This photo story illustrates the main findings of doctoral research conducted by Sofia Cavalleri, joint PhD candidate at SEI Asia and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.
Primary data were collected from field observations, in-depth and semi-structured interviews with different stakeholders, and a survey questionnaire for urban consumers living in Bangkok.
A community forest is more than just a forest – it is a store, a restaurant, a job, a spiritual centre. A community forest provides ecosystem services, and the variety is so wide that the people in these communities have resources that allow them to diversify for better lives.
Diversifying rural livelihoods also provides better lives for people in urban centres. This is the main takeaway of my three years of PhD research in Thailand, from 2019 to 2022: there is an important link that must be strengthened, the one between urban consumers and rural food producers.
Strengthening this link could open space to develop new practice models, from agripreneurs diversifying their rural livelihoods, to urban food startups cutting the middlemen, to chefs reconnecting cities to the soil through their seasonal menus. Let’s take a step back to unpack this.
My research highlights how regional development plans must encourage circular and sustainable local food systems in megacities like Bangkok to increase access to markets for smallholders and information on food traceability for consumers. One of the key takeaways from the study, illustrated by this photo story, is that we need to redefine the socio-cultural perception of farmers as agricultural entrepreneurs, or “agripreneurs”, so that rural livelihoods become a synonym of a profitable and socially respected lifestyle.
Such a lifestyle could lead our society to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, such a lifestyle could lead rural communities to localize SDGs in their own households.
When was the last time you touched the soil?
Urban consumers based in highly industrialized cities that are growing at a fast pace often live in deep disconnection from the sources of their food. The more this disconnect is normalized as daily routine, the more it will have long-term repercussions on quality of life, human health, the resilience of communities and the preservation of natural ecosystems.
“Somewhere along the way, we became disconnected from our food roots. We became disconnected from the soil, disconnected from the land, disconnected from the cycles of the seasons and moon and stars and disconnected from each other. This disconnection is now visible as a huge and festering wound in our culture, but for the most part, we choose not to look at it.” (Brownlee, 2016)
The infamous wound mentioned by Brownlee now manifests as a more pronounced urban-rural divide, a disconnection between rural food producers and urban consumers (Brownlee, 2016). This disconnect is damaging. Resources are getting increasingly centralized into urban areas: cities can offer nearly anything, as long as consumers have the purchasing power to access it.
On the other hand, farmers, the so-called rural custodians of knowledge, continue to lose their precious traditions and natural assets. Rural resources get eroded for the purpose of accelerating urbanization trends. But this comes with long-term environmental, socio-economic and health costs for both urban and rural communities. Some of these are already visible, while others will be felt by future generations.
The trends emerging from the peer-reviewed scientific literature and from several UN reports are clear: as resources converge into cities, rural areas lose attractiveness due to their lack of employment or educational opportunities. At the same time, cities are losing their agricultural land as this shifts towards commercial, residential and industrial planning.
Learn more about the urban-rural divide
If you are interested in learning more about the urban-rural divide narrative, listen to this Urbanistica Podcast episode in which I unpack it with my supervisors and SEI Research Affiliate Clemens Grünbühel.
In 2020, I found myself “stuck” in a Bangkok that, like the rest of the world, was closing itself into a lockdown that felt never-ending and isolating. This led me and other urban consumers to actively search for connection, a sense of belonging and community.
Part of this search was directly tied to how we eat – food and community go together. How can we localize our otherwise very anonymous, long and complex food systems? How can we get to know the farmers who plant our foods, to reconnect to the source of our daily meals, to the land and the people who grow them?
This quest become so important, and my curiosity grew so much that I decided to translate it into my main PhD research question. I was interested in the bond between urban consumers and rural food producers: how can we ensure such bonds become stronger, in particular during a global pandemic, when our trust in others is diminished?
From the very start of the pandemic in 2020 to May 2022, I conducted fieldwork in Thailand, focusing on consumers living in Bangkok and on different rural communities of food producers mainly based in the surrounding provinces of Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi and Suphanburi. I decided to focus on local sustainable food systems within a 200 km radius from Bangkok. I also interviewed different stakeholders from non-governmental organizations, the public and private sector and academia.
