Food systems as social systems

author: Sampling, Art Academy of Latvia

The context of Riga, being a capital of a post-socialist country, differs from the situation of Western Europe or North America. In Eastern European countries certain types of “traditional ‘alternative’ food chains have existed [...] long before the term was proposed” [Goszczyński et al. 2019: 2]. Regardless of the radical changes in the political and economic paradigm in the 1990's, many traditional AFNs, active during the Soviet period and even before WWII (what Goszczyński et al. term the embedded models, and Tisenkopfs (2017) denominates as traditional food networks), remained present also after the fall of the USSR, functioning next to the new commodified food distribution systems. Other, partly “imported” forms of AFNs (the imitated, West-inspired models) emerged as the more affluent and/or ecologically aware Latvians quickly became critical of the quality of mainstream industrial food products offered by the supermarket chains, and looked for alternatives that would be healthier and locally produced. Lastly, some practices – new as well as established – show similarities to the Western AFN, at the same time bearing specific local characteristics (the mixed models) (see also Trenouth & Tisenkopfs 2015).

An important feature of the Latvian foodscape is the notion of home- or self-grown food. Home-grown food is generally perceived as better, healthier and tastier, and its origin - more reliable. However, as noted by Aistara (2018), it can also be observed that by “self-grown” people intend not only food that they have grown themselves, but the meaning of this term tends to be extended to include also food grown by family members, friends, acquaintances and even small farms that deliver their produce through AFNs. We can thus conclude that the term “self-grown” is widely used in order to distance from the industrialized, conventional, institutionalised and regulated. It also helps to (implicitly) justify alternative farming, gardening, trade and exchange practices that do not comply with laws and regulations, which are often even perceived as unjust by the Latvians (Aistara, “Good, Clean, Fair, Illegal” 2015, “Organic Sovereignties”, 2018). The widespread use and strongly positive connotations associated with self-grown food reveals some of the values typical for the local foodscape: food quality and transparent origin, social relations based on trust and kinship and diverse semi-formal or informal transactions.

Setting the Scene

How to deal with the invisible?

How residualised is the food provision?

There is potential for the residualised allotments to provide food for the city conforming to agroecological principles. There is knowledge on gardening, there are lots of allotments (currently not managed ecologically), that are potential representations of agroecological urbanism. There are also grassroot activist groups already striving for alternative types of urban gardening and permanent status of allotment sites in the city planning. The main motive behind their activities is environmental sustainability and economic sovereignty. 

How to claim metabolic positions.

How to valorise land as an urban food source? Currently allotments are seen as a remnant of the malfunctioning Soviet system that has no place in a developed welfare state. How to valorise the allotments as a common good? The city is hesitant to invest in the allotment sites, to develop them, to consider within the planning processes and to grant a legal permanent status, because the allotments are perceived as private spaces (althought not owned by the users) as opposed to common good. How to raise awareness of the scale and strategic location? There is need for a mindshift in order to assign the same value to the function of urban agriculture as to the building development within the city zoning plan. And finally how to create opportunity for local composting of urban organic waste while improving the quality of the soil? Currently there is no discussion on the soil quality in the allotment sites (apart from the large presence of household garbage), because they are not seriously considered as places of food production. 

How to capture metabolic values.

How to valorise allotment farming as an urban food source? Allotment garden of 300m2 can significantly contribute to the food provisioning of a family both financially and as a source of healty food. How to valorise the allotment sites as points of knowledge transfer and exchange? Knowing where the food comes from and how to grow it allows to valorise it. This means educating more concious consumers also of commodified food resulting in support of locally grown products. Considering that there still is a lot of knowledge present but can dissapear soon, it needs to be cherished. How to create opportunity for the agroecological practices to be integrated in the urban realm? Next to the actual food production and knowledge exchange, urban gardening is also a physical excercise in fresh air that contributes to the public health. Besides, the large green areas are ‘the lungs of the city’. From the perspective of urban planning these areas also constitute a different type of public spaces, fostering collectivity and feeling of togetherness.

How to enable virtuous metabolic ecologies?

