Alternative Food Networks and Rural Development Initiatives in China: Characterization, Contestations and Interactions
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Agrifood studies have examined the alternativeness, embeddedness and ‘transformative potential’ of various alternative food networks (AFNs) in developed market economies from sociological and geographical perspectives. Meanwhile, rural development studies have identified the critical roles of AFNs in the emergence of a new rural development paradigm. However, a puzzle that remains to be solved is to determine to what extent the alternative values and practices of AFNs will be transferred to developing nations where the sociopolitical context is rapidly changing and to determine how AFNs coevolve with rural development initiatives. To solve this puzzle, this dissertation probes into AFNs in China to examine their complicated relationship with grassroots rural development initiatives. Data for this analysis were collected from in-depth interviews with key stakeholders in various AFNs; visits to ecological farms and food companies; information obtained from attending organic expos, workshops, and academic conferences; observations of online blog posts and discussions; and secondary sources including news reports and media coverage. The dissertation employs two main analytical approaches—case studies and discourse analysis—to synthesize and interrogate the qualitative data. The key findings of the study are as follows. First, the alternativeness of AFNs in China is uneven and varies among different elements of alternativeness. The state is a key player in tempering the contested nature of AFNs. Second, the New Rural Reconstruction Movement as a critical grassroots rural development initiative not only adopts AFNs as critical tools for promoting its rural development agenda but also functions as a hub for the convergence of various alternative food initiatives in China. The dissertation concludes that the relationship between alternative food and rural development initiatives can be reciprocal, although the synergies between them face various challenges in the specific socio-political context of China. This study contributes to the literature by unveiling a set of AFNs that are introduced by, and co-evolved with, rural development initiatives. It bridges the discussion on the convergence of AFNs and the scholarship of rural development paradigms.