My process of data collection and analysis quickly confirmed that community-based agritourism is emerging in the Bangkok city-region as a strategy to foster this trust between rural producers and urban consumers. Consumers who have been to a rural community at least once in their life have shown to have a more sustainable consumer behaviour when purchasing food, as well as a stronger relationship to and connection with rural areas and farmers.
According to different academic scholars, community-based agritourism is also a counterstrategy to balance the exploitative effects of mass tourism on local rural heritage, proposing a different model of slow, regional, experience-based tourism (Holladay & Powell, 2013; Kontogeorgopoulos, 2005; Lo & Janta, 2020; National Tourism Policy Committee, 2019; Sosa et al., 2021; Sumantra et al., 2017). This kind of tourism respects local biodiversity and helps preserve agricultural landscapes, as well as the specific traditions and sense of place of rural communities (Blapp & Mitas, 2019; Kasimba et al., 2021; Sidali et al., 2011; Whyte, 2013).
Why diversify livelihoods?
Overall, community-based agritourism is a strategy to localize rural livelihood diversification and foster sustainable urban-rural links. This means rural food producers and urban consumers can be reconnected; their relationship can even be strengthened with such strategies.
Rural livelihood diversification has been studied for a long time by scholars focusing on sustainable livelihoods and rural development. The concept refers to non-agricultural practices that provide an alternative source of income to rural households. This ensures community resilience in the face of external unpredictable shocks such as climate change, Covid-19, and financial or political crises.
There are other reasons we need rural livelihood diversification. Overall, it has proven to be a strategy to support regional development, in particular rural development, also improving the quality of life of food producers. The livelihood of smallholder farmers needs to be considered before planning complex food value chains. Rural livelihood diversification can generate additional streams of income for farmers, contributing to the socio-economic development of rural areas. In this way, rural communities can have greater access to markets and more diverse local jobs as agripreneurs.
The benefits do not stop there. Diversifying rural livelihoods can also motivate communities to invest more in preserving their unique tangible and intangible heritage. This means communities can gain additional streams of income from their local assets. Intangible heritage can include local traditions, incorporated into Indigenous recipes, and traditional ecological knowledge passed on from generation to generation and showcased by local guides during, for example, wild food walks in the forest. Speaking of forests, the broad array of natural ecosystem services or the so-called tangible heritage of rural communities, includes all those community forests, natural habitats, landscapes and biodiversity on which rural communities often depend for their livelihoods.
How are livelihoods diversified?
After the pandemic, new alternative sustainable tourism strategies emerged in local communities. Experience-based tourism and community-based agritourism are emerging as crucial strategies to reconnect rural producers with urban consumers, creating more sustainable and localized city-regional food systems.
As represented in the infographic above, examples of community-based agritourism services include:
- local guides leading wild food walks in community forests
- tie-dye workshops with natural ingredients extracted from trees
- cooking workshops with Indigenous ingredients (often part of “gastrotourism” packages)
- “farm-to-fork” experiential tourism (or “slow food”, also part of gastrotourism packages)
- harvesting, planting, foraging and compost workshops in community forests.
A new trend of “farm-driven cuisine” or “menus supporting local biodiversity” developed by environmentally conscious chefs in Bangkok represents a renewed effort to enrich instead of depleting the natural environment. Chefs are taking the active role of food planners and environmental activists to highlight the links between food consumption and environmental biodiversity impact and give more visibility to traditional foods and Indigenous recipes.
“Local foods and Indigenous crops are the main asset in the presentation and preparation of traditional recipes. They become a selling point for eating organic native food in local communities depending on what is in season.”
— Dustin Joseph, Left Hand Roasters
Seasonal menus and diets are the key to reconnect consumers and producers via sustainable local food systems, as explained by several local chefs in Bangkok:
“We look at the seasons and draw the menu from there. Sometimes there are risk factors to be considered, like a storm or a massive pest infection. In that case, restaurants and consumers must be more flexible and talk to the farmers with an open mindset, to lower their unrealistic expectations.”
— Chef Deepanker, HAOMA
“The food industry is becoming increasingly interested in the so-called flavour profile of wild, Indigenous, native ingredients, as these are different and more nutritious compared to what consumers are used to.”
