Universiteit Leiden

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VVI Research Meetings 2023-2024

Land for Food: Property contests in capitalist heartlands

Wednesday 31 January 2024
Kamerlingh Onnes Building
Steenschuur 25
2311 ES Leiden

In wealthy countries, the radical potential of alternative food movements have yielded only modest interventions. I argue this is because models for alternative food are dominated by a focus on the technical merits of new land uses without considering the property regimes that drive the character of the food system. While much needed policy proposals indicate the need for radical new land use and consumption change, land tenure or land governance is scarcely on the political or activist agenda.

Underwriting such debates are implicit assumptions about the nature of land relations. Such “land imaginaries” refer to the various ideas and societal understandings of what land is, and what it can or should do in society. In this light, conflicts over the character of farming are more saliently understood as new disturbances to deeply entrenched patterns of land ownership and asset control—Disturbances that are only more likely as the ecological impacts of productivism are increasingly apparent.

This presentation showcases the need for property reform for sustainable food, evidence of its contestation, and entry points into future action in places where where narrow visions of property appear as self-evident truths within legal, institutional and cultural norms. I first offer a theoretical grounding that makes strange the concept of property, demonstrating an inherent tension between strong property entitlements and food system transformation. Here, I liken the assumed naturalness of property as a hegemonic force, one that routinely manifests broad consent to a set of rules that benefits the minority of land owning peoples. Property is a strange form of hegemony, because its power is doubly vested in its embodied acceptance of its common sense as well as the coercive force that is ready to pounce on any challenge to its rule. While property is strongly guided by mythos, narrative and norms, land is stubbornly material. This means that even powerful designs for how to discipline a flow of benefits through property often run aground amidst thorny spatial contexts, creating a space for alternative politics to emerge.

Having offered a narrative of how what property is and how it gets made, I turn to a set of institutional, legal, and cultural domains that demonstrate the capacity to make property anew. These domains match the lessons learned through emerging cases of actors practicing new culture, legal innovations, and mobilizing discourses to reshape land relations in order to produce a more sustainable food system.

About Adam Calo

Adam Calo is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Governance and Politics at Radboud University. His research focuses on how our relations to land shape the potential for food system transformation. He received his PhD from the department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, where he studied how problems of land access in California frustrated beginning farmer aspirations. He writes about these themes in his academic blog Land Food Nexus and talks about it in the podcast Landscapes.

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