An Ethnographic Exploration of Morally Embedded Economics

There has been a “restructuring of the world food system under corporate control since the Second World War” (Henderson 2000: 175) in which agriculture has been subsidised – separated from society – breaking the link between ecology and farming and no longer involving the consumers in decision making about agriculture and food production. The consequences include “impoverishment of rural economies and the decline of small towns, shrinking of the farmer’s share of the food dollar, erosion of the soil,… the spread of monoculture and the correspondent decline of biodiversity” (Ibid: 175). However from the 1980s onwards public interest in improving farming systems and finding an alternative to the industrial agriculture emerged amidst the increasing modernisation of society (Michelsen 2001). As “modern agriculture confronts an environmental crisis” (Altieri 2000: 78), ecological farming provides an alternative to the negatively connoted, non-dynamic and static mainstream agriculture in Europe (Michelsen 2001). The production of organic food is a response to a few of the problems of the corporate world food system, such as environmental preservation, safe food and protecting the family farm. Since the beginning of the 21st Century there has been strong growth in the “social organisation of production and reproduction of organic farming, and in the political and economic representation of organic farming and farmers” (Ibid: 4).

In this essay, I intend to demonstrate the attempts and the difficulties of local and organic farmers to counter this corporate world food system through a combined approach interlinking morally embedded economic exchange and just sustainability in their struggle for social justice, drawing on my research at a monthly farmers market in Lewes. I will analyse the strategies of farmers to pursue this social justice such as local economics and posing the consumption of locally and organically produced foods as an alternative to industrialised foods. I shall demonstrate the limitations of these strategies, ultimately arguing that a multi-faceted transformational approach, combining social, cultural, political and economic dimensions, is imperative in order to change the current dominant world food system.

Michelsen describes organic farming as a social movement based on combined efforts by various interests such as farmers, consumers, traders etc. The movement has various goals aimed at changing elements of the mainstream agriculture, such as improving animal welfare, recycling nutrients, using local resources, sustainable production, being environmentally friendly and not using artificial components to maximise agricultural production (Ibid). As a social movement, it is “not only morally but politically embedded in anti-corporate struggles for social and ecological change” (Alkon 2008: 488). The narratives of the farmers market participants interviewed by Alkon (2008) placed high importance on moral values that are embedded in their local economic exchange, providing an opposition to the “greedy, industrial agri-business system motivated only by profit” (Ibid: 488). Local economics are an alternative to the failure to reform a “government that promotes corporate capitalism, (and) environmental destruction”(Ibid: 488). Farmers market participants believe that “morally embedded economic exchange is congruent with a promising channel for pursuing just sustainability” (Ibid: 488).


Alkon describes differences of opinion on the appropriate strategies for pursuing just sustainability. On the one hand, farmers market participants link individual economic aims and abilities, and collective political goals of social justice through sustainable agriculture, which is “an industry and social movement that equitably balances concerns of environmental soundness, economic viability, and social justice” (Ibid: 487; Allen et al 1991: 34). On the other hand, there have been debates about whether economic exchange is an individualistic substitute for collective action, increasing the economic production that is responsible for environmental degradation. Marx-inspired scholars suggest that consumption directly opposes sustainability and therefore is an insufficient strategy in combating social injustice and environmental degradation. It is thought that the reliance on economic strategies reproduces neoliberal subjectivities by encouraging the pursuit of social change through individual market decisions (Ibid: 489). The differences in opinion perhaps stem from the fact that farmers and farmers market participants attribute the destructive qualities of capitalism only to corporations and therefore local sustainable businesses such as farmers markets can contribute to the pursuit of just sustainability (Ibid).


The quaint, predominantly white and middle class town of Lewes has hosted farmers markets since 1440 in various locations. The monthly market, one of the first in the UK, was started by the Common Cause Cooperative in 1997. It is held on the first Saturday of the month on Cliffe precinct with about forty high quality profile producers set up along the brick-paved road, some of which have been around since 1998. The Common Cause cooperative regulates the produce through an application process in which producers must adhere to certain regulations. For example, as stated in the terms and conditions, “produce must be raised, grown, produced, processed or baked no more than thirty miles from Lewes… in a way that contributes to thriving local economies and sustainable livelihoods both in the UK, and in the case of imported products, in producer countries, is fairly traded, enhances landscape and biodiversity, minimizes food miles, is based on caring animal husbandry and provides social benefits such as good quality food, safe and healthy products, and educational opportunities”. These regulations ensure that the farmers market is synonymous with the social justice goals of sustainable agriculture which involve the “intersection of ecological sustainability and social justice” (Ibid: 487).
My research is based on two visits to the farmers markets during which I spent a total of about four hours engaging in participant observation, as a consumer. Before the first visit to the market, we spoke to Catherine, a founder of the monthly market and a part of the locally and personally driven Common Cause Cooperative, who gave us some background information about the market and its aims to encourage dialogue between the producer and consumer about issues of production and represent small local farmers and their interests. I prepared an interview guide for the producers including questions about competition from mainstream supermarkets and tensions between moral values and financial needs as a producer. However, conversation with the producers was very informal and their focus was mostly on the product and selling it to the customers. This also meant that at times I felt like a nuisance, interfering with their economic exchange. In fact I found that they were more willing to spend time chatting once I had purchased something or showed interest in purchasing their produce. After each visit I sat on a bench as they started packing up the stalls and did some jottings which I later wrote up into field notes.


