China’s level of urbanization remains unprecedented, evident in the myriad of changes within the urban fringe, which includes the construction of massive train stations, golf courses, and high-end condominiums. As cities increasingly accommodate more of China’s population, urbanization is posing new challenges to food systems: the rapid loss of farmland [1
], environmental degradation and pollution [3
], and the changing and more demanding diets of urban citizens [4
]. While continuous food safety scandals are evident, China’s policy of self-sufficiency has become harder to sustain [5
]. More than half of the Chinese population is now living in cities, and it is expected that the trend of urbanization will continue for the subsequent decades. It is, therefore, important to examine new approaches that can deal with the pr45essures emerging from China’s development path.
Community supported agriculture (CSA) is an alternative farming model that only recently appeared in China, and which in this study is conceptualized as an alternative food system (AFS). Food systems encompass a series of processes, which entails everything which is required to deliver food from the farmer to the consumer. Elements of the food system include seeding, cultivation, packaging, distribution and, ultimately, the consumption of food [6
]. The CSA model shifts from the conventional agricultural system by promoting local food and reconfiguring the relation between the producer and consumer: they partner to share the risks and benefits of the farm operations [7
]. While the concept was realized in the United States during the 1980s, and has since received scholarly attention, much remains unknown about CSA on China’s soil.
Similar to previous studies on alternative food systems, the focus of the study will not revolve around the actual output of food produced by the CSAs. Instead, this study’s contribution hinges on its main aim to examine the role of alternative food systems amidst emerging pressures from rapid urbanization. While most studies on AFSs tend to study the phenomenon by focusing on its own context, this study places CSA within the wider context that it is configured within, and examines how it may complement China’s conventional food systems. Therefore, the following question is addressed: What is the added value of the CSA model in dealing with food-related issues in China’s development? By doing so, references are made to the “conventional” food system and its concerns. Granovetter’s [8
] notion of embeddedness is adopted to describe CSA’s relational role in consumer-farmer dynamics, as well as its structural role within its broader relational context. The latter regards CSA as something that is “embedded” in its larger environment, in this study referred to as the socio-spatial context. While the study finds that structural embeddedness of the model in China is bound by several limitations and contradictions, this paper will argue that the model of CSA offers new insights and solutions to deal with emerging issues in China’s food system.
This paper is organized as follows: The remainder of this introduction describes China’s development and how it has spawned new issues in the food system, as well as the responses that have emerged from those issues; The Section 2
outlines this paper’s methodology and theories. The Section 3
presents the empirical data; The Section 4
comprises an analysis examining relational and structural embeddedness of the CSA model; In the concluding section, findings are summarized and final considerations are provided.
1.1. The Urban Food Desert
During the post-Maoist era from 1978 onwards, China entered a new phase where its centrally-planned economy underwent restructuring towards an internationally-oriented and competitive market economy. As a result, the accumulation of capital and urban growth was facilitated by a “spatial fix” [9
], i.e., a massive wave of rural migrants willing to work for minimal wages in the city. Ongoing urbanization led to China’s urban population exceeding its rural counterparts for the first time in history in 2011 [10
]. While economic and urban growth has been spatially concentrated along the eastern coast for many years, recent developments, such as China’s “new urbanization” policy [11
], aim to stimulate urban growth in inland, or “second-tier”, cities as well. China now hosts several “megacities”, and the Pearl River Delta has recently become the largest and most populated urban area in the world [12
]. As China’s cities continue to grow in both economic activity and population, the urge to expand spatially exerts considerable pressure on its urban fringes and has already induced irreversible changes on China’s socio-spatial environment [13
China’s urban transformation has also raised critical concerns, including that of food security, despite a broad consensus that China has been successful in securing its availability of food [14
]. With the exception of the Great Famine, since the 1950s China has—particularly after 1978—become successful in securing food supplies by placing emphasis on local self-sufficiency [15
]. Part of the success can be ascribed to a technical “fix”, which led to mechanized agriculture, intensified use of chemical fertilizers, and improved irrigation and farm equipment [15
]. Current national policies continue to strive for self-sufficiency, with targets to satisfy 95 percent of domestic consumption of a range of crops and staple foods [16
]. Policy implementations, such as the Comprehensive Agricultural Development program and the Household Responsibility System, have alleviated the problem of food inadequacy for the majority of the Chinese population [4
]. However, there are remaining and emerging issues in China’s urban food systems that are closely tied to urbanization. Three main issues are identified in this paper.
A paramount challenge to China’s food systems, especially in urban areas, is that of food safety. China has been the focus of many food safety issues and scandals in recent years, often covered and revealed by Chinese media [16
]. As abovementioned, the availability of food has significantly improved, but this has been partly achieved by an intensified usage of chemicals and fertilizers. Chinese farmers continue to apply excessive amounts of chemical fertilizers, which results in high amounts of harmful substances in food, posing a long-term threat to the quality and safety of edible products for human health [17
]. Other issues occur in the off-farming processing and the distribution of food, in particular, the use of additives. While state authorities have recognized food safety issues, China’s many small-scale farmers and scattered channels of food distribution have made regulating the food system a dreadful task [18
]. As a result, it has become harder to trace the origins of food production and evaluate the degree of safety in its methods.
