Niches: building alternatives for the transition to sustainability

Niches are the locus of radical innovations. They provide a place for learning processes and a space for social innovation networks (Geels, 2005). Niches are experimental environments where norms and practices deviate from the prevailing regime ones. Regime changes begin when

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practices and norms developed in niches become more widely adopted (Frantzeskaki et al., 2018).

Social organizations, social and urban solidarity economies

With the recent social burst in Chile, social needs and fragilities of the system became evident. It generated an important process of empathy, reflection and national collective awareness about different dimensions of the situation of the country. The national scale massive social movement put pressure on the dominant regime to transform it. Citizenry has expressed itself in constant and crowded protests. It has generated a social reorganization around a deep reflection prospect of Chilean future. It has been articulated around citizen-territorial councils and it has promoted a boom in collective initiatives of various kinds, both formal and informal in the cultural, social and economic realm.

Di Girolamo (2020) highlights that urban orchards and supply cooperatives have increased both in number and in participants, as well as the communities and networks for basic multidisciplinary social support (health, food, economy, etc.). Practices such as barter, collective solidarity savings and common pots have also gained presence. Historical expressions such as mutualism, trade unionism, co-operativism, reciprocity and more contemporary ones such as fair trade, common good and responsible consumption had a diversity of economic manifestations that can be labelled under the name of “Social Solidarity Economy” (SSE) (Letelier et al., 2019). The coronavirus quarantine has increased unemployment and the difficulty of accessing food. As a response, communication and organisation of neighbours have been strengthened in the search of practical solutions. These networks have responded with agility to the critical needs of society and some of them have materialized in disruptive initiatives which are inspired by a fairer and/or more agro-ecological food model. It has generated an alternative economy to the dominant model (Saravia et al., 2018; Cid & Latta, 2015). Social organisations and SSE have shown alternative ways of establishing social relations contrary to the dominant competitive and individualistic view. They have advanced initiatives based on trust and active social participation. In 2015, the social economy sector was made up of some 247,559 formal organisations or companies. This non-market sector was made up of community organisations and private non-profit associations, corporations or foundations. These figures are equivalent to 3.8% of the employment and 3.7% of the Chile’s GDP (Letelier et al., 2019). However, these same authors conclude that a significant gap can be found between the formal criteria for classifying social economy entities and the substantive reality of their operation.

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Rural social organizations, social and rural solidarity economies

At the productive level, there are agro-ecological peasant organizations and cooperatives initiatives, such as the Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS), which are emerging as disruptive initiatives under a sustainable and alternative paradigm to conventional agriculture. All around the country, several larger scale producers of apple trees, blueberries and vineyards have begun a transition based on agro-ecological principles. There are also NGO experiences that show that basing rural development strategies on family farming and peasant knowledge, combined with elements of modern agroecology, not only ensures the maintenance and continued use of valuable agrobiodiversity, but also allows for the diversification of agricultural areas that ensures a variety of ecological services vital to food security (Altieri, 2016).

However, different types of farmers can be found. There are farmers who produce organic food because it is a better business and the farmers who produce organic food to contribute to a sustainable way of life. Between those two extremes, there is a whole universe of farmers who consider both elements to a greater or lesser extent (ODEPA, 2019). In 2019, there were 19 PGS registered at the national level, according to the data from the Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG) collected by the Office of Agricultural Studies and Policies (ODEPA). These organizations have a relevant role in self-certification and represent a little more than 15% of the Chilean organic products consumed in the country (ibid). Law 20.089 creates and regulates the National System of Certification of Organic Agricultural Products. It is established that organic, ecological or biological denominations can only be contained in products that have been certified by either a certifying company registered in the SAG Registry or a member of a formalized social organization system (PGS). In Chile, there are three certifying companies for organic products in the domestic market. The certification is a service that is paid annually and has a fixed base cost close to 2500 USD (ODEPA, 2019). This cost operates as an entry barrier for small-scale production units. It becomes a questionable commercial alternative, especially if it is only focused on agro export due to the volatility of the market (Altieri and Rojas, 1999). However, self-certification plays a relevant role in guaranteeing validation, innovation and differentiation in the market. It also promotes self-management and empowerment of producer organizations around the flow of knowledge and maintenance of agro-ecological and sustainable techniques. Something similar occurs with the SIP AM (Important Systems of the World Agricultural Heritage), SIPAN (Sistemas Importantes del Patrimonio Agricola Nacional) and Manos Campesinas seals. Geographical indications (GIs) or territorial marks are also ways to support endogenous innovation. They are not

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intended to change the food regime, but to protect certain qualities of the territory, culture and particular techniques in the long term (Belmin et al., 2018). Most of these organizations are supported by INDAP (Institute de Desarrollo Agropecuario), a government institution that traditionally promoted conventional productive development, but it has gradually included agro-ecological advice in pilot projects.

The SSE around the management of water resources comprises the rural drinking water committees and cooperatives (RWCs). They have been collectively managing the water supply for their members for over 50 years in an autonomous and non-profit manner. FENAPRU, the National Federation of Rural Drinking Water, represents approximately 1730 committees and rural drinking water cooperatives (FENAPRU, 2016). It participated actively in a multisectoral effort with various state agencies for the development of Law 20,998 on Rural Sanitary Services, a regulatory framework that defines the regulatory action and subsidiary role of the State. This law has among its objectives: 1) strengthening the management capacity of community organizations, 2) protecting the operational territories currently served by RPAs, 3) incorporating the dispersed rural sector, with priority given to areas declared as water scarce, 4) the participation of leaders in a National Advisory Council and in Regional Advisory Councils and 5) incorporating the collection and treatment of wastewater, both in investment and in advisory and assistance. Law 20998 was enacted in 2017 with the participation of RPAs, which gave it relevance and legitimacy (Schuster & Tapia, 2017) for moving towards freshwater governance in the rural sectors. Currently, legal teams are in the last stages of revising the regulations of the Law that “Regulates Rural Sanitary Services” (MOP, 2020).

