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Special issue on local food products and systems/Numéro spécial sur les produits et systèmes agroalimentaires locaux

The local in the global – creating ethical relations between producers and consumers

Gun Roos, Laura Terragni and Hanne Torjusen


In this paper we explore how “local” food plays a role in creating ethical relations between producers and consumers in today’s globalized food system. First, understandings of local and local food will be discussed. Second, we will present and reflect on three examples of local food strategies for creating ethical links between producers and consumers: Fair trade, Slow Food and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). We argue that the process of globalisation of the food system creates space for various local food initiatives, indicating that the local in the global offers both a potential for transformation, movement and site of resistance.

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Reinterpreting local and local food

1In this paper we explore how “local” food plays a role in creating ethical relations between consumers and producers in today’s globalized, industrialised, standardized, and anonymized food system. Trading of food has a long history, and since World War II especially globalization and international trade agreements seem to have had major impacts on the food chain. Food production has been removed from direct consumer control, and globalization has increased competition, prolonged the food chain and made it less transparent. Both the physical and mental distance between producers and consumers has thus grown1. Globalization or actually mainly the discourses against globalization have been used as a symbol amongst those engaged in civil engagement and activism. Goods, commodities and brands are central to these discourses.

2Resistance to globalization can take form in different types of activities (Cohen, 2005), including anti-consumerism campaigns (for example, ‘Adbuster’) and anti-logo initiatives (Klein, 2000), but also as promotion of alternative forms of consumption and lifestyles (Micheletti, 2003). As suggested by Pretty2 “eating is the most political act we do on a daily basis because of its effect on farms, landscapes and food businesses.” It is in this context that initiatives focusing on local food have acquired a new relevance.

3With the spread of globalization, the concept of local has also been revisited and localization has become a catchword3. Local, when seen as an opposition to global, may imply nearness to geographically distant initiatives, which become “close” by virtue of new kinds of relations interconnecting producers and consumers (Raynolds, 2002; Jaffee et al., 2004). Examples of these are the Slow Food movement (Miele and Murdoch, 2003), Farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) (Bjune and Torjusen, 2005) and ‘fair trade’ (Nicholls and Opal, 2004). In addition, there are other new strategies for reconnecting consumers and producers, including “adopting” e.g. a chicken or an olive tree, or forming purchasing groups, such as “gruppi di acquisto” in Italy. These initiatives can be regarded as relevant indicators of the creativity expressed in alternative food networks.

4Consumers have an important role in initiating or supporting these initiatives. Forms of consumer involvement broadly defined as political consumerism, highlight consumers behaviour as a way to express ethical and political involvement and of ‘taking responsibility’ (Micheletti, 2003). Consumers are said to have become more aware of corporate activities and industry processes and their impacts4. Companies are increasingly evaluated based on their social responsibility and ethical performance, including labour conditions and effects on employee and consumer health and the environment. Consumers are increasingly found to demand goods that are produced to certain ethical standards for safety, health, animal welfare, environmental impacts, wages and conditions, and ‘fair trade’ (Korthals, 2001).

5Local food as an alternative movement or form of resistance, and how this movement reshapes the relationships between producers and consumers, is at core of this article. As we will point out with the examples in the second part of the paper, in a globalized world the definitions of local may vary, and because of this various types of initiatives can claim a local dimension. As we will describe further on, in some of these initiatives, physical distance may play a smaller role than the emotional dimension that the local evokes. Despite these differences, initiatives share the aim of re-weaving the complex web of social, economic, ecological and political connections disrupted by the rise of the global food system.

6According to Featherstone (1996) within the sociological tradition local has generally been associated with the notion of boundary; a bounded space within which social relationships are based upon kinship ties and length of residence. Local as an adjective is commonly used to describe something that is of limited area or place, or a shorter distance. In this sense, local and localism have always self-evidently existed and could be taken for granted. However, with the rise of globalization the meaning of local has been debated and redefined within several traditions including rural sociology, food systems research and environmental politics5. This need to locate relations, concepts, experiences and activities in new spatial and symbolic contexts through a process of re-naming, is particularly true for food. Local food is no longer food that is just produced near you by people you know. It is also the product waving from the shelf of a supermarket, having travelled miles, with a label reminding consumers of the local dimension embedded within. Thus, the notion of local in food is multi-layered and enriched by contradictory meanings arising from the context, ‘time’ and viewer perspective (Hinrichs, 2003). Local food is thus conceived today in terms of gastronomy, tradition, authenticity, origin, quality, distance, social relations, production, provisioning, sustainability and politics.

