A Summary of the Evolution of Food Research and Policy Agendas

The Diversity of Food Research Symposium was held yesterday, Wednesday the 4th of February 2015. To begin the day we heard a keynote speech given by Professor Erik Millstone of SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit), University of Sussex.

Professor Millstone gave an overview of the Evolution of Food Research and Policy Agendas during the past 60 years.

Following the keynote speech there was a high demand for the presentation to be made available to the audience. Selected extracts from Erik’s presentation notes are given below.

More information about Professor Erik Millstone’s research can be found here.

The Evolution of Food Research and Policy Agendas

Research orthodoxy has long been dominated by single disciplinary and reductionist perspectives, in both the natural and social sciences. Scholars and public officials have tried/pretended to remain within silos and tunnel-vision.

Public policy perspectives have been dominated by ‘productionist’ and ‘technocratic’ paradigms combined with individual framings of consumers and their responsibilities and choices.

In contrast, not a single topic, abstract or presentation included in today’s programme is ‘orthodox’ in that sense.  All contributors are participating in a splendidly sophisticated new wave of scholarly research, which starts with problems in the world and draws on the concepts and methods of a diverse range of disciplines and approaches to illuminate the relevant phenomena and their interactions. ‘Edible maps’ are not the traditional products of cartography.
Agricultural Production

Agriculture production has long been a focus for both policy and research, especially in the post-WWII context in which scarcity was initially frequently real and problematic.  Focus of ag R&D was on ‘yield’ in terms of eg Kgs/hectar or ‘conversion efficiency’ qua output/input eg feed into weight gain or milk yields, or more generally ‘return on capital’.  Public policies in the industrialised countries focussed on subsidies for agriculture in all industrialised countries, to increase and stabilise, supplies and prices eg EC/EU CAP and US Farm Bills.

But those policies generated surpluses, and redefined/inverted the policy challenges. Key policy responses included using public resources to buy and hold surplus production as ‘buffer stocks’, but in the 1990s (eg 1992 McSharry reforms to the CAP) the policy extended to off-loading surpluses to the food processing industry at considerable subsidised discounts, which lead the growth of the junk food industry and the resultant pathologies.

Large food processors and retailers have built vast corporations by buying cheap, plentiful and nutritious ingredients, and turning them into scare, expensive and nutritionally impoverished/hazardous and heavily advertised products.  Most scholars and policy-makers have been ignored or neglected the growth and concentration of power in processors (eg Coca Cola, General Foods, Nestle etc), retailers and global commodity traders (A,B,C & D)   Those corporations either escaped regulation entirely (eg food flavourings) or captured regulators cf MAFF, US FDA, and DG Internal Market; in part via capturing the ‘expert scientific’ advisory bodies.

But there have been, and remain, important debates about the future of food, given that the unsustainability of the prevailing regime is hard to avoid. There are fascinating arguments, within policy, research and commercial circles about how far change will be required, and which kinds of changes. One contemporary orthodoxy is coagulating around the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’, but its meaning is contested.

Nutrition Research

Nutrition research has predominantly been reductionist, in the sense of focussing on single ‘nutrients’ and estimates of minimum or maximum required intakes; seeking to estimate either ‘too little’ or ‘too much’.  eg minimum Vit C required to prevent scurvy. The maximalist tactic emerged in studies on the nutritional requirements to maximise performance of eg athletes, race horses or dairy-cow milk-yields. With very poor research studies and homeopathic data sets.

From the early-1960s to the late 1970s US food safety policy was far more precautionary than that in the UK or Europe, eg amaranth, cyclamates, and saccharin, but once Reagan came into power the USA became progressively less precautionary (except in relation to supposed ‘security’ threats eg Iraqi WMD) while the consequences of the BSE saga/crises were that policy in the EU has become slightly more precautionary than was previously the case eg in relation to GM.- and most certainly much more subject to scrutiny, and deservedly so.

The policy debates about ‘nutritional public health’ and obesity have been intense since the early years of this century in the UK and EU, but also in the USA and elsewhere. A fascinating feature of responses has been the slow responses of national governments, but the far more pro-active policies of local governments.  As Olivier de Schutter recently pointed out, it is far harder for large corporations to lobby and influence local policy-makers than national or international ones.

Until 10 years ago, there were very few ‘local food policies’, now they are proliferating and increasingly influential; and correspondingly a fascinating topic for policy-relevant research.

Food Safety Policy

‘Safety’ as a policy issue was almost universally delegated to ostensibly ‘scientific bodies’ eg CoT, FACC, FAC, ACP, ACNFP, SCF, JECFA, JMPR, FSA & EFSA.  (Though the FSA is resolutely hybrid, while pretending to be purely ‘scientific’.)  In their early days they were all secretive and accepted and worked with unpublished studies (purporting themselves to deliver ‘peer review’).  They also included individuals with undeclared conflicts of interest.

Their dominant focus started with microbiological risks and imported products, and then only slowly and reluctantly widened to deal with toxicological considerations.  Expert bodies invoke pseudo-scientific thresholds.

There are fascinating and complex struggles under way over the existence, functioning and future of eg the UK FSA and EFSA, and they deserve careful study.
Hot issues today remain in part toxicological, but have extended to eg:
⦁    Nutritional public health
⦁    GM crops, foods and livestock
⦁    Nano-technological products and processes
⦁    Synthetic biology, and especially
⦁    Ecological Public Health
⦁    The Politics of Food Policy.

Malthusian, Citizen and Contemporary Paradigms

Despite the wave of criticisms of ‘productionism’ and Neo-Malthusianism (even within some CGIAR centres and the World Bank and UN FAO), and repeated refutations, those narratives remain extraordinarily resilient and prevalent in incumbent authorities and orthodox commentators.

In recent years, while policies have shifted at glacial rates, scholarship has developed rapidly and promisingly, especially in the UK and EU.  Firstly, there has been increasing contestation of single-disciplinary and reductionist perspectives in both scholarship and policy.

Research has become increasingly multi-disciplinary and problem focussed.  There has been a widespread recognition amongst (mainly social science) scholars that people do not eat ‘nutrients’ but ‘foods’ and ‘diets’, and so efforts have been directly towards understanding the factors influencing changing patterns of food consumption.

Other scholars have come to recognise that people should not be conceptualised simply as ‘consumers’ but rather/also as ‘citizens’, and study active citizenship.

Another key set of issues relate to the environmental and socio-cultural impacts of the evolution of food chains.  Issues of the carbon footprint of (all or parts of) the food system are very important, as if the relationship between food and water use.

More generally, I believe that Tim Lang and Geof Rayner are right to emphasise that the policy and research agendas should have moved on and should now be focusing on Ecological Public Health: Reshaping the Conditions for Good Health 2012, and ‘sustainable consumption’ which couples together the perspectives of production and consumption.

So, we are participants in an important wave of scholarly research, which starts with problems in the world and draws on the concepts and methods of a diverse range of disciplines and approaches to illuminate the relevant phenomena and their interactions.

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