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Access to 'alternative' food system qualities: a comparative study of internet and non-internet mediated systems of provision


Wills, BD, Access to 'alternative' food system qualities: a comparative study of internet and non-internet mediated systems of provision (2014) [Professional Doctorate]


‘Alternative’ food systems (AFS), understood as assemblages of agri-food related production, exchange and consumption activities, often characterised by increased physically and/or cognitive proximity between producers and consumers, have experienced considerable academic and popular interest in the past decade and a half. Despite continued growth in the number and popularity of AFS manifestations like farmers’ markets, research suggests that these provisioning systems remain the preserve of relatively affluent consumers. Furthermore, the language and practices of alternative food system advocates has tended to create a divide between ‘alternative’ and ‘conventional’ food systems which is not always empirically supported and which has made attempts at improving AFS access equity susceptible to claims that their defining quality attributes are inevitably diluted as they enter the mass market. At the same time, the growing popularity of internet enabled e-commerce has resulted in fundamental changes to many markets, including claims that there is a structural shift by consumer away from mass marketed products towards niche markets, such as those which characterise AFS. This study examines this changing dynamic via a comparison of e-commerce mediated AFS and non e-commerce mediated AFS. The purpose of this comparison being to determine if the application of e-commerce to AFS has resulted in a relative increase in demand from resource constrained consumers and/or a significant change to the quality conventions associated with these systems and which currently mark them as ‘alternative’. This research goal required the development of a novel theoretical model capable of incorporating the language of firm level strategy, as it relates to e-commerce and niche markets, as well as providing a means of discussing AFS quality attributes which does not resort to a bifurcated theory of alternative and conventional food systems. To this end, a theoretical model is advanced within this study which incorporates Michael Porter’s theory of generic strategy, the product lifecycle theory and French conventions theory. The latter being particularly useful as a tool for highlighting differences in production systems based upon different consumer and producer quality conventions. Empirical data for this study was gathered using both qualitative and quantitative methods. Qualitative data was gathered via in-depth interviews with AFS business actors within both e-commerce and non e-commerce mediated AFS in Melbourne, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Quantitative data was gathered via a survey of 375 consumers who regularly acquired food through either the e-commerce mediated or non e-commerce mediated AFS studied in Melbourne and Vancouver. Results from this study show that the application of e-commerce to AFS is indeed associated with significant changes in consumer demand for AFS products, including consumer demographics, order size and consumer motivation. The data gathered on consumer motivation is particularly useful in determining how the consumer’s understanding of quality varies between e-commerce mediated and non e-commerce mediated AFS. Together with the interview and case study data gathered from participating AFS firms this study is able to show that the application of e-commerce to AFS is associated with changes in access for resource constrained consumers, but also that these changes have come at the expense of specific quality attributes. These finding are relevant not only to AFS scholars and participants interested in improved access equity and a reduction in simplistic interpretations of AFS, but also to participants in niche markets more generally which rely on the production, exchange and consumption of diverse quality attributes.

Item Details

Item Type:Professional Doctorate
Research Division:Economics
Research Group:Other economics
Research Field:Comparative economic systems
Objective Division:Plant Production and Plant Primary Products
Objective Group:Horticultural crops
Objective Field:Field grown vegetable crops
UTAS Author:Wills, BD (Dr Benjamin Wills)
ID Code:100906
Year Published:2014
Deposited By:Australian Innovation Research Centre
Deposited On:2015-06-03
Last Modified:2015-06-03

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