7These complex meanings of local are reflected in the experiences we will describe in more detail in the next section. Overlapping interpretations of the ‘local in the global’ lead to the existence of a number of food initiatives referring to local as a central dimension, including fair trade, slow food and CSA. Supporting a local community of producers is at the core of fair trade whilst another dimension of local food focuses on the quality, taste, authenticity and origin of the food product, is at the core of the slow food movement. Furthermore, referring to Turner’s ideas on nostalgia (quoted by Featherstone, 1996) as an important sentiment of the modern world, local food culture can be viewed as a way of fulfilling urban ‘Rousseauian’6 dreams of a harmonious rural idyll. CSA, which is built on, not only direct interaction between consumers and producers but also, consumer participation brings the consumer close to farming and the land.

Creating ethical links between producers and consumers

8Although, as has been mentioned, the claims for local food recur in several initiatives, we have decided to limit our analysis to three cases: fair trade, slow food, and community supported agriculture. Several reasons lead to the choice of these three. The first reason is related to distance; the physical distance between producers and consumers varies considerably between the three examples. The second reason is related to variation in the elements that constitute the ‘experiential’ meaning of local in the different initiatives. Finally, the cases are selected based on differences in scale and spread of the movements.

Case study 1: Fair trade

9Fair trade is selected to represent an example of how local can be understood as a critique of the consequences of globalisation. As indicated by Raynolds (2002) “the fair trade movement critiques conventional production, trade, and consumption relations and seeks to create new more egalitarian commodity networks linking consumers in the global north with marginalised producers in the global south7. Although this experience is largely consumer-driven8, it is the conditions of producers that are at the core of ‘fair consumption’.

10Far from the final consumer, as most farmers joining fair trade networks in the southern hemisphere are, they are drawn closer when their products are purchased. But, as suggested by Jaffe et al.fair trade is not necessarily far trade9. Shortening the distance between producers and consumers is one of the main strategies of the fair trade movement. This is important not only in terms of simplifying the commodity chain – thus making it possibile for farmers to increse their profits, but also for nourishing the ties that consumers have to producers10.

11Originating in the 1950s, fair trade has today become an important world wide initiative, promoted largerly by NGOs and grassroots groups. In fair trade initaitives, different ways are used to tighten the relation between consumers and producers. The most significant is probabily the ‘World’ shops network. World shops represent not only a place where fair trade products can be purchased but also a physical and symbolic meeting point for the remote producer and committed consumer. Within the walls of these shops, the products are not anonymous; they remind us of the hands that have made them and the smell of the places they come from. The products represent places where alternative consumption cultures are enhanced, and criticism towards the conventional economy is expressed.

12Although World shops still represent an important part of the fair trade movement, in many countries the conventional retailer system is the most relevant channel for the distribution of fair trade products today. Fair trade-labelled products, of which coffee is the most common, are now widely available in supermarket chains across Europe and are increasing their presence in countries such as the USA and Japan11. The Fair Trade labeling system guarantees that goods are produced according to fair trade principles. However, it is not likely that the experience of purchasing fair trade coffee in a supermarket is the same as in a world shop – at least from the consumer’s perspective 12.

Case study 2: Slow food

13Local as a form of opposition to global probably occupies an even more prominent role in the case of slow food, which is now a worldwide phenomenon but has its origins in a passion for food (and politics) of the inhabitants of a small town in Italy (Petrini & Padovani, 2005). The rapid spread of fast foods, seen as an indicator of the unwelcome advancement of ‘fast living’ centred on materialism, was the trigger for what Petrini defines as the Slow Food Manifesto, published in the Gambero Rosso magazine in 1987. Two years later, the Manifesto was approved at a meeting in Paris where 400 members from 18 nations gathered:

14“In the name of productivity … Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So, Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer. If McDonald’s represents, according to the words of Aries13, ‘the negation of all pre-existing food culture’, preserving the roots of local tradition becomes a way of fighting - or at least resisting - this wave.” Slow Food Manifesto. 1987

15Slow Food is a culture based on the intrinsic value of local production, where food and taste are embedded within tradition and social relations (Petrini, 2005). Slow food offers a critique of ‘foods without identity’ – at once globalised and de-localised – and of large corporations that operate the modern food system.

16Since the late 1980s, the Slow Food movement has enlarged its horizons enormously from the small Italian town of Bra in the Piemonte region. As noted by Miele and Murdoch (2003), as it seeks to set the local in the context of the global, Slow Food has become cosmopolitan. This transition implies, not only the enlargement of the Slow Food networks across continents but also, collaboration with other alternative food networks. For example, as a result of the meeting between Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, and Alice Walkers, active in the organic movement in the USA, farmers’ markets and school gardens joined the Slow Food project. A meeting with Miguel Altieri, promoter of agroecology, the science of sustainable agriculture, also produced collaboration in the form of The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, founded in 2003. This foundation ‘organizes and supports projects that defend our world’s heritage of agricultural biodiversity and gastronomic traditions’ having as a vision ‘a new agricultural system that respects local cultural identities, the earth’s resources, sustainable animal husbandry, and the health of individual consumers’.

