Local sustainable food systems have captured the popular imagination as a progressive, if not radical, pillar of a sustainable food future. Yet these grassroots innovations are embedded in a dominant food regime that reflects productivist, industrial, and neoliberal policies and institutions.
Understanding the relationship between these emerging grassroots efforts and the dominant food regime is of central importance in any transition to a more sustainable food system. In this study, we examine the encounters of direct farm marketers with food safety regulations and other government policies and the role of this interface in shaping the potential of local food in a wider transition to sustainable agri-food systems. This mixed methods research involved interview and survey data with farmers and ranchers in both the USA and Canada and an in-depth case study in the province of Manitoba. We identified four distinct types of interactions between government and farmers: containing, coopting, contesting, and collaborating. The inconsistent enforcement of food safety regulations is found to contain progressive efforts to change food systems.
While government support programs for local food were helpful in some regards, they were often considered to be inadequate or inappropriate and thus served to coopt discourse and practice by primarily supporting initiatives that conform to more mainstream approaches. Farmers and other grassroots actors contested these food safety regulations and inadequate government support programs through both individual and collective action. Finally, farmers found ways to collaborate with governments to work towards mutually defined solutions. While containing and coopting reflect technologies of governmentality that reinforce the status quo, both collaborating and contesting reflect opportunities to affect or even transform the dominant regime by engaging in alternative economic activities as part of the ‘politics of possibility’. Developing a better understanding of the nature of these interactions will help grassroots movements to create effective strategies for achieving more sustainable and just food systems.