Digging into industrial food systems: A study of socio-ecological diversity in conventional agriculture




Rotz, Sarah

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University of Guelph


The food system is in a state of stark conflict and contradiction, with capital and corporate concentration intensifying alongside growing social resistance. In the doctoral dissertation that follows, I explore this conflict through a crosscutting socio-ecological analysis of the Ontario agri-food system. While the origins of corporate-industrial and alternative food interests are fairly well understood, there has been little analysis of how power dynamics intersect within a socio-ecological systems (SES) lens. To fill this gap, my research explores specific power dynamics emerging, and how these dynamics interact and shape the system’s socio-ecological trajectory. Using a mixed methods approach, I apply both qualitative data, such as participant observation, interviews and focus groups, and quantative data, including surveys, soil samples and content analysis, to reveal how agri-food actors, entities, and interests are maintaining social, ecological and material power, while helping the system to specialize over space and time. Additionally, I apply a range of theoretical tools to delineate the socio-historical origins of observed dynamics. Specifically, I delineate the political economic, settler colonial, and racial origins these dynamics, and link them to the socio-ecology of the system. Put simply, I argue we need to have a nuanced understanding of how we got here, before determining where we are going. In doing so, this thesis shows how particular socio-historical forces continue to preserve power in their interest, while assembling a food system divested of socio-ecological health and diversity. In articulating how interlocking forces of corporate capitalism, settler colonialism, structural racism, and patriarchy have shaped farmland and food relations in Ontario, I show how these interlocking forces may benefit from continued social and ecological specialization. The results of this research reveal a few specific findings. First, dynamics of rising farmer retirement, farmland consolidation, increasing land values, and rental tenure are creating conditions ripe for ‘own-lease out’ models of financialization, while divesting resources and attention from agroecological health and diversity. Second, turning to human dimensions of diversity, settler colonial and racial logics and tactics help to preserve arable farmland and resources for certain actors and (white settler) populations—which delimits who is on the land, and how agriculture is practiced. Third, conventional agri-food interests are responding to growing alternative food pressure and criticism by building solidarity despite growing economic polarization, while concurrently undermining the voice and diversity of alternative food work. These power dynamics—and the discourse they produce—are, in turn, restricting support for the multitude of diverse agricultural paradigms, practices and futures that are theoretically possible. Concerning methodology, I argue that research methodology ought to remain flexible, contextually specific and reflexive. I close by identifying ways to diversify land relations, farming systems, and agricultural relationships in the interest of socio-ecological health.



food systems, land relations, agroecological resilience, diversity, conventional agriculture, socio-ecological systems, critical social studies, power, settler colonialism, critical race studies