For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The labor between farm and table: Cultivating an urban political ecology of agrifood for the 21st century"

by Coplen, Amy K (2018)


Abstract The variegated landscape of food production and consumption reveals a great deal about socionatural relations and processes of urbanization and globalization under capitalism. Food production has changed dramatically over time, shifting away (but never fully divorced) from the rural agrarian landscape to spaces that are characterized as industrial and/or urban. Workers transform nature at each stage in the food production process, not only on farms but also in processing plants, grocery stores, restaurants, and other spaces. This paper draws on urban political ecology (UPE) to position labor as central to understanding the socioecological relations embodied in food systems. It puts UPE in conversation with agrarian political economy, a decidedly un-urban body of literature that nevertheless offers critical insight into the obstacles (and opportunities) that nature and labor pose to food systems development in an urbanizing world. Employing UPE's dialectic conception of humans and nature, this paper highlights the role that non-agricultural and urban-based food labor plays in an increasingly complex global political economy of agrifood. Seeing both the ?labor? and ?nature? of food from the farm all the way to the table can reveal the myriad transformations, exchanges, and socioecological relations operating within the food system.

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Moving beyond the classic “agrarian question” and instead grappling with a contemporary “global agrifood system question” enables us to better situate empirical work related to food production and consumption. To this end, I offer three potential directions for future research. First, a fuller engagement with labor along the entire supply chain will generate a better understanding of the role of retail, processing, marketing, distribution, and foodservice sectors in shaping the global agrifood system. Second, a process‐oriented approach toexamining food production can better explicate the connections between the rural–urban and Global North–South and link the experiences of food chain workers to the global political economy. Third, building off of these first two directions, applying a dialectical lens can help conceptualize nature beyond the farm and overcome unproductive dualisms, including humans/nature, rural–urban, and Global North–South. ()


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