Land for Food

Theories of Change in Achieving Land for Food

Does this piece make sense? Please let me know if you think it doesn’t. Thanks, Antonio.

I work as an urban farming educator (paid) and as an urban farming advocate and community organizer (unpaid). My experience of the past ten years in the diverse Bay Area of California has brought me into contact with a wide range of individuals and organizations committed to food systems change with varying theories about how to make that change. Diversity of opinion and approach is inherently good, but there are times when ostensible allies dismiss each other’s work, and collective efforts that create alliances are subverted by dogmatic attachment to one particular way of doing things. In this viewpoint, I consider how differing theories of change might be accommodated and how actions towards sustainable food systems (in the context of farmland protection) might be made more strategic and successful by doing so.

I begin with a tale of two extremists: there is a gentleman in my community who runs various urban farming and food distribution projects, all built on his philosophy that everything should be free. He wants a gift economy to grow and replace the money economy, and every project he starts must abide by the principle that people can’t be paid for working, and no one should be charged for anything. He has often expressed skepticism of the policy work of the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (which I organized in 2010). For instance, we spearheaded and successfully passed legislation that legalized agriculture in our city’s zoning code, and also legalized the sale of produce from backyards and private lots. While many urban agriculturists here welcomed this change, some (like this man) thought it was not radical enough to constitute “real” change.

On the flip side, there are folks in our community who are dedicated to using business to create change. Another acquaintance of mine (who runs a successful local food business) has dedicated many years to developing and supporting youth employment, good farming practices, and education of the public on food and farming issues. She is, however, dismissive of projects and people that profess a kind of anti-capitalist ethos (like the aforementioned man does), and she has rarely participated in our alliance due to her belief that it is dominated by dogmatic radicals.

These examples show how theories of change can border on dogmas, and confront my attempts to organize food systems change in San Francisco: the anti-capitalists insist that change cannot be made via markets, that it must be driven by noncommercial intentions; the entrepreneurial enthusiasts insist that change is most effectively made via the market, and dismiss direct action, civil disobedience, and nonmarket efforts as utopian and unrealistic. For those concerned with the preservation of land for sustainable agriculture, I’d like to advocate a third way. Preserving land for community-serving agriculture over the long term requires some combination of pragmatic thinking in the short term and idealistic thinking in the long term. By looking at the larger “movement ecology” of how differing theories of change support, detract, or relate to each other, food systems practitioners can challenge their own often unconsciously held dogmas and contribute to an expansion of what solutions are possible or practicable.

Most contemporary market-based land preservation efforts seek to improve the profitability of “alternative” (or sustainable) farming and increase its scale in order to spread its environmental and social benefits and compete with large-scale “conventional” (or industrial) farming and other land uses. Nonmarket efforts seek to delegitimize profitmaking in favor of other goals, seeking instead to prioritize values like “community need” in how decisions are made about land use. Unfortunately, these nonmarket values tend to be nebulous and contentious concepts, and are not as easily quantifiable as profits.

Obviously, not all projects to transform food systems fall neatly into a simple “market-based” versus “nonmarket” dichotomy of food system activism. In fact, many contemporary projects are not actually dogmatic in their approaches, yet are still critiqued by food systems development practitioners who maintain dogmatic positions. The third way I advocate, then, is not a prescription for a certain mode of action as much as a lens through which to see how market and nonmarket efforts are both worth supporting, to avoid discounting the importance of varying approaches to action. It is also a lens to critically consider each approach in relation to opposing theories of change, in order to not assume that any approach is good enough or sufficient. Both market and nonmarket approaches are effective in certain ways, but limited in others. Work that combines key aspects of both approaches will prove more successful, I believe, in creating long lasting change than sticking to only one theory of change, or one method of action.

What might this look like on the ground? I use two projects to indicate how we might draw useful lessons from each theory of change and amplify their efficacy. The Food Commons project is an effort to raise funds to invest in regional food system infrastructure, hoping to catalyze investment into growing a “good food” economy that would be financed, owned and operated by regional community institutions. Occupy the Farm was an act of civil disobedience wherein hundreds of urban farmers broke onto and occupied a piece of publicly owned land in Albany, California, in order to prevent it from being sold and developed. Since being evicted from the site, members of Occupy the Farm continue organizing towards establishing an educational urban farm on the site to be managed as a “commons.” Food Commons and Occupy the Farm share the goal of land preservation for the purposes of expanding sustainable agriculture, though at different scales. Both projects use the word “commons,” but their uses of the word differ and so do their tactics towards creating it, roughly following a market (Food Commons) and a nonmarket (Occupy the Farm) approach.