— Chef Tam, Baan Tepa
Sustainable food systems, climate change, environmental resource management, biodiversity and habitat preservation are all rather complex and often interrelated environmental issues. Chefs tend to point out how there is a connection between us and what we eat, often referring to our consumer choices as “emotional food”. Sensitizing urban consumers, educating them on environmental issues, and reshaping purchasing demands to be more conscious can be facilitated by involving farmers and rural communities in a collaborative process of stakeholder engagement, as they are directly taking part in such issues (Stockebrand et al., 2011). Communicating emotional food through food tourism and gastrotourism can simplify and better convey environmental issues for participants.
The recipe to develop rural community-driven brands
Communities can tap into their unique sense of place and belonging. By developing a community-driven brand, the local sense of place and belonging is preserved, while an additional layer of community resilience is created.
What do sustainable community-driven marketing strategies look like? My research has found that they can be developed and designed based on four axes, whose relevance I could validate using existing literature and through my fieldwork in rural settings:
Four sustainable community-driven marketing strategies developed as research recommendations. Examples of them are visually represented in this photo story in different pictures and in the main infographic. Diagram adapted by Cavalleri et al. (2022).
A call to action
We must change how we plan food systems at the regional level. We need to localize sustainable food systems at the city-regional level, with an intersectional collaborative approach. Different stakeholders, from local communities to non-governmental organizations, to private and public organizations, and other local actors, need to be considered as food planners.
In terms of policy recommendations, what is needed is to break the siloed approach of our current market-based food systems and policies, and to move towards an integrated conceptualization of sustainable local food systems, considering urban development, rural development, and public health as interconnected realms. As mentioned by a representative of the Ministry of Health in Thailand:
“By connecting the field of public health and sustainable food systems, we can integrate and promote public health policies that support the use of local Thai food as traditional medicine, increasing the value of our own heritage.”
Learn more about the connection between health and sustainable food systems
Find out more on the connection between health and sustainable food systems in this Audiotocracy podcast episode in which Sofia and eco-dietitian Mary Purdy discuss on the topic “To everybody’s health: Food, equity, sustainability”.
My research highlighted how rural food producers and urban consumers need to reconnect in new, alternative ways. As the picture above perfectly represents, there is a powerful, disruptive, empowering beauty in localizing food sovereignty at the city-regional level. Agripreneurs can play a more active role, becoming a transversal mediator and a bridging stakeholder to reconnect the urban and rural dimensions, as well as the production and consumption stages.
In this way, the visibility and agency shift back to rural areas, decentralizing the development discourse which is otherwise restricted into normative urban boundaries. If we want to reframe the sustainable rural development narrative in a more empowering way, we can start by repositioning agripreneurs in their local food systems with a renewed sense of agency, influence and power.
I sincerely thank all the research respondents. I also thank my PhD supervisors, Dr. Puntita Tanwattana and Dr. Clemens Grünbühel, and PhD committee members, Dr. Bart Lambregts, Dr. Leonie Pearson, Dr. Suthirat Kittipongvises and Dr. Narumon Arunotai.
I am grateful for getting the chance to interview some very inspiring people who are fighting at the forefront of the food planning arena in Bangkok: rural agripreneurs, local chefs and urban food start-ups. Among those, a huge thank you to the bright minds behind Baan Tepa, Haoma, Left Hand Roasters, Yodtarn, and Chef for Change. A special shoutout to Happy Grocers for their vision and mission, which continues to motivate me daily.
This photo story is an output of the SEI mentoring journey of SEI Research Associate Sofia Cavalleri and SEI Communications Officer Anneli Sundin.
This photo story was supported, inspired and informed by the insightful conversations and debates which took place during the SIANI annual meetings in 2022. SIANI is the Swedish International Agriculture Network Initiative.
Copyright for all pictures (apart from the infographics): Samuel Castan.
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Brownlee, M. (2016). The local food revolution: How humanity will feed itself in uncertain times. North Atlantic Books.
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Stockebrand, N., Sidali, K. L., & Spiller, A. (2011). Perspectives of emotional food communication for farm operators. In K. L. Sidali, A. Spiller, & B. Schulze (Eds.), Food, Agri-Culture and Tourism (pp. 25–40). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-11361-1_2
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