17Echoes of fair trade emerge in the Terra Madre (Motherland) initiative, which is a network of small scale producers scattered around the world and with a special focus on developing countries14. The main aims of these initiatives are to preserve biodiversity and sustain local communities through justice in labour relations and solidarity amongst producers. Interestingly, the Terra Madre network overlaps in some instances with Fair Trade. One example is the cooperative of farmers in Community of Chiapas Organic Coffee Growers. These families cultivate coffee organically; the coffee is sold in local markets and exported to Europe, where it is sold on the Fair Trade market.

Case study 3: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

18The physical and mental distance between consumers and producers decreases especially dramatically in the third case we describe: Community Supported Agriculture. The concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) seems to have occurred simultaneously in Japan and Germany about the mid-1960s. Whereas “solidarity” has been the key founding element in the case of fair trade, and “preservation of taste” an important determinant at the start of the slow food movement, CSA originated from the concept of ‘delocalization’ of agriculture, and safety of food consumption15. In Japan, consumers reacted to food industry safety scandals by contacting farmers and inviting them to cooperate directly in producing safe healthy food that the consumers wanted. This partnership was called TEIKEI, meaning something like “food that carries the face of the farmer” (Henderson, 1999). At about the same time, the first CSA farm - Buschberghof - was established in Northern Germany.

19In 1988, one of the founders of the German CSA, Trauger Groh, travelled to the USA to present his ideas. This eventually led to the establishment of The Community Farm of Ann Arbor in Michigan16. Today, the number of CSAs in the USA has grown to more than 200017. In Europe there are fewer CSAs but there is currently an initiative to form a European Network of CSAs18.

20Key aspects of the CSA are dialogue and a binding agreement between farmers and consumers sharing the risks and rewards in food production, and a transparent economy. CSA may provide a context where people can become aware of and experience realities behind food products, and may as such be regarded as a way of exchanging consumerism for a more informed citizenship in relating to food. CSA may also be regarded as primarily a space for “non-market” relations, with focus on community, value-sharing, and the celebration of interdependence19.

21CSA is based on the idea of cooperative ownership of production, but not necessarily the farm. Consumers share responsibility for production by buying shares a year in advance, participating in planning the planting, and in most cases paying part of the cost in advance. In this way consumers directly share the risk and rewards of any agronomic and climatic variation in output.

22Trust and dialogue between farmers and consumers are crucial in a CSA. Fieldhouse (1996) refers to three dimensions of CSA20:

  • Community Building

  • Sustainable agriculture

  • and Food security.

23Fieldhouse (1996) points to “sharing” as the central notion of CSA, because participants share the real costs of food production through a fair price to the farmer and by assuming part of the risk of poor harvests. Consumers also share the rewards that come through a season’s supply of fresh produce, the development of fellowship, and the knowledge that they are part of an effort to “think globally, and act locally”21.

24In practice, CSA has combined with organic production. There are no formal claims to this effect as yet but we are not aware of any CSA that uses conventional (inputs-driven) methods of farming22. Actually the combination of organically produced food, with alternative often locally based forms of distribution, has been at the core of the organic movement itself from the outset. The organic food movement has been described as a form of resistance to the global food system as dominated by corporations. Resistance in this context has been used to describe a more complex set of strategies and practices. For example, Stevenson et al. (2000) refer to three modes of resistance activities - warrior, builder and weaver work - and argue that all three are important contributions for creating positive changes in the food system in favour of ecology, justice, fairness etc. The authors use the term resistance to refer to ‘social change activity oriented towards the transformation or significant reformation of the contemporary food system’ and to ‘kinds of inclusion-oriented activity that has significant reformative goals’ (Stevenson et al., 2000).

Local food in the global food system: The potential for ethical relations

25In the previous section we considered the potential that local has in creating closer and more direct relations between persons, products and places. Creating re-localized food systems such as these, may endow consumers with awareness about the conditions of food production and origins of food23. Researchers have pointed out that the complexity, opaqueness and fragmentation of the food chain undermines the possibility for establishing ethical relations at the extreme ends of the chain. “Localising” the product, by adding a history and identity, is a strategy for shortening this distance.

26However, as we have seen, the histories of the Cases are different. Solidarity with workers and feelings of justice and ‘doing the right thing’ are often at the core of discourses arout fair trade. Preserving the uniqueness of recipes and flavour combinations, including those arising from specific production methods, held in folklore are among the main elements defining a slow food. In CSA, it is the close relation and sense of community created through participation and sharing that has become the main rallying point.

