Current Issue

Volume 42, 10

Reviewed by Louise Guibrunet

Degrowth is an idea that challenges the hegemony of economic growth in our contemporary society (Demaria & Latouche, 2019). Since the term was coined by André Gorz in the 1970s, degrowth has become a movement of activists and scholars who explore the theoretical and practical dimensions of a rupture from the economy (and growth) as an ideology. This movement is still nascent but dynamic, and the term degrowth has been adopted and applied in many different realms and regional contexts. The book Food for degrowth: Perspectives and practices, edited by A. Nelson and F. Edwards, is an effort to understand the social and territorial expressions of the degrowth principles as applied to different areas of the food system (production, distribution, consumption). Building on fourteen diverse empirical cases, it takes the reader on a journey to discover how degrowth principles can shape alternative food practices and what are the practical limitations of implementing degrowth in our food systems toward more sustainability and justice.

The book is structured in four parts that group the empirical chapters thematically: “frugal abundance” explores the household sphere; “degrowth collectives” explores local food movements; “degrowth networks” focuses on efforts to scale-up and institutionalize food movements, and “narratives: contexts and futures” discusses in a more conceptual manner some core principles of degrowth. This organization allows the reader to explore food degrowth at different scales, focusing on the materiality of food systems as much as on their discursive dimension. The first and last chapters synthesize the themes of the book in relation to the main dimensions of degrowth: frugal abundance, autonomy, commoning, conviviality, decolonizing productivist imaginaries and relocalisation.

The book is rooted in critical food studies: it starts with the idea that the mainstream agri-food system is shaped by a capitalist logic causing environmental and social problems (malnutrition, food insecurity, obesity, degradation of land and ecosystem services). Degrowth initiatives are presented as a means to counter this logic. Examples of initiatives are diverse and include urban food-growing, community supported agriculture and cooking exchanges to revive the use of traditional vegetables; these initiatives organize collaboratively, locally, and aim to elaborate new food distribution systems that escape market dynamics. These examples reflect the diversity of local concerns that can be addressed through alternative food networks and that are associated to degrowth, including the resilience of food systems, autonomy, the provision of cheap and healthy food and resistance to market mechanisms – all addressed, to different extents, in most chapters. Importantly, all chapters emphasize how food growing initiatives help shape alternative collective imaginaries and can be an entry point to create new social relations that can form the basis for broader actions – it is thus a practice with political implications.

Although most case-studies are from Western Europe and Australia (reflecting, to some extent, the unbalance in the regional uptake of the concept of degrowth) the book also explores other contexts, with cases from Kenya, the Czech Republic and Hungary. These cases present food production and consumption practices that, without being embedded in a degrowth discourse or intent, comply with and illustrate many degrowth principles. This broadens the interpretation of what food degrowth initiatives can look like beyond the usual suspects that are Community Supported Agriculture and urban gardening. Chapter 13 also applies the lens of degrowth to the case of food sovereignty for Canada’s First Nations, and highlights the existing links and tensions between degrowth and decolonial thought.

Although the book is not urban in focus, one of the core questions it addresses is how to feed cities in a sustainable and just manner; as such, many of its insights will be of interest to urban geographers. For example, Chapter 7 presents a mutualist Community Supported Agriculture model in Italy that could “potentially satisfy the food requirements of neighbourhoods and precincts, entire villages, regions and even cities”. In contrast, Chapter 15 shows that land remains a primary constraint for re-localized food systems, which questions the potential for (even low-density) cities to be truly self-sufficient. Other chapters focus on the organization of urban movements (for instance, Chapter 9 on Budapest Food City Lab initiatives) and how the urban form may affect such organization (as in the case of Barcelona, Chapter 10). Throughout, the book describes and celebrates community organization in all its diversity, obscuring, to some extent, the role of the state in fostering alternative food systems (although Chapter 11 discusses briefly how local government can play a key role in supporting community initiatives and “translate concerns from local stakeholders into food system planning”).

The book has a strong empirical basis and favors situated knowledge. Some of the chapters’ authors do not only write from the perspective of academia but also from that of their direct involvement in alternative food initiatives, which produces lively and in-depth accounts of food initiatives. These empirical accounts are linked to theoretical debates; in particular, the relation between degrowth and other concepts (care, sustainability, and the circular economy) is thoroughly analyzed, shedding light on the commonalities and points of contrast across those terms. Finally, the book does not ignore the inherent contradictions and tensions of the degrowth movement; the ambivalent role of technology in degrowth networks (Chapter 10), the availability of land for re-localized food systems (Chapter 15), the challenge of addressing colonial legacies (Chapter 2), and the tension between radical and reformist action to transform food systems (Chapter 12) are all tackled explicitly. Both accessible and thought-provoking, this book will be of interest to urban geographers interested in degrowth, how degrowth can shape cities and urban-rural relations, and the governance of urban transformations more broadly.

Reference

Demaria, F., & Latouche, S. (2019). Degrowth. In A. Kothari, A. Sallh, A. Escobar, F. Demaria, & A. Acosta (Eds.), Pluriverse - A post-development dictionary (pp. 135–150). Tulia Books, Authors Upfront. [Google Scholar]