Small is Unsustainable?

Alternative Food Movement in the Low Countries, 1969-1990




Food, Environment, Sustainability, Eco-label, Small-scale, Netherlands, Belgium, Low Countries, Organic food


This article analyses how the alternative food movement in the Low Countries successfully promoted the ideal of small-scale production and consumption since the 1970s. This history highlights an interpretation of sustainability which addressed global problems by a return to the local. Operating on a small scale enabled the alternative food movement to bridge the gap between social and environmental concerns. Although alternative food remained marginal within the quickly expanding agricultural sector of both Belgium and the Netherlands, the movement enlarged its reach through eco-labels and cooperation with large retail chains. As a result, small-scale practices could not be maintained. In the Netherlands, the alternative food movement subsequently emphasised the environment, whereas the social dimension was more pronounced in Belgium. Small-scale production and consumption became firmly entrenched as ideals, but, in practice, the balance between social, environmental, and economic concerns that activists had hoped for, moved out of reach.

Dit artikel analyseert hoe de alternatieve voedselbeweging in de Lage Landen succesvol het ideaal van kleinschalige productie en consumptie op de kaart zette sinds de jaren zeventig van de vorige eeuw. Het artikel gaat dieper in op een variant van duurzaamheid waarin mondiale problemen werden geadresseerd door een terugkeer naar het lokale. Kleinschaligheid bood de alternatieve voedselbeweging een kans om ecologische en sociale bekommernissen te verbinden. Hoewel alternatieve voeding marginaal bleef in de snel intensiverende landbouwsector in België en Nederland, vergrootte de alternatieve voedselbeweging haar bereik door middel van eco-keurmerken en samenwerkingen met grote winkelketens. Hierdoor kwam kleinschaligheid echter onder druk te staan. Terwijl de beweging in Nederland het milieu vooropstelde, lag in België meer nadruk op het sociale belang van lokale productie. Hoewel kleinschaligheid als ideaal stevig verankerd bleef, raakte de verhoopte balans tussen aandacht voor het milieu, sociale verhoudingen en economische belangen in de praktijk buiten bereik.


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Author Biographies

Peter van Dam, University of Amsterdam

Peter van Dam is a Senior Lecturer in Dutch History at the University of Amsterdam and coordinates the research group ‘Environment & Society: Contestation & Governance’. His current research focuses on the impact of civil society on the development of consumer society and sustainable consumption. Key publications include Wereldverbeteraars: een geschiedenis van fair trade (Amsterdam University Press 2018) and Staat van verzuiling: over een Nederlandse mythe (Wereldbibliotheek 2012). E-mail:

Amber Striekwold, Utrecht University

Amber Striekwold currently works as a PhD-student at Utrecht University on the project ‘Food as a Tool for Social Change: How Ideas and Practices on Natural Food and Farming Entered the Mainstream in the Netherlands (1970-2020)’. This project brings together her main research interests: environmental, food, and agricultural history through the lens of practices. From 2020 until 2022, she was a teaching assistant at the research group Modernity and Society at KU Leuven. In 2020, Amber graduated cum laude from the RMA History at Utrecht University. She wrote her RMA-thesis on the political ideas of the Dutch alternative food movement of the 1970s. E-mail:




How to Cite

van Dam, P., & Striekwold, A. (2022). Small is Unsustainable? Alternative Food Movement in the Low Countries, 1969-1990. BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review, 137(4), 137–160.