Roy and Cath are an elderly married couple who sell honey and marmalade at this and another monthly market. Honey farming is seasonal so they collect the honey during the appropriate season and then ration their stock throughout the year so that they can sell some every month. Roy compared his produce to that sold in the supermarket, albeit more expensive he said it was completely natural and local, unlike that you can buy in the supermarket which is heated, so as to avoid it setting as quickly, and brought in from outside the country, from both EU and non EU countries. Roy highlights the dichotomy between choosing natural, locally grown food and industrialised foods, suggesting that our consumption is ultimately political; do we choose to buy the ecological, locally produced food and contribute to the pursuit of just sustainability? Or buy into the greedy, capitalist corporations that grow wherever its cheapest, use pesticides, genetically modify and patent seeds, maximising their profits whilst causing “economic disrupt to family farmers, low-income families and the environment” (Ibid: 187)? It is far more complex than this continually presented dichotomy, there are several limitations to this portrayal. Firstly, the discourse around the word ‘local’ is often misused as it doesn’t have an exact definition in relation to agriculture, and therefore it is often misrepresented by the industrial corporations as a market strategy to avoid the negative connotations that come with industrial, globalised food practices, consequently increasing their share of the market (Blake, M. K. et al 2010: 411). The manipulation of the “discursive association of local with trust, shared norms and values, heritage, quality, stewardship, familiarity, simplicity, artisanal and community, which construct an alternative to the industrialised food systems that have been blamed for breaches in consumer safety, animal cruelty, “Frankenstein foods”, cultural homogenization, and the undermining of farmers in both the global north and south” (Ibid: 411), is used as a strategy to mobilise customers to buy into these exact industrialised, corporate food systems. Furthermore, the promotion of a “romanticised utopia through local foods” (Ibid: 411), “limits the understanding about the heterogeneous nature of alternative foods” (Ibid: 411). Rather than posing local and organic foods as an alternative, “a more radical transformation of agriculture is needed, one guided by the notion that ecological change in agriculture cannot be promoted without comparable changes in the social, political, cultural and economic arenas that also constrain agriculture” (Altieri 2000: 90).


One of the first stalls you see as you enter the market, sells pastries that are all baked the previous night. The stallholder said she stayed up until 3am the night before cooking in her newly rented kitchen space, so as to separate home and work as an attempt to avoid doing just that (staying up all night baking). She discussed the financial and practical difficulties of using solely local ingredients, mentioning concerns about balancing her moral values, in terms of using locally produced ingredients, and making a profit. Despite the perceived moral priority of local small farmers and consumers, there are “tensions between (their) economic strategies and environmental sustainability and social justice goals” (Alkon 2008: 487) that are constantly negotiated. This often results in economic sacrifices by vendors, especially as small farmers who are primarily financially motivated receive little respect from their communities (Ibid). Yet equally, the need to sustain livelihood can interfere with social justice goals. However, largely, “farmers market participants cast their economic and just sustainability priorities as wholly compatible” (Ibid: 497), although in some instances one may have to be sacrificed for the other. Johnston et al (2011) explore solutions to this with “creative adaptations of dominant ethical eating repertoires to fit low income circumstances” (Johnston et al 2011: 294).

In conclusion, there is a clear ideology behind local and organic farmers, placing high emphasis on the morally and socially embedded nature of their economic exchange (Alkon 2008) posing it as an alternative to the dominant food system. I have demonstrated some of the problematic issues with this bifurcated strategy and the necessity of a more multi-dimensional approach to agriculture. There are also various difficulties with maintaining this ethical lifestyle, both as a producer and a consumer, in terms of balancing social justice and sustainability goals, and sustaining their livelihoods. However, the potential of sustainable consumption is evident; using a multi-faceted approach to agriculture has the possibility to unite the social, economic, cultural and political aspects of community life and “reinvigorate democracy” (Ibid: 489).

Works Cited:

Alkon, A.H. (2008). From value to values: sustainable consumption at farmers markets. Agriculture And Human Value. 25 (4), 487-498.

Allen, P (2004). Together at the table: sustainability and sustenance in the American agrifood business. University Park: The Pennsylvania University Press. 79-205.

Altieri, M.A. (2000). Ecological impacts of industrial agriculture and the possibilities for truly sustainable farming. In: Magdoff, F., Foster, J.B. & Buttel, F. H. Hungry for Profit. New York : Monthly Review Press. 77-92.

Blake, M. K., Mellorb, J. & Cranea, L. (2008). Buying Local Food: Shopping Practices, Place, and Consumption Networks in Defining Food as “Local”. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 100 (2), 409-426.

Henderson, E. (2000). Rebuilding local food systems from the grassroots up. In: Magdoff, F., Foster, J.B. & Buttel, F. H. Hungry for Profit. New York: Monthly Review Press. 175-188.

Johnston, J., Szabo, M., Rodney, A. (2011). Good food, good people: Understanding the cultural repertoire of ethical eating. Journal of Consumer Culture. 11 (3), 293-318.

Langley, V. (2011). Lewes Farmers Market Terms and Conditions. Available: Last accessed 15th May 2014.

Michelsen, J. (2001). Recent Development and Political Acceptance of Organic Farming in Europe. Sociologia Ruralis. 41 (1), 3-20.