here is a descriptive video (in Danish) describing the regular process of food distribution facilitated by Københavns Fødevarefælleskab– this initiative and its actions will be discussed throughout this post and series.
The transition I have decided to focus on in this blog series is local and organic food production, distribution, and consumption. The initiative I have selected to discuss in this post is Copenhagen’s Food Collective (KBHFF – Københavns Fødevarefælleskab). This post will discuss the Multilevel Perspective (MLP) and Strategic Niche Management (SNM) theories. MLP will be understood through the lense of F.W. Geel’s presentation of the theory in the text The Dynamics of Soctio-technical Systems: A Multi-level Analysis of the Transition Pathway from Horse-Drawn Carriages to Automobiles (1860-1930). The MLP theory will be presented and applied to my chosen transition. Both its distinction between three levels of societal function as well as the interplay between these levels will be discussed. Additionally SNM will be explained and applied to understand howKBHFF, the niche sustainable transition initiative, could utilize its concepts to upscale and fit into the mainstream level of societal functions. SNM will be understood through the lense of Schot, Hoogma, and Elzen in their text Strategies for Shifting Technological Systems – The case of the automobile system and Smith and Raven in their text What is a protective space? Reconsidering niches in transitions to sustainability. This post will conclude with a presentation and discussion of the limitations of both the MLP and SNM theories.
Presentation of the local and organic food transition through a Multilevel Perspective
MLP structurally divides society into three different levels: socio technical landscapes, socio technical regimes, and niches. Each of these distinctions are products of three specific elements:
- the systems required for fulfilling societal functions – for example governmental bodies or infrastructural systems
- social groups and their corresponding practices which support the existing systems
- the rules and regulations that support such social practices and systems
A visual representation of the different levels and their relations can be visualized below.
First I will present the regime – the middle (meso) level in this perspective. The regime can be viewed as the sector that is supported by systems and social practices that carries our societal functions such as transportation, energy, or food systems. The regime is considered the selection environment, where a market is present allowing society to direct their consumption towards a certain provider of a societal function. According to Geels, “regimes account for the stability of existing socio-technical systems.” The stability and resistance to change at the regime level is attributed to lock-in of current rules, regulations, social norms, and systems that perpetuate their existence.
The food system regime is quite complex and can be divided into multiple sub regimes such as production, distribution, and consumption. Currently there are many social norms that keep conventional food systems in place such as existing infrastructure of global production and distribution networks, rules and regulations that foster or inhibit alternative methods to be used in food production, as well as the social value of economic incentive thus influencing many people to buy the cheapest products possible. The existing food system regime is also related to other regimes such as transport, energy, and water, and is thus linked to the stability and norms of these regimes as well. By theory regimes are stable, however later in this post I will discuss how this claim might now be as concrete as expected.
The Danish organic label for food products. It symbolizes requirements for growing, harvesting, and production of goods. In 1987, Denmark became the first country in the world to pass legislation on organic production and sales regulations. This form of regulation is categorized within the regime level of the MLP.
Next I will present the landscape perspective, which creates the macro level of this view on society and transitions. Geels defines landscape as reference to “wider exogenous environment that affects sociotechnical development.” Individual actors cannot change this level of influence. The landscape level of this perspective relates to the context of how the existing system has been constructed. In the case of food production, distribution, and consumption there are some existing landscape pressures which are effecting the regime in the level below, such as:
- industrialization of food production, and the farming of animals and crops
- globalization including global trade within the food sector and economic competition in the market
- urbanization and the removal of food production from the everday life of most urban dwellers
- technological development of chemical (pesticides, herbasides, insecticides) and farming practices.
- climate change and the growning need for adaptation.
These elements and activities influence societal function on a large scale and have an impact on many regimes, including but not limited to food production, distribution, and consumption.
The micro-level in the MLP is the niche level – a bed for radical innovations. At this level, new and radical innovations exist at a small scale and are in some way protected from external factors such as market competition. This concept will be described in greater detail in a following section about Strategic Niche Management.
Now that I have presented the standing food system regime and landscape pressures impacting it, I will present the historical development of the organic food niche in Denmark. This niche and its relevant initiatives are pushing to influence a sustainable transition from conventional food systems to local and organic food systems.
As researched and documented by the organization Organic Denmark, Danish farmers began experimenting with (returning to) organic produce cultivation in the mid 1970’s. This interest in organic, pesticide free agriculture could have been sparked by the landscape pressure of a food supply contaminated with chemicals and the harmful result on the environment, as described by Rachel Carson in her book ‘Silent Spring’. With this shift in context, began with niches. In Denmark, this technological niche was developed by intrigued farmers who wish to begin cultivating organic produce again.
In 1981-82, a small number of Danish farmers, who had begun producing organic food, formed an association and began selling their products in supermarkets. This can been seen as a process, which according to Schot, Hoogma, and Elzen, is one of the methods for Strategic Niche Management: experimentation. This experimentation lead to the market development and the first organic carrots came on the market shortly there after. Although from this period up to 1993 there was a very low demand for organic products, and not all of the produced items could be sold.
