How Community Supported Agriculture unmakes capitalism: from grassroots action to societal change

Photo of a CSA initiative
Dutch CSA Kansrijk. Photo: Laura van Oers

To achieve a sustainable and fair world for all, large-scale societal transformations are necessary. “That’s something everyone can agree on,” says Giuseppe Feola, Associate Professor of Social Change for Sustainability at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development. “Destructive interaction with the natural environment is now recognized as a characterizing trait of modern capitalist societies, not simply an unfortunate side effect”. 

Unmaking, a concept penned by Feola in 2019, describes processes that deliberately ‘make space’ for alternative ways of living, working and interacting with our environment that do not fit with how our current capitalist society is organized. This could be through directly confronting the system, or by finding ways to work outside of it. “The working hypothesis is that the unmaking of unsustainable practices is necessary to create sustainable, post-capitalist societies,” he explains. 

Group photo of the unmaking team
The UNMAKING team L-R: Jacob Smessaert, Laura van Oers, Guilherme Raj, Leonie Guerrero Lara, Julia Spanier and Giuseppe Feola. Photo: Iline Ceelen

In 2019 Feola won an ERC Starting Grant and NWO Vidi to study the process of unmaking and learn from real-world examples to help understand how it could play a role in the large-scale social changes needed to reach a sustainability society. The UNMAKING project uses grassroots Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives across Europe—initiatives in which farmers and local communities work together, sharing risks and cutting out market exchanges and ensuring access to local, ecologically sustainable healthy food—to study this.  

So how might unmaking help us break free from the modern, capitalist institutions and practices at the core of today’s societies? We asked the five PhD researchers on the project to give us a peek into their research.

Leonie Guerrero Lara – “Building alliances with other movements could help bring about societal change” 

Leonie Guerrero Lara is trying to understand how social movements like CSAs become and function as political actors in the transformation to a society beyond capitalism. How are different identities, beliefs, actions and struggles negotiated within CSA movements and how does this influence their ability to produce political change?  

Photo of CSA distribution centre
Vegetable baskets sorted according to CSA distribution point. Photo: Guilherme Raj

Her research in Italy and Germany highlights the diversity within CSA movements and how this influences their relationship toward capitalist institutions and practices. "Every CSA is different, which materialises in their everyday practices and ways of organising ,” explains Guerrero Lara. For example, some German CSAs explicitly question the capitalist system, while others shy away from experimenting with post-capitalist practices or rhetoric. “These different attitudes and practices make it difficult for the CSA movement as a whole to embrace an explicitly anti-capitalist stance,” she reflects.  

“And while the CSA model offers small-scale farmers a way to survive within a capitalist agrifood system,” she continues, “initiatives struggle within capitalist societies and their structural constraints”. For instance, the CSA model is susceptible to co-optation by big food system players like supermarkets. In Germany, Guerrero Lara has seen the movement take steps to protect itself from this by trademarking the German term for CSA. “Next to this, building alliances with movements such as degrowth, which challenge the inherent flaws of capitalist society, could help CSA movements to flourish and bring about societal change”. 

Laura van Oers – “Sustainability transitions require unlearning practices and beliefs around how we organise our food systems”

“There is increasing government action on phase-out and sustainability, says Laura van Oers. “However, it is also important to look at how we can transform the deeply ingrained ways we think and act”. Van Oers is exploring how unmaking works, and whether and how it makes space for alternatives. “A key concept in this is unlearning: letting go or relaxing the rigidities of previously held assumptions and beliefs”.

Chickens at a CSA in Germany. Photo: Leonie Guerrero Lara

Grassroots initiatives such as CSA are increasingly understood as spaces of possibilities where members learn about and within post-capitalism. “I propose that they also offer opportunities for unlearning,” she explains. Her research has traced the transition from consumer to CSA member and the processes of unlearning that are set in motion. What does membership entail? In what ways are individuals encouraged to challenge and let go of capitalist assumptions about payment schemes, third-party certification, or the relationship between consumer and producer?  

“More than a study of what is unlearned, I am trying to conceptualise how processes of unlearning occur in these spaces,” she says. “Through unlearning we can break free from our emotional, financial, and cultural ties to things that are unsustainable and unfair”. 

Jacob Smessaert – “Undemocratic farming leads to the exploitation of nature”

Capitalism structures organizations in a hierarchical way, putting power in the hands of a few individuals. These undemocratic aspects often lead to individualism and promote the exploitation of nature for profit. Jacob Smessaert’s research is looking at how grassroots agriculture collectives are developing new forms of democracy that resist the destruction of the environment and create more equal and just futures. 

Photo of a CSA
Photo: Laura van Oers

“I use the term democratic praxis to describe different types of collective action that aim to replace capitalist power relations”, he explains. “This praxis not only covers new ways of decision-making and power distribution, but also resistance to ecological destruction.” In his research Smessaert mapped efforts within three farming collectives across Western Europe to build community and collectively deal with disagreements and internal conflict. “I also explored how they include non-human actors, such as soil and animals, in their decision-making processes”. 

He finds the third point especially interesting. “I see many examples of collaborations between humans and non-humans in practice, for example in regenerative farms and holistic forest management. This goes against the idea that society is separate from nature, and that we must choose between protecting nature or exploiting it for profit,” he says. "It also makes us think about the different possibilities of creating new political communities that do not only comprise humans and their interests, but also those of other species and beings”.

