Monthly Archives: June 2015

Discussion on Transitions to Sustainability in Food Systems

In the last of the current series of reading discussion groups we discussed the idea of transitions to sustainability within the food system. This was based on reading: Hinrichs, C.C. (2014) Transitions to sustainability: a change in thinking about food systems change?, Agriculture and Human Values, which is available here.

  • We discussed the role of power relationships. The paper is presented as A-political and while acknowledging the existence of politics and power within the food system, it doesn’t directly address this.
  • When making comments about agency, the paper seems to undercut these by taking the role of agency out of the application of the Social Practices Approach.
  • A number of comments made by Hinrichs were discussed as being particularly positive. There was agreement that it is positive to think in terms of horizontalism and consider the wider demographic, as the paper also recommends. Additionally, recognising that those involved in the food systems sector may have something to contribute to the discussions surrounding transitions to sustainability was also seen as useful.
  • However, it was noted that the paper ostensibly takes a negative stance towards the posibility of change and transition in the food system. The paper suggests that we shouldn’t expect change to occur very quickly due to path-dependencies within the food system. Although the discussion considered this to be a negative approach to transitions to sustainability, other examples were identified which supported the arguement that transitions are slow or never reach the landscape-level as described by the Multi-Level Perspective in the paper.
  • For example, the production and consumption of organic food was niche in the post-war years, according to studies using the related framework of Strategic Niche Management. Organic production began as experiments but became much more recognised within the UK food system as a response to monoculture. Despite this increase in awareness over several decades, it hasn’t led to overall change in production practices or consumer choices.
  • We also discussed the concept of transition towns using the local town of Lewes as an example. Here, the local food market has made efforts to counter the idea that it is more expensive to buy local and organic produce by doing price comparisons with supermarkets and holding taste tests. Despite the efforts, these transitions to organic, locally produced foods are remaining within a niche and the only customers or active people within the change are those who are already concerned about the issues. The rest of the community is not making a transition away from buying imported, mass-produced goods in supermarkets, even though they live within a transition town.
  • We also discussed the example where a transition has occurred relatively quickly and without any particular conscious effort to transition. Harvey Ells (University of Brighton and City University, London) has done research which has shown that the increase in shopping in budget supermarkets has resulted in people cooking more and eating less ready-prepared, processed food.
  • We also discussed the concept of transitions to sustainability in relation to emerging markets such as China and countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Adrian Ely (Univeristy of Sussex) described his ongoing research in China which is considering two different approaches to transitions. One approach is reliant on mechanised agriculture, giving modified feed to pigs to make meat production cheaper. The other approach is a grassroots, transitions town style, movement towards organic farming to feed the urban middle-class.
  • We also discussed the role of grassroots action in emerging markets. Typically grassroots action is about contesting models of progress and trying to keep food production the same through local, agro-ecological processes. This form of grassroots action is resisting the enforced new models of the food systems which is moving towards increased processed food and a globalised system. Transitions thinking doesn’t consider different conceptualisations of progress or contestation.
  • Discussions made us question whether we are in fact all part of a slow transition which we can’t recognise now because we are part of it. We discussed whether the concept of transitions to sustainability outlined in the paper could help us to identify if and when a transition is taking place. We agreed that the concept could maybe help us to understand change in thinking about how things have happened in the past, but the concept is less helpful in creating change faster or planning for the future.

Establishing a Food Policy and Governance Special Interest Group

The Brighton and Sussex Universities Food Network is excited to announce that we are establishing an additional special interest group (SIG) on the theme of Food Policy and Governance.

There have been a number of requests from members for a SIG on this theme and the topic of policy and governance has continually come up in discussions about other areas of food systems. Just as there are elements of each of the other five SIGs which are cross-cutting in scope, food policy and governance is a very broad-ranging issue with influence in every area of food-related work, research, and activity.

BSUFN are planning a short workshop to officially launch the Food Policy and Governance SIG. This workshop will consider the role of the food industry and those with a vested interest in influencing food policy and governance decisions. Watch this space for announcements about this workshop.

If you are a member of BSUFN and would like to be part of the Food Policy and Governance SIG, or any of the six SIGs, then please let us know via e-mail. Additionally, if you are interested in giving subject-specific recommendations by being a rep for this SIG then please also contact us by e-mail.

Keeping Bees Busy: Complex Issues and the Global Decline of Bees

This post was shared by Rachael Taylor on 15th June 2015.

The decline in the population of bees, nationally and globally, has been much reported in the media over the past couple of years. Bees are important pollinators, transferring pollen from one plant to another. Due to their role in pollinating plants bees are essential for food production. Therefore, the recent international discourse and the ongoing research being done around the world regarding the decline of bees is relevant to some of the topics of interest to BSUFN and associated members.

