The Transformation of Trust in China’s Alternative Food Networks: Disruption, Reconstruction and Development

2015, Ecology and Society 20(2): article 19

Food safety issues in China have received much scholarly attention, yet few studies systematically examined this matter through the lens of trust. More importantly, little is known about the transformation of different types of trust in the dynamic process of food production, provision, and consumption. We consider trust as an evolving interdependent relationship between different actors. We used the Beijing County Fair, a prominent ecological farmers’ market in China, as an example to examine the transformation of trust in China’s alternative food networks. We argue that although there has been a disruption of institutional trust among the general public since 2008 when the melamine-tainted milk scandal broke out, reconstruction of individual trust and development of organizational trust have been observed, along with the emergence and increasing popularity of alternative food networks. Based on more than six months of fieldwork on the emerging ecological agriculture sector in 13 provinces across China as well as monitoring of online discussions and posts, we analyze how various social factors—including but not limited to direct and indirect reciprocity, information, endogenous institutions, and altruism—have simultaneously contributed to the transformation of trust in China’s alternative food networks. The findings not only complement current social theories of trust, but also highlight an important yet understudied phenomenon whereby informal social mechanisms have been partially substituting for formal institutions and gradually have been building trust against the backdrop of the food safety crisis in China.

Raymond Yu Wang, Zhenzhong Si, Cho Nam Ng & Steffanie Scott