27However, the use of the local dimension as a vehicle to express both consumer ethics and food authenticity may be the result of different processes. The attention towards post-materialist values typical in affluent societies (Inglehart, 1977) may contribute to explaining some forms of ethical consumption. Food scares have also played a part and together with a growing awareness of positive health have directed attention towards the quality and origin of food. Moreover, as suggested by Zward (2000), there has been a shift within food ethics from concerns related to the product itself, to the way it is produced.

28Consumers are often viewed today as active agents that have both rights and responsibilities. To be able to act ethically, consumers need knowledge about where the food comes from, the story of how it is produced and how production affects other people, animals and the environment (Coff, 2005). When consumers are unable to look back on the production story they are also unable to see how their food consumption influences nature and society24. As Kloppenburg and Lezberg (1996) have questioned: “How can we act responsibly and effectively for change if we do not understand how the food system works and our role within it?” Ethical transparency and ethical traceability are tools in communicating the production story to consumers. Thus tracing the local dimension of food gives consumers an opportunity to make ethical judgements of food production practices.

29Local is often framed discursively as nostalgia, “going back to nature”, that allows consumers to imagine happy farm workers and clean earth, when buying ethical products25. However, the local as we experience it today is not the same as before; it has been transformed into a local-in-the-global. And, since local-in-the-global implies new experiences and new uses of technology and information systems, what we view as local today has parallels to ‘hybridization’ (Pieterse, 1995). However, as more meanings attach to the term ‘local’, the boundaries between meanings become blurred and the way is opened to conflicting interests.

30Local is especially valuable as a site of resistance to the global (Dirlik, 1996). The examples of movements that focus on the local and ethical links between consumers and producers, here presented, are mainly found within alternative food networks. Of course there is a risk that local-in-the-global becomes yet another ‘market segment’ with premium based on ‘added value’ (Coff, 2005). As suggested “the space that appears to exist for creating a truly alternative trade will be captured by agrofood corporations able to transform this progressive initiative into a niche marketing scheme for products re-packaged under ‘green’ and/or ‘ethical’ symbols” (Murray & Raynolds, 2000: 67). Nevertheless, in capturing local and ethical attributes, transnational corporations become vulnerable also to new forms of consumer and citizen contestation – and to the relocation of local purchasing.

31Ritzer (1996) in his well known book on the McDonaldisation thesis indicated that we are moving towards a homogeneous world culture where there is not space for difference. Through the cases discussed in this paper we argue that the process of globalisation can also create space for local food initiatives as discussed also elsewhere (Busch, 2004; Hendrickson and Heffernan, 2002). This clearly indicates that the local-global hybrid is potentially both a site for resistance and a potential transformation consistent with the broad values of the ‘local movement’.

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1 Almås and Lawrence, 2003
3 Hinrichs, 2003
4 Gibson, 2003
5 Feagan, 2007; Hinrichs, 2003; Lapping, 2004; Seyfang, 2006; Lieblein et al., 2001
7 Raynolds, 2002, p.404
8 Rice, 2001
9 Jaffe et al. , 2004, p.171
10 Renard, 2003
11 Nichols and Opal, 2004
12 De Ferran and Grunert, 2007
13 Quoted in Petrini and Padovani , 2005, pp-93,94.
14 “Terra Madre established a forum for those who seek to grow, raise, catch, create, distribute and promote food in ways that respect the environment, defend human dignity and protect the health of consumers. An alternative to the current industrial food production system exists: one where food quality and variety are valued, rural regions thrives, and links between producers and consumers are strong.”
15 Lapping, 2004
16 Donahue, 1994
17 According to Henderson (1999), the number of CSAs depends on the definition applied; some researchers include box-schemes. We are inclined to reserve CSA for arrangements with a more pronounced commitment between the producer and the shareholder.
18 Urgenci – Network Urban – Rural: Generating New Commitments between Citizens  -
19 Bjune and Torjusen, 2005; Cone and Kakaliouras, 1995; DeLind 1999
20 Fieldhouse (1996) uses the term Community Shared Agriculture.
21 Fieldhouse, 1996
22 Bjune and Torjusen, 2005
23 Lyson and Green, 1999
24 Coff, 2005
25 Dolan, 2005
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Electronic reference

Gun Roos, Laura Terragni and Hanne Torjusen, “The local in the global – creating ethical relations between producers and consumers”Anthropology of food [Online], S2 | March 2007, Online since 20 April 2007, connection on 23 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Gun Roos

SIFO- National Institute for Consumption Research, P.O.Box 4682, Nydalen, N-0405 Oslo, Norway

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Laura Terragni

SIFO- National Institute for Consumption Research, P.O.Box 4682, Nydalen, N-0405 Oslo, Norway

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Hanne Torjusen

SIFO- National Institute for Consumption Research, P.O.Box 4682, Nydalen, N-0405 Oslo, Norway

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