Plants, Power, and Social Change for Sustainable Food Futures

In contemporary food systems, the willfulness of plants can be seen as a bane to farmers. The unpredictable nature of ecology challenges the ability to easily craft an ideal aesthetic object for the market. For apples, narrow supply chains connecting distant actors have supported the implementation of rigid aesthetic standards, sorting and pricing apples based on their proximity to shiny red prototypes that appear on the covers of novels and the pages of fairy tales. Natural variation fuels competition through the ongoing pursuit of idyllic red hues, and yet this system increasingly unfolds at the expense of social, economic, and environmental sustainability. In response to what some have seen as a failing and volatile system, and with a blossoming interest in variety among consumers, growers have developed new strategies to leverage diversity into a more stable form of economic power. Drawing from fieldwork in the United States and New Zealand, this talk will discuss how growers have started using plant patents and cooperative licensing to maintain varietal aesthetic distinction and more forcefully negotiate relationships with retailers and consumers. Similar patterns are emerging in hops, citrus, and tomatoes, where novelty is maintained through cooperative forms. This talk will consider how we might interpret these shifting dynamics in fresh food production from a critical and pragmatic perspective, and discuss what they might tell us about building a more sustainable food system for the future.