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Fragmentary embeddedness: Challenges for alternative food networks in Guangzhou, China

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Alexandra Hughes, Dr Suzanne HocknellORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


Alternative food networks (AFNs) have been viewed as being more deeply embedded in the fabric of places and the social relations of their food systems than conventional food networks, and have been regarded as ‘spaces of hope’ for addressing sustainability challenges associated with global food systems. This paper argues that embeddedness, however, is contingent and shifting rather than an intrinsic quality, and is shaped by the cultures of production, trade, and consumption in particular places. This paper evaluates challenges that emerging AFNs in Guangzhou, China, are confronting relating to their embeddedness in place. The paper is underpinned by research involving interviews and focus groups with key food system actors and stakeholders in Guangzhou, including government officials, organic farmers, retailers, and non-governmental organizations. It demonstrates that AFNs in Guangzhou achieve only ‘fragmentary embeddedness’ in local cultures and systems of production, retail, and consumption. Despite strong social relationships established by a few successful farms and their loyal consumer groups, AFNs more broadly have struggled to embed themselves in the social and cultural fabric of the city and its commercial foodscapes. In terms of territorial embeddedness, the association of AFNs with western values, which do not always translate into Guangzhou’s production and retail systems, can limit their embeddedness and scaling up in this context. The split between ‘new’ farmers (i.e., educated and urban-rooted producers ‘returning to the land’) and common farmers (i.e., local peasants) further exacerbates the difficulty of integrating AFNs in rural communities. Regarding social embeddedness, AFNs struggle to meet local consumer preferences regarding food appearances, quality, and taste, and therefore consumer trust in them is limited. In terms of institutional embeddedness, AFNs lack government policy support, despite the alignment of their missions with national strategies. More efforts are needed to deepen the embeddedness of AFNs in Guangzhou’s food system and cultures if they are to respond effectively to China’s food crisis and wider sustainability issues.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Zhong S, Hughes A, Crang M, Zeng G, Hocknell S

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Rural Studies

Year: 2022

Volume: 95

Pages: 382-390

Print publication date: 01/10/2022

Online publication date: 01/10/2022

Acceptance date: 10/09/2022

Date deposited: 12/09/2022

ISSN (print): 0743-0167

ISSN (electronic): 1873-1392

Publisher: Elsevier


DOI: 10.1016/j.jrurstud.2022.09.008


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