuances. This chapter contributes to identifying, analysing, and understanding how green attributes and habits change in farmers’ markets, solidarity purchasing groups, and supermarkets. Our purpose is to discuss the different mechanisms for gathering information about the environmental impact of products and how they can affect consumers’ behaviour in purchasing fruit and vegetables.

Filippo Barbera, Joselle Dagnes, Roberto Di Monaco: “Quality and Price Setting by Producers in AFNs” (Pages 215-243)

This chapter deals with the problem of setting prices and quality conventions among small-scale agro-food producers. Barbera, Dagnes, and Di Monaco first show how producers decide sales prices for their products and, more precisely, how relational mechanisms (e.g., imitation) mix with the moral economy (e.g., legitimate price thresholds) and economic fundamentals (e.g., labor cost, demand levels). They then show how different mechanisms bring about specific disputes and compromises within and between quality conventions on the producers’ side.

Link to the book