Guilherme Raj – “Unbalanced power relations are at the foundation of unsustainable agriculture”

“Like most of my colleagues, I investigate real-life attempts to unmake capitalism in grassroots community-supported agriculture initiatives,” says Guilherme Raj. CSA initiatives provide possibilities for farm owners, employees, and consumer-members to do things differently and negotiate their own, often less hierarchical internal organization and operations. “These micro-politics can help us understand the potential of grassroots action to reconfigure unbalanced power relations at the foundation of unsustainable capitalist agri-food systems—such as unequal decision-making power prescribed to those who work and those who own the land”.  

Photo of a CSA in Italy with flags of agriculture and peasantry movements.
Flags of agriculture and peasantry movements at a CSA farm in Italy. Photo: Guilherme Raj

One of the focal points of Raj’s PhD has been how power influences the way post-capitalist work relations are formed in three CSA initiatives in Portugal. "These initiatives create, or make various ways of working between farm owners, employees and consumer-members”. Examples include participatory mechanisms to collectively negotiate and organise task distribution and creating synergies between members and the farm to enhance the quality of volunteer work.  

Raj has found that as they currently stand, CSAs unmake to only a limited extent the hierarchal, exploitative, and discriminatory ways of working that exist in the capitalist organisation of the farming sector. “Remarkably, the power to decentralise responsibilities and hold members accountable for CSA operations is often centralised on farm owners,” he explains. “The Portuguese CSA initiatives I studied insufficiently problematize this centralisation of decision-making power, which has in turn reinforced hierarchal ties and hindered the empowerment of those who financially support and work on, but not owned the land.” 

Julia Spanier – “Agricultural grassroots action can shape a different kind of countryside”  

Julia Spanier investigates the impact of CSA initiatives on the countryside and city-countryside relations. “Researching CSA initiatives in different rural areas in Germany, I see how they have the potential to stimulate and reinforce changes in the villages in which they are based: changes within, but also beyond the agricultural realm that at times unmake predominant capitalist and conservative institutions,” she explains. “For instance, they sometimes revive non-capitalist convivial practices that used to exist in villages, like shared orchards and non-monetary exchange. Or they fight racism and exclusionary structures in the countryside, such as by struggling against the far-right.”

CSA members organising the vegetable basket distribution. Photo: Guilherme Raj

However, Spanier has found that not all CSAs engage so deeply with their rural surroundings. “They are just one actor attempting to shape rural areas, sometimes at odds with the intentions of other rural dwellers”, she observes. “In one of my case-studies I saw how the creation of a CSA initiative challenged perceptions of how a village is supposed to look. The CSA’s plot of land was considered an embarrassment to the village. It was not neat enough.” For Spanier this is not surprising: “Capitalism has slowly expelled small-scale farming from the life of the average rural dweller and has instead created few, large-scale agricultural businesses and transformed many villages into mere commuter towns or sanitized rural idylls.” And yet, this is where she identifies the disruptive potential of CSAs: “They can disrupt this process and create another kind of rurality”.  

Unmaking for sustainability 

So is capitalism already being unmade by grassroots CSA initiatives, and do they hold the potential to lead societal transformation? For Feola, these collective initiatives are charting new territory by putting into practice and politicising ‘alternative’ ways of organising society that challenge the traditional capitalist system. “While societal change in CSA initiatives is most often tentative, imperfect, and fragile, they concretely show how the relationship between humans and nature can be rearticulated to regenerate as well as sustain human and non-human life on this planet”. 

Further reading

Guerrero Lara, L., van Oers, L., Smessaert, J., Spanier, J., Raj, G., Feola, G., (2023). Degrowth and Agri-Food Systems: A Research Agenda for the Critical Social SciencesSustainability Science.

Feola, G., Koretskaya, O., Moore, D., 2021. (Un)making in sustainability transformation beyond capitalismGlobal Environmental Change 69, 102290.

Feola, G., 2020. Capitalism in sustainability transitions research: Time for a critical turn? Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 35, 241-250.

Feola., G., 2019. Degrowth and the unmaking of capitalism: beyond ‘decolonization of the imaginary’ ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 18(4), 977-997.

Koretskaya, O., Feola, G., 2020. A framework for recognizing diversity beyond capitalism in agri-food systemsJournal of Rural Studies 20, 302-313.

Van Oers, L., Feola, G., Moors, E., Runhaar, H., 2021. The Politics of Deliberate Destabilisation for Sustainability TransitionsEnvironmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 40, 159-171.

Van Oers, L., Feola, G., Runhaar, H., Moors, E., 2023. Unlearning in sustainability transitions: Insight from two Dutch community-supported agriculture farmsEnvironmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 46, 100693.

Raj, G., Feola, G., Hajer, M., Runhaar, H., 2022. Power and empowerment of grassroots innovations for sustainability transitions: A reviewEnvironmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 43, 375-392.

Smessaert, J., Feola, G., (2023). Beyond statism and deliberation: questioning ecological democracy through eco-anarchism and cosmopoliticsEnvironmental Values.

Spanier, J., Feola, G. 2022. Nurturing the post-growth city: bringing the rural back in. In: Savini, F., Ferreria, A., von Schönfeld, K. C. (Eds.) Post-Growth Planning: cities beyond the market economy. Routledge, 159-172.