Food sovereignty in Barcelona: Using markets to encourage sustainability
By: Matthew Jones
La Boquería, one of Barcelona’s most famous open air markets, screams Spain, or at least Southern Europe (Catalans these days are having a hard time calling themselves Spanish). It’s noisy and a bit chaotic, but teeming with positive energy. Tourists and locals mill about while vendors shout the offers of the day from all corners of the building. Fruits and vegetables are sold alongside fresh seafood, and of course, there’s a bar inside where you can enjoy a cold cerveza or an early afternoon tapa.
Most of us in Europe and the United States don’t live in a place where a market like this could exist. The climate just isn’t right. And after strolling through markets like La Boquería (or any other open air market in Barcelona), it’s easy to feel jealous of Iberians and all the fresh fruits and vegetables they have at their fingertips.
But looks can be deceiving, and the availability of these products is actually not a product of the unique Spanish climate. It’s instead the result of food systems that have become truly global. In Catalonia, it’s estimated that around 70 percent of fresh produce is imported, according to GRAIN, the Barcelona-based food justice think tank. So while the tomatoes you find in La Boquería likely come from somewhere nearby, there’s a chance that almost everything else does not.
The globalization of food systems is typically considered to be a good thing for consumers. It means they can access a variety of fresh produce from around the world at any time of the year. And sometimes it’s a good thing for producers, especially for those who can’t find enough local demand to meet their needs.
But this system really isn’t ‘sustainable’. Food miles—the distance food travels from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed—contribute to carbon emissions, even if we’re not totally sure just yet exactly how. But a whole host of other agricultural practices used today create significant environmental challenges, such as heavy fossil fuel consumption, overuse of soil, uncontrolled nitrate runoff and greenhouse gas emissions.
Many of these problems arise because of our dependence on large-scale agribusiness for most of our food production. And many of the solutions could be found by working to bolster smaller scale and localized agricultural systems. Properly developed small-scale farm operations offer shorter distances to markets, better alignment with seasons, and a reduced dependence on fossil fuels and fertilizers, all of which help reduce emissions and overall environmental impact.
However, the benefits of small-scale local agriculture go even further than environmental. It’s a viable form of rural development, and a better local produce market means increased access to fresh, healthy food for people all around the world.
Yet today’s agricultural market handcuffs small-scale, local farmers. Distribution is usually controlled from the top, and products produced locally and without chemicals tend to be more expensive.
Most efforts to support local agriculture have been focused on increasing production or encouraging consumption, but these do not address the fundamental problem facing this sector of the industry. Instead, for local agriculture to flourish, distribution systems and structures need to be changed or created that help make it easier for consumers to connect with local producers, and for local producers to find buyers for their products.
Barcelona is one of the few cities taking this approach. Using the logic and lived experience of the Food Sovereignty movement, Barcelona has devised one of the first policies that is designed to restructure distribution networks to support local agriculture.
But just because they are the first, it doesn’t mean they will be the last. In 2015, 300-plus cities from around the world, including Barcelona, signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, a non-binding agreement among cities both large and small to begin taking steps towards building new and better food systems. The Milan Pact and the plan in Barcelona reflect some ideals long held by the Food Sovereignty movement, as well as an honest appraisal of the difficulties that lie ahead.
The initial stages of Barcelona’s plan is to essentially get everyone on the same page. Many groups are involved in the movement, both consciously and unconsciously, so the first step has been to determine what’s working, what’s not, what can be expanded upon and what needs to be ditched. For example, agricultural cooperatives that bring producers and consumers into direct contact have been functioning in the city for some time. But many have been doing so unofficially or under the radar, and to help support them, the municipal government is helping them get registered so that they can better market themselves and also take advantage of available incentives.
Efforts are also being made to bolster the presence of farmers’ markets within the city of Barcelona, as well as to create space for local producers in the city’s already existing markets, such as La Boquería. There is also discussion of creating policies requiring public school cafeterias be supplied with local produce. This would be a big win for local producers, but it’s politically challenging, as there are budgetary concerns to keep in mind.
Without even realizing it, the city of Barcelona is playing an active role in creating what have been dubbed “nested markets” by economist Jan Douwe van der Ploeg. These are markets that are created within and alongside the existing dominant market but that are designed to change it. They resemble the traditional market, but they do not depend on it; they “nest” inside it. These markets tend to be less vulnerable to the shocks of the larger market, and they also are more resilient since they are made up of people who are committed to achieving a similar social goal.
Barcelona’s actions are significant because they represent an effort to support local agriculture in the area where it needs the most help: distribution.
Sustainability requires technological innovation, but ultimately behavior change is what will save us. Reducing consumption habits and working to engage in economic relationships that are inclusive and mutually-beneficial are necessary precursors to a world in which sustainability is no longer a dream but instead a reality.
Barcelona’s support of market structures embodying principles essential to a sustainable existence demonstrate an exciting opportunity to transform food systems moving forward. And it shows how movements around the world can use markets and consumer demand as a tool, not an obstacle, for encouraging the behavior changes and responsible consumption habits that will ultimately help us protect the only home we’ve ever known.
About the author: After studying a Master’s degree in International Development, Matthew has been trying to find the best way he can contribute to the some of the many exciting sustainability projects going on around the world. To date, the best he’s been able to do is write about it, paying particular focus to the types of behavior change needed for sustainability and how to encourage them in ourselves and in others. The work presented here is the result of his Master’s thesis research at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals. You can find some of his other work over at The Human Revolution.