However in 1993-94, the Danish supermarket, Super Brugsen, in the Coop supermarket corporation, launched a campaign to market and discount organic products thus creating a demand boom, and starting a trend among other super markets. This can be described as a regime activity because it occurs in the food distribution sector to influence social practices. Despite a period of success, over the following years, interest in and consumption of organic product grew. In 1999, growth of organic market in Denmark stagnated, and it wasn’t until 2005 that the market began to thrive again. This can again be attributed to the existing norms, rules and systems represented by the regime and landscape at the time.
In the past decade, “the organic market share has increased from 3.5% in 2009 to 8% in 2013, and Organic Denmark expects that the organic market share will continue to increase. In 2013, the “organic turnover for Danish catering operations is approaching DKK 1 billion. Organic sales have grown from around DKK 456 million in 2009 to around DKK 918 million in 2012, doubling in three years.”
Stategic Niche Management applied to the organic food system transition and KBHFF
Strategic Niche Management is a theory that employs adding strategy to develop and upscale the transition and create a positive sustainable impact. The Danish government has and continues to employ strategies to support the Danish organic movement. According to Schot, Hoogma, and Elzen, this can be seen as a form of strategic niche management under the regulator governmental shielding approach. This strategy impacts the selection environment and supports organic consumption from market completion. The Danish government applies various strategies towards support the organic movement, such as:
- giving over €3.3 million to sales promotion of organic products on the domestic market
- working to “simplify the control requirements…for supermarkets to use organic raw material”
- encouraging public kitchens to increase organic materials usage, and supporting various public organizations with purchasing organic products fx. school canteens and hospitals
- facilitating educational workshops and activities for the public around the production and consumption of organic products
More from this plan and report can be read here.
Currently in Copenhagen, there is a user driven form of strategic niche management of the organic movement in Denmark: the Copenhagen Food Collective (KBHFF). This is a member organized, run, and owned initiative that purchases raw food products from organic or biodynamic farms in Denmark. The collective purchases the products in bulk orders directly from farmers and then divides it into individual locations, and from there individual bags for members to purchase for 100 DKK every week. This initiative can be considered a niche because it is a radical concept that is protect from external market competition because it involved members and offers them an additional function besides food distribution: community. Members are all customers, employees, and shareholders of the organization and it is this self run, voluntary set up that allows the organization to offer high quality organic products at an affordable price – allowing all an opportunity to buy organic.
an visual representation of 1 weeks worth of fresh product from the collective – all that delicious, sustainable, organic, and local produces for only 100 DKK !
Applying Smith and Raven’s concept of stretch and transform is a relevant method to suggest to KBHFF, or similar initiatives, to upscale in order to impact the organic and local food system in the regime. Because such a member driven local initiative is quite radical, stretch and transform is recommended as it aims to “undermine incumbent regimes and transmit niche-derived institutional reforms into re-structured regimes.” For example the concept of KBHFF could be upscaled through the stretch and transform method in elementary schools. The institutional organization could set up partnerships with local organic farms where students could weekly collect fresh produce from the farms and deliver it to their schools canteen to be prepared for their lunch. This idea goes beyond the boundaries of existing social practices both within the food sector and the education sector, however it could empower the transition as it attempts to re-structure mainstream regime environments.
Critique of Theory
MLP is an analytical tool for generating an overall understanding of societal levels and the opportunities for, restrictions on, and possibilities of sustainable transitions. The landscape, regime, and niche structural levels allow transition actors to understand the dynamics between these levels, society, and the transition at hand. However, there are some limitations to this structuralization as well. It can be unclear as to defining distinctions between landscape and regime level, which can impact how a transition should be approached. Also, society and sustainable transitions are not linear processes and thus it can be counter intuitive to categories them into such a linear and structural formation as is done in MLP.
Additionally it can be criticized that MLP does not provide a geographical boundary. What can be at the niche level in one place, for example organic food systems in a small organic farming village, may still be at the niche level on a national or international scale. Another critique of the MLP comes in a the regime level with the claim that regimes are stable. However, because regimes are made up of actors and are influence by landscape pressures, there is the possibility for human instability in the form of actions or decision making processes. With the being said, it is important to realize that regimes might not be as stable as it is lead to be believed.
Finally, while Strategic Niche Management provides a framework for upscaling radical innovations from the micro niche level up to a greater scale, a critique is that this strategy does not limit the content of niches to sustainable innovations. It is possible that this strategy could be applied to an unsustainable technology that could ultimately cause more harm that good. Additionally SNM is theoretically defined to apply solely to technological innovations. However, it can be seen from my presentation of KBHFF that this strategy can also be applied to social innovations.
In conclusion, the interaction between processes at different levels of the MLP is the key element that brings transitions, and they dynamic between such levels can provide insight into understanding transition processes.
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