There are other important and contingent political and regulatory processes that also constitute key opportunities for change. The first is the approval of the National Rural Development Policy in May 2020, which will be in charge of 14 ministries and will have a National Council composed of representatives from the public, private and civil society sectors. The second is the Climate Change Bill, which is under study. However, it has been questioned that in the processing of the project, there is a precarization of the right to citizen participation (Madariaga, 2020).

Niche-regime interaction as spaces for social innovation

There are other interesting disruptive initiatives that are essential for understanding transitions. They are related to the articulation between policy, food regulation and SSE, as well as to the creation of spaces of interaction between niches and regime. One clear example is what happened between the RPAs and the generation of the Rural Health Services Law. Ingram (2015) highlights that these spaces of niche-regime

Socio-technical regimes 147 linkage are diverse and complex. They proceed with a continuous adaptation among different types of actors that open opportunities both for the absorption of disturbances by regime actors to maintain their functions and for developing different kinds of adaptation pathways by the regime. In that sense, policy instruments aims to reformulate regime tensions and generate a pressure for change. They also aim to promote reconfigurations to advance developments on a new desired trajectory (Geels, 2002; Smith et al., 2005; Smith, 2012).

Democratization and politicization of food

A disruptive initiative at the national level of public policy is the pioneering Law 20,606 on “Nutritional Composition of Foods and their Advertising” or “Labelling Law” (MINSAL, 2012). After 10 years of process, it was approved in 2016 as a public policy of structural character to reduce obesity and increase the consumption of healthy foods (FAO & PAHO, 2017). The law enforces a front labelling of food packages with black hexagons like the “stop” sign. That way, it warns about processed food products that are high in calories, saturated fats, sugars and sodium. It also includes a ban on the sale of food around schools and restricts the advertising of unhealthy foods to children. Law No. 20,869 on “Food Advertising” (MINSAL, 2015b) complements the “Law on Labelling” and adds regulations on the advertising of breast milk substitutes.

On the Law of Labelling, Bustos (2019) says: “This was a first step in the democratization of food, where the consumer has clear information to make decisions at the time of purchase, a change that is not easy for the food industry, where they were also invited to make a reformulation of their food towards healthier foods”. According to the CADEM Survey (2018), 64% of Chileans said they looked at food stamps before choosing a product and had changed the products they usually consumed for others with fewer stamps. A total of 58% changed their usual brands, 57% stopped buying a product and 38% modified their children’s homemade school lunches.

It is also important to acknowledge the efforts made by the Law 20,780, which in its Article 42 enacts the increase of the tax on sugar and alcoholic beverages (MINSAL, 2017b; FAO, 2017; Lira, 2019). In the 18 months following the implementation of the tax increase, the purchase of beverages with a high sugar content fell by 23.7% (Taillie et al., 2020). According to Olea (2019), 4.32% is due exclusively to the change in the tax.

However, some experts propose changing it to a specific tax and to increase its rate... “it is very low and still does not compensate for the externalities of consumption, which generates significant costs to the health system that we all finance with our taxes” says the public health

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academic Cuadrado (2020,(.Another experts in Nutrition and Dietetics says, “although the tax increase was low and there is no campaign or incentive to avoid the consumption of sugary drinks, there was a decrease, which is not the result of the tax, but of campaigns that the same companies are carrying out and that have led them to reduce the amount of sugar by themselves and thus avoid the black stamps” (Duran, 2018). Coca Cola admitted that only in Chile, it has reduced 38,000 tons of sugar through a reworking of different recipes. It has also proposed that 50% of its sales become sugar free (or reduced sugar) products (Vercelli, 2019). In June 2019, the third stage of the “Labeling Law” was initiated, integrating small and medium enterprises, which had been given more time to adapt and tighten the limits on calories, saturated fats, sugars and sodium to reach what was recommended by experts. On 26 June 2019, FAO recognized the promoters of this Chilean initiative with the Jacques Diouf Award, noting that “the law represents an example of policy change supported by the mobilization of a wide range of actors such as consumers, science, academia and a vast coalition of members of different political parties” (FAO, 2019).

Public procurement policy for local foods

Public purchase of food from local and ecological producers is recommended at the international level (FAO, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2020). It strengthens territories and family farm economy and promotes healthier food. In Chile, there are experiences scattered throughout the country, such as the sale of organic quinoa from a PGS in Tarapaca to a government concession for the School Food Program (ODEPA, 2019). Along the same lines, in 2017 the School Feeding Programme included an obligation for companies to purchase a minimum quantity (15%) of raw materials at the territorial level (region) from small producers, or a minimum of 10% of inputs from deprived areas of the country. This obligation extends, as of 2020, to all regions of the country, and companies that deliver the service in the Metropolitan Region must compulsorily purchase 50% of their inputs in deprived areas (JUNAEB, 2016). In the context of Covid, this initiatives could also be applied to the State purchases of food to cover food insecurity in vulnerable sectors through the delivery of boxes with food to families (Painel, 2020,(.Although this regulation is incipient and focuses more on the local elements than on the agro-ecological or organic ones, it is an interesting niche-regime articulation to be developed, for example, by progressively extending these requirements to all purchases by public institutions of the State (universities, hospitals, municipalities, armed forces, etc.). It could also encompass a percentage of demand for agro-ecological or organic products, which would encourage transition to more sustainable and healthy production models.

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