How to Raise awareness of the role of the urban agroecology in sustainable urban society? Any kind of farming is currently not considered by planners to be part of the functions appertaining to the urban environment. The allotment gardening is only tolerated because of its historic background (it is there as long as nothing else is planned in these areas). The challenge of this project is to raise awareness among the policy makers and urban planners of the significance of agroecological urban food growing. How to promote the understanding of the principles of agroecology within the urban growers’ society? Existing allotment users practice urban growing for various reasons, but the majority of them can be divided into two broadly defined categories: a) the older generation having the garden already for decades, using it mainly for food production, but lacking knowledge in ecology and sometimes even common sense. This results in an abuse of the fertile soils and pollution with various chemicals as well as hard, non organic garbage (broken glass, plastic, metal wires, nails or screws etc.) b) the 'new-wave' gardeners, practicing mostly in order to have ‘ecological' food with known origin and to educate urban children about the processes of nature.

How to make visible?

Making visible of the large presence of alternative food sources allows them to be valorised as a substantial part of the nation’s economy and a warrant of sovereignty. There are various types of informal short chain distribution. Some form opportunities for professional farmers – multiple markets of different sizes as well as organised direct buying communities. Others are non commodified forms of distribution, where people from countryside provide the urban citizens with self-grown food. They all foreground different kind of values, compared to the traditional distribution schemes, and emphasise the role of short chains in educating the consumer. The research question could be whether making this visible can be one of the enabling factors for agroecological urbanism, acknowledging and valuing diverse economies.

How to claim metabolic positions in post-socialist condition?

How to see current food sovereignty as a resource? A lot of families have a second home or relatives living on the countryside. There is either a potential for food growing or actual food growing already takes place and that constitutes a significant source of food, which isn’t commodified and thus officially considered as part of the nation’s economy. Besides, there is a lot of knowledge on faming and food growing still present, which is transfered further thanks to these links between urban and rural. Secondly, what is the importance of memory of the place? After the collapse of the Soviet Union land properties were denationalised and given back to the offspring of the former owners. As a result many urban citizens suddenly became owners of agricultural lands, farms and country houses. The emotional connection to these places, the memories of the ancestors motivated them to restore the farming that once was there, even if only for own consumption. And finally, how to make dispersed positions an asset? Position of the food production sites are relatively randomly spread over the whole nation due to the changes in the political systems which have brought about significant economic rearrangements. Developing a cooperation plan between the different producers and distributors of food on a national level could make this distributed situation more efficient. It ensures that people continue to care for land on a smaller scale and can provide a buffer against the scaling up of food production with all its known ecological and sociological problems. 

How to capture metabolic values?

What to identify and valorise in the diversity of food supply? People in the Riga context still have a lot of food in the fridge that is not coming from the supermarket. This is taken for granted. Cherished as typical for the context, but not seen as an asset. Can we valorise the non commodified food sources? Citizens in Riga partly fill their fridges with food grown by relatives, colleagues, friends. Food acquired from these sources does not involve any money or other kind of compensation - it is completely non commodified. For this reason, it is not accounted as part of the country’s economy. What to do with the existing quite food sovereignty? Climate changes both locally and globally constitute a risk for farmers. This can be overcome e.g. by diversifying crops. Political instability and potential threats caused by external factors are another reason to valorise the advantages of being independent.

How to enable virtuous metabolic ecologies

We should encourage the self-growing practices. By supporting urban citizens in their efforts in self-growing they are given the agency to provide their own food and become more resilient in times of crisis. And we should make visible of the less commodified distribution chains. Alternative distribution gives more agency to both the grower and the consumer. Direct forms of distribution management allow the farmer to be in control of: a) to whom they sell, b) what and how much they grow, c) when they deliver, d) the quality of the end product. The consumer on the other hand also has the agency of giving direct feedback, making choices and supporting the farmer in his daily practice. As opposed to the supermarket that gives the illusion of choice through supply and demand principle, these alternative distribution chains actually do allow the consumer to have the power to influence the supply.

Inspiration from Riga