There are multiple complicated causes of the decline in bee populations cited by scientific research, bee conservation activists and the media. This post will briefly outline some of the issues which are relevant to some of the discussions being held within BSUFN.

Pesticides and Policy Intervention

Agrochemicals have been widely disucssed in relation to the decline in bees globally. Pesticides are now known to be damaging to the health of numerous bee species, as well as butterflies and other insects which are beneficial for pollination and crop health. In particular, neonicotinoid insecticides have been identified as contributing to the decline in bee population. Some of the agrochemical manufacturers even admit that neonicotinoid insecticides are damaging the health of bee colonies.

Bee with WillowThe loss of bees as pollinators threatens crop production. With research showing the significant impact neonicotinoid insecticides are having on bees, in 2013 the European Union (EU) took steps to limit the decline in bee populations by banning certain pesticides. This is a significant policy intervention to contribute to EU efforts to support the health of bee populations. EU restrictions on pesticide use are among the strictest in the world.

However, this policy raises some practical, financial, and ethical questions within the food system. In 2014, the first year since the ban on neonicotinoids came into force, farmers throughout Europe reported widespread damage to crops caused by pests (for example, as reported in The Guardian here). The ban on pest-killing chemicals meant that crops were destroyed and yields were lower.

So, the questions centre around the relative value of the loss of the global bee population and the value of the crop yields lost to pests. In this context value refers not only to monetary value but also the subjective pratical and moral value of the production of food required for humans to survive and of biodiversity and species conservation.

At a time when the need to increase food production globally is widely recognised, is it more important to secure crop yields by using pesticides to feed the growing population and undernourished? Should society allow the continued use of pesticides in the knowledge that they may eventually result in the extinction of bees? Or should we focus on protecting bees as pollinators to secure long-term sustainability of food production? Would there be more value in developing technologies which do not damage bees but also secure crop yields? In my opinion, it is not possible to answer these questions. Partly because they are subjective questions and every individual will have their own thoughts, and partly because the issues of food production and the decline in bees are vastly more complicated than allowing or banning the use of neonicotinoid insecticides.

Other Problems, Diverse Solutions

Another cause of the decline in bees is a worldwide increase in monoculture, where fields are planted with a single crop, and increase in size of fields, sometimes thousands of hectares of just one crop variety. Monocropping significantly reduces the biodiversity of these fields which in turn significantly restricts the suitable habitat and food sources for bee species.

Some activists call for a widespread adoption of agro-ecological methods to crop production. This would include growing a variety of crop types together, including cereals, vegetables, and fruits. Some also argue for ecological pest management such as using natural predators to eat crop pests rather than the use of chemical pesticides.

Bees and honeycombBees are also prone to diseases and infestation from bee-killing mites. In particular, an Asian mite, Varroa destructor, has been a cause of widespread loss of bee colonies throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas in the past couple of deacdes. This cause of bee decline has been researched and reported more widely in the USA and appears in fewer media reports in the UK, although the histroy of breeding bees to be resistant to the mites began in the UK a century ago.

In the USA there have been efforts to develop genetically modified varieties of bees which are resistant to Varroa destructor. Others argue that the mites will in turn become resistant to the modified bees and suggest that bee species should be left to evolve resistance on thier own. This raises more un-answerable questions on the value of technological advances versus evolution.

There are a number of ways in which science and technology are contributing to the challenges of food production and protecting bees, whether through genetically modified bees, pesticide-tolerant bees, or crops which are resistant to pest without the need for chemical pesticicdes. However, the vast literature on the topic suggests that technology alone will not be sufficient to meet the dual challenge of increasing food production now and sustaining production in the long-term by ensuring bee populations thrive.  There will also need to be a range of shifts in farming practices, well-informed policy interventions, conservation strategies, and civil society action. There need to be multiple, diverse and widespread efforts to sustain food production and bee species in our diverse and ever-changing world.

GM and Golden Rice Discussion

For the fourth in our current series of reading discussion groups we have been discussing genetically modified (GM) crops and Golden Rice. This was based on two sections, pages 267-277, in the chapter titled ‘GM: Feeding people or factory farms’ in Farmageddon:? The True Cost of Cheap Meat, by Lymbery, P. and Oakeshott, I. (2014). There was also a second, alternative reading for this discussion for those who could not access the book: Wield, D., Chataway, J., and Bolo, M. (2010) Issues in the Political Economy of Agricultural Biotechnology, Journal of Agrarian Change. This reading is available here.

This post gives a summary of the points we discussed regarding GM crops.