Occupy the Farm’s action led the landowning agency (the University of California) to reconsider its development plans—though it is difficult to determine whether and how exactly the action was a key cause of this change. The 10-acre site is now slated to become a “metropolitan agriculture” education center for the university. Though the occupation achieved this change, the site’s limited size and politically distinct context of being owned by a public body indicate the limits to this type of direct action as a means towards protecting privately owned farmland on a broader scale. That is to say, it would be very challenging if not impossible to replicate or scale up something like Occupy the Farm into a broader force for land preservation. Yet Occupy the Farm, by refusing to accept the economic austerity model pushing public institutions to sell off assets or the political structures by which these decisions are made, created a space where other realities could be imagined and enacted, and there now exists a possibility that the site could contribute to more sustainable food systems.

Food Commons, in contrast, operates more pragmatically, treating existing political and economic structures as givens, tweaking them to create “Food Trusts” (which they define as “nonprofit, quasipublic entities”) that would acquire vital food system assets and lease them to “Food Hubs,” the business base of this new, expanded more equitable and sustainable food system. This project bucks industrial farming norms and repeatedly emphasizes aspirations of increased local ownership and accountability in the food system. If successful, Food Commons would no doubt aid the preservation of land for sustainable agriculture (among other “good food movement” goals). Yet, the project’s logic assumes that the use of the Trust’s assets will be economically competitive, and that its good food system will expand due to this economic competitiveness with other land use options. However, land markets (and therefore land use decisions) are often tied to cycles of real estate speculation and stock market-related booms and busts. According to Lawrence Yee, a progenitor of Food Commons, “we did not address real estate market cycles, because by acquiring land and putting it into a Food Commons Trust in perpetuity, you are essentially removing it from the vagaries of the marketplace and speculation”. This is a certainly an innovative approach, but within a skewed market environment distorted by oligopolistic control of food systems assets and a policy environment distorted by the political power of such oligopolies, Food Hub enterprises may not be able to compete, or acquire such land in the first place (due to inflated land values).

There are things that can materially support sustainable food producers in competition with the industrial system, such as direct payment subsidies of the federal farm bill, EQIP programs that promote on-farm environmental initiatives, and conservation easements. These government policies and programs are more likely to emerge and thrive when backed by a vibrant social and political movement that is dedicated to ecological and community-serving land uses and works on shifting values as well as policies. Business enterprises are clearly a part of this nascent movement, yet the logic of business cannot in and of itself cause these necessary shifts. Shifting the economics of the food system will require broader efforts beyond the mere expansion of business. Similarly, the social movement for good food cannot achieve transformative success in land preservation if it relies entirely on volunteer energy or a dogmatic adherence to anti-capitalism.

If we conceive of market and nonmarket approaches as complementary strategies instead of ideological opposites, we might achieve better and more long-lasting land preservation for sustainable agriculture. Nonmarket (or anti-market) efforts like Occupy the Farm can challenge dominant narratives and transform values by offering an alternative to the privatization of public resources; promoting the non-economic value of urban farmland for farming-related education; developing new forms of democratic representation and process; and encouraging citizens to engage as political actors, not just consumers. Meanwhile, market efforts—from small ethical food businesses to the ambitious Food Commons—help preserve and expand actual assets that are crucial to an eventual mainstreaming of sustainable food production, while creating income opportunities for communities and participants in the food movement. After all, in a capitalist society even nonmarket direct-action activists require incomes!

If all food systems development practitioners considered this sort of movement ecology around land preservation (but also in relation to any important issue), we might end up with less acrimony between food systems development practitioners of different political persuasions and tactical preferences. Nonmarket food systems development practitioners would recognize the practical importance of nonconfrontational, valuable market efforts and be tangibly supportive of such efforts, for instance by encouraging the donation of money towards the preservation of agricultural land for social enterprise farming, providing hands for worthy projects, or helping to build an ethical consumer customer base for them. Conversely, practitioners grounded in market logic would recognize the importance of political organizing and the need to shift society’s overall values and incorporate such work into their projects. For Food Commons and similar efforts, such support might be as simple as setting aside some percentage of profits made via sustainable food ventures for the employment of grassroots political and community organizers, or the production of media representing new narratives to transform the values of society at large.

In our current culture, the primacy of private property rights over the role of agricultural land as the common heritage of humanity allows continued destructive development. This prioritization has not and most likely will not be redirected significantly by ethical businesses or purchasing decisions (at the least, not on the timescale required to preserve precious remaining agricultural lands). Some combination of more stringent regulation of land use, public and trust ownership of valuable agricultural land assets, and commons-based approaches to land ownership and management can provide support for a new normal in land preservation and use. But these in turn require a refined and improved vision for the appropriate role of private property rights in a sustainable society, and a reinvigoration of sickly democratic structures to deliberate on this topic transparently and equitably.

While asking food businesses with already-tenuous profit margins to contribute as well to nonmarket efforts may seem unrealistic, food systems development practitioners must acknowledge that only with action towards long-term value, policy, and governance shifts—not just pragmatic profit concerns for the immediate future—will previously unthinkable wins over time become more achievable. Additionally, the realization of these once-‘utopian’ demands will help those attempting to ‘do well by doing good’ become more successful in securing equitable land tenure, food systems transformation, and sustainable livelihoods for all.

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