The second challenge rooted in China’s urban food system are the high rates of population growth and dietary changes. While demographic changes have increased domestic food demands, the changing diet of the urban population has, in recent decades, also posed a serious problem [19
]. The Chinese diet consists of a wide variety of agricultural products, such as staple foods, vegetables, fruits, livestock and aquatic products. Demand for all of these commodities has increased, characterized by a general shift from a strict staple food diet to a more diversified diet, including a higher meat consumption [17
]. The changing and increasingly demanding diet of Chinese urbanites require higher amounts of resources, such as water, land, and grain [17
The third challenge relates to China’s reduced and degraded volumes of water and land resources. Lester Brown [20
] in 1995 estimated that if the trend of farmland loss continues in parallel with rising food demands, China would be incapable feeding itself by 2030 (it should be noted that Brown’s thesis has been challenged by many scholars on numerous grounds; see also [21
] (pp. 8–9). However, while contested, it sparked a debate between Chinese agriculturalists and, consequently, more state efforts that aimed to preserve China’s standing resources). Despite numerous state efforts, the loss of farmland has continued and currently China’s per capita averages of water (2200 m3
) and land (0.1 ha) resources are far below the global averages of 7300 m3
and 0.25 ha, respectively [22
]. Furthermore, China’s water and land resources have also suffered from environmental pollution. Soil contamination, such as heavy metal pollution, not only poses a threat to the ecological environment, but also to the safety of edible products [13
]. Further issues occur due to pollution in water caused by industrial contaminants dumped into rivers and lakes, chemical pesticide runoff from crop fields, and human waste and garbage disposed into the waterways [17
]. Taken together, urbanization-induced pollution and degradation pose a serious threat because agriculture depends heavily on the integrity of the ecosystem, in addition to it jeopardizing food security.
1.2. Responses in the Urban Context
Emerging issues and dissatisfaction with the food system has given rise to new civil society-led approaches to organize the food system. As the word “alternative” suggests, AFSs surface in a context where there is another prevailing food system—often dichotomously described as the dominant, mainstream, or conventional system (in this study, hereafter, the term “conventional” is used). In light of recent events such as the global financial crisis that culminated in a “global food crisis” [15
], a growing number of observers and food activists have questioned the sustainability of the conventional food system; e.g., [23
]. In challenging the conventional food system, actors use their local environment as a space for change by initiating AFSs, such as farmers’ markets, community gardens, and CSA. Such movements have recently become more visible in China as well [26
The model of CSA is characterized by a community that supports the farm operations so that the farm becomes community-owned or stewarded [27
]. While the “supportive” aspect can entail physical labor, it is mostly on a subscription basis that members participate. They make an advance payment in the form of shares to cover the anticipated cost [7
]. In return, members receive deliveries directly from the farm at frequent intervals. In this model, the members share both the risks of poor harvests and the benefits of successful harvests [7
]. The first CSAs have their roots in the United States starting from the 1980s, and empirical studies still heavily draw from European and North-American contexts. The concept began to receive more scholarly attention outside this context with the recent introduction of CSA in China [16
Emerging issues and dissatisfaction with the conventional food system, most notably that of food safety, has motivated China’s civil society to initiate new approaches to how food systems should be organized [18
]. The majority of these initiatives occurred in China’s urban and peri-urban areas, but a few have been initiated in more remote areas as well [29
]. A study on urban agriculture in Minhang (Shanghai), have shown that such initiatives can be successful in creating jobs, enhancing food safety, and improving the quality of farmland [30
]. Studies observing the emergence of Chinese CSAs remain limited because the first CSA appeared only in 2008, and the phenomenon remains largely conceptualized within the Western context.
It is widely recognized that the first Chinese farm to adopt the CSA model is Little Donkey Farm [28
], located in the northwest of Beijing’s Haidian district (while two farms in this study claimed to have established their farm in 2004, they did not adopt the CSA model yet. Little Donkey Farm is the first farm in China to claim having adopted the CSA model. After Little Donkey Farm was established in 2008, and has received much attention since then, the CSA movement has quickly developed throughout China. Shi Yan, oral communication). The farm and its initiator, Shi Yan, have received much scholarly and media attention since then. Shi Yan herself has also contributed several academic articles [26
]. Similar to CSAs in other countries, Shi et al. [28
] have identified the Chinese urban middle class as an important driver to CSA as they constitute a high proportion of the consumers and producers. Consumers with a middle-class background tend to have an expanded discretionary income and, therefore, more resources to spend on food [28
]. Cheng and Shi [26
] find that the motivation to start a CSA in China is diverse: some farms have been established due to food safety concerns, select ones are inspired by the principles of organic agriculture or biodynamic farming, while others have risen out of a partnership with research institutes.
As noted by Si et al. [16
], this has led to some inconsistency between consumers and initiators. For example, Scott et al. [18
] find that consumers of CSA are primarily motivated by food safety, and show limited concerns about improving the environment or the livelihood of the local peasants. In a study on four types of AFNs in China including CSA, Si et al. [16
] have examined the nature of alternative food networks (AFNs) and compared it with their Western counterparts. The study finds that Chinese AFNs share some similarities with Western types, especially in terms of strong urban middle-class participation. However, Chinese AFNs differ in the way that they surface in the context of widespread food safety concerns and tend to be more driven by consumers. Another significant finding is that Chinese AFNs do not directly oppose the dominant food system, but aim to complement them instead [16
]. Two contributions by Song et al. [29
] and Buckley [31
] provide detailed analyses of two CSA farms in Beijing and Guangxi. The studies find that the development of CSA was paired with numerous benefits: young people returned to the farm, farmers gained more access to markets, and incomes have increased significantly. However, CSAs still face considerable challenges, such as soil and water contamination, institutional barriers, and skeptical consumers [29
]. Finally, while it is found that CSA caters to only a “small niche group” ([31
], p. 98), Si et al. [16
] conclude that the inclusion of local peasants in the construction of AFNs remains low.