CSA: Emerging Citizen Actions in Response to Mainstream Development

By Fongie

It might be exaggerating to describe Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as a noted school of thought gradually developed over the last decade in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China. However there's no doubt that CSA is an emerging form of citizen action, in response to the mainstream development ideology and fostered by different people and groups under different circumstances in different communities.

A long and winding road

While searching on the internet for the history of CSA in Mainland China, I found documentation of the first occasion when Partnerships for Community Development (PCD) had a learning session on this imported concept with its China partners in 2004. There are different opinions on whether CSA originated in Japan or in Switzerland or in the USA, but the fact it has been able to develop in different countries and is able to touch ground and take root, blossoming and bearing robust fruit, shows clearly there is something about CSA… As the name implies, CSA targets agriculture. In the 1960s and 70s, some urban consumers in Japan, Europe and USA started to liaise with farmers, and they have never looked back since. Most of these people questioned the mainstream culture that emphasises scientific reasoning. They were also critical of the capital-led development model. They told farmers they were willing to develop a relationship of mutual support with them and promised to share their production risks as well as any accrued profits. In this way they developed in a small area a model of economic collaboration with farmers built on local production for local consumption. They also emphasised ecological protection, resource conservation, community spirit and cultural inheritance, as well as building social relationships of common responsibility and shared benefits. This was not only a consumer movement and was not only concerned with the sustainability of ecology and livelihoods. It was a thorough rethinking and reconstruction of our worldview and our value systems.

For a number of years PCD has been exploring the road of CSA hand in hand with our partners in Mainland China. While it is inevitably an uneven path, we have come a long way with green growth and fragrant flowers. In 2004, Mainland China continued to experience rapid growth in its macro-economy. In the meantime, problems of urbanisation and marketisation, polarisation between urban and rural areas and between the rich and the poor, and the three rural issues (issues related to farmers' livelihoods, the development of rural areas and the development of agriculture in China) have all gradually emerged and assume ever more blatant forms. PCD and our partners have been following in the footsteps of overseas CSA forerunners by studying their experience and exploring ways to reflect on and respond to the issues of contemporary society. PCD has been supporting young interns through reflection in action. By combining youthful strength and small-scale initiatives, we have deepened our reflection on and imagination around CSA without losing focus. More and more people have joined in trying out CSA. As the young people finish their internships, one after another, and want to practise what they have learnt, they find there are all sorts of barriers and difficulties. In the meantime, stories of unsafe and adulterated food fill the newspapers and TV. All of a sudden, CSA has become a lifebuoy. All kinds of CSA farms, agricultural fairs and consumer groups formed for collective purchase are sprouting up, all over the place. While there are opportunities there are also risks. The spectrum of practices carried out in the name of CSA has become jumbled. Besides some incessant and quiet initiatives that have been exploring CSA through solid and meticulous work, some large-scale ventures have also sprung up in the name of CSA. CSA has quickly been reduced to a label for safe food and for the romanticised consumption of rural life… What sort of CSA has grown in the soil of China? What are the problems these initiatives and efforts are trying to address? Where will they lead?

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, as urban development has accelerated, the demolition of a village to give way to the construction of a high-speed rail came as a blow and woke up the people of Hong Kong. Both PCD and its partners thought it was time to sum up our experience and reflect on the next steps we should take. What should we do next? In which direction should we go? Our friends from Taiwan started early and have a wealth of experience. A seminar to share our experience of CSA in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China appeared to be a natural step. In October 2012, an exchange and learning platform in Hong Kong was provided by PCD and Kadoorie Farm for CSA practitioners to meet each other.

Touching the ground, taking root

It was decided that "touching the ground, taking root" should be the theme of the seminar. CSA was an imported concept. When it reached Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, it was planted and grown in different soil and in different communities. In the seminar we wanted to go deeper into the context of CSA to find out the orientation and goals of different communities and the different modes of operation. We focused on and studied meticulously the (C) community, (S) urban-rural interaction and (A) subjectivity of nong*, and also themes such as CSA and the local economy. The community is the soil. Different communities have different qualities, cultivated character and possibilities. Has CSA been able to touch ground and grow? Has it been able to forge values, and does it have the vitality to carry on? Urban-rural interaction is like the land that is being tilled. In the flow and process of production and consumption, have the relationships between earth and human beings, between material matter and our inner being, between emotion and reason, between urban and rural areas… have they gained richer and deeper meaning? As for nong (farmer/rural area/agriculture), the experience of Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan has allowed us to reflect on the right of the land to a voice, the subjectivity of nong, etc. When "A" is no longer a passive object, what sort of world do we see? What kind of flowers and fruits will be borne by the "C", the "S" and the "A", which may have different positions in their respective localities? Will these initiatives become the lives and livelihoods for all parties taking part in the interactive process? This has been not only a difficult and tedious process, but also an innovative and insightful aspect of the operation of CSA.

Starting Anew from CSA

A proper name carries weight. Does the translation of the above-mentioned initiatives into the concept of CSA or Community Supported Agriculture cover all the initiatives and goals that are being pursued now? Over the last few years, the practices we borrowed from other countries have assumed new forms and been incorporated into local contexts. Some people are thinking about changing the term "Community Supported Agriculture". This is because the supportive and collaborative relationship between C and A works both ways. It is not true that one side occupies a higher position in moral or economic terms by helping or supporting the other side. What we see is that both sides and actually all parties are doing agriculture together. For this reason, some people suggest that the word "support" should be changed to "common effort", "mutual help", "cooperation", etc. Some people think the word "community" is not clear enough. To them, a community is not only a geographically-based group or an interest-based group. There should also be shared ideas such as life values covering the relationship between human beings and between human beings and nature. Because of this, some people think that "community" (shequ) should be changed to "social group" (shequn). Some think it should be called a "farming-based" community and others think the word "community" could simply be removed. Then again some people think the meaning of nong is richer and should not only be used to refer to farmers, or to that which is being supported. Instead it is the source of nourishment, support and enrichment urban culture receives. For this reason, there were suggestions that the above-mentioned initiatives be referred to as "agriculture-supported community", "urban-rural common good", "lead by the hand", etc. In some cases, the simple exchange between the farm and consumers has long developed into interactive platforms that go beyond business transactions. Some people emphasised that the objective of CSA is to build an alternative relationship of supply and demand as well as an alternative social order which aims to exercise reflection in "everyday life" and bring about changes with actions. This is similar to the revolution in everyday life advocated by Japan's consumer cooperative movement in the 1960s. That is to live one's ideal in everyday life.

* Translator’s note: In Chinese, nong simultaneously means farmer, agriculture and rural.