  • There are myths of technology in the food system which the food industry share to keep themselves in business.
  • The contemporary capitalist system within the global food system is dysfunctional. However, democracy is active within some sectors of the food system, particularly evidenced through the food sovereignty movement.
  • Despite the food industry dominating influence on food policy and governance, civil society movements are having an impact at local, national, and international scales. For example, La Via Campesina have strengths in linking north and south. There is increasingly a consumer demand for organic, or alternative ‘healthier’ options, so the food industry has to respond.
  • However, most GM crops are fed to livestock. When people get weathy they want meat, but they wouldn’t want it as quickly if they weren’t being sold it at low prices by multi-national fast food retailers, for example Mac Donalds. The rapid change in diets with increased economic capacity increases the amount of livestock and therefore demand for GM to feed livestock.
  • Small farmers are producing enough for themselves and selling some in the market, making them a small business. Neo-liberalism is powerful because it pays.
  • Golden Rice – has the addition of betacarotenes to treat Vitamin A deficiency. The chapter in Farmageddon argues: there is a lack of understanding that there are other nutrients needed to absorb Vitamin A so Golden Rice doesn’t necessarily treat Vitamin A deficiency; providing Vitmain A in this source stops people looking for other sources of vitamins and therefore they can become deficient in other nutrients; there is a cheaper option of giving supplements to treat nutrient deficiency. Additionally, Golden Rice has been developed in the wrong variety of rice, not the variety which is most commonly eaten in local diets .
  • GM is private and for profit. The argument about GM is about models of development – pro-GM is about technology and anti-GM is about agro-ecology. An individual’s perspective on agro-food system as a whole determines their views on whether GM crops are appropriate. GM is a means to increase the industrialisation of the food system through monoculture and conforming. There is a sinlge model of the system, of farming, and of food produce.
  • There is an assuption in the private sector that the public sector will do research of the things that small-holder farmers need. GM crops which have benefitted poor societies are those which have reduced pesticide use and therefore costs of agro-chemical. However, pests develop resistance to the crops and eventually farmers experience the negative impacts of needing to use pesticides while also paying for the GM crop. Some GM crop varieities have traits which the farmers want such as those which farmers have been breeding into crops for generations, for example drought tolerance.
  • The food industry is mainly turning good food into rubbish.
  • Not going to get the best foods for people if the main reason you invent or develop them is for profit rather than human and environmental health.
  • There is a problem of GM science being highly secretive making it hard for the public and policy-makers to make a judgement on whether GM crops are appropriate.

NATO and the Challenges of Food Security in the Gulf States (GCC)

Following our discussion this week about the global food-energy-water-environment nexus (see here), this post shares a summary of research by Robert Babak Madadi Howard which he presented at the BSUFN Symposium earlier this year. Bob Howard is a visiting researcher at the University of Brighton.

NATO and the Challenges of Food Security in the Gulf States (GCC)

The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) provide approximately 60% of the essential, cheap to produce (a.k.a. high Energy Return On Invested EROI) oil and a significant portion of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) exports on which modern civilisation and much of NATO depends.

The GCC is increasingly suffering from worsening long term structural food and water security challenges. The New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) has shown the link between food price and Middle East North Africa (MENA) social unrest. At the same time the NATO/OECD countries are responsible for >60% of global food exports. Russia’s relative food and water security compared to the GCC, may either hinder or help NATO, depending on NATO’s level of preparedness.

There may also be significant regional rebalancing, as the more food and water secure countries of Iran and Turkey may take the opportunity to reestablish their historically dominant regional positions. These structural changes may have a potentially far reaching impact on the regional and global balance of power. The extent to which various participants can prepare for these changes may decide the winners and losers in a global rebalancing of economic and military power.

Discussion of Energy Prices for Groundwater Extraction in Agriculture

This week we have been discussing The Effects of Energy Prices on Groundwater Extraction in Agriculture in the High Plains Aquifer by L. Pfeiffer and C_Y.C. Lin (2014) (available here) as part of the BSUFN series of reading discussion groups.

This reading falls under BSUFN’s special interest group (SIG) on the Global Food Nexus which considers the relationships between food, energy, water, and environment gloally.

This is a summary of the points we discussed:

  • Those of us attending the discussion group agreed that the paper makes a lot of assumptions and the research knew what findings it was going to find, so set out a way to obtain these findings. The questions which the paper didn’t ask or address at all are the questions which are most interesting and important.
  • The findings and conclusion of the research were obvious – it is common sense that any business in any sector would change their practices in response to changes in price of the necessary inputs (in this case the cost of energy to pump water for irrigation).
  • The paper didn’t present any recommendation from the findings and didn’t address whether there are particular policy choices which could limit the negative impact and/or increase the positive impact of energy price rises on food production. There was no consideration of formal or informal policy involved in the complex relationships of the food-energy-water-environment nexus, at international, nationa, state, or local scale.
  • The paper clearly states that the recharge of the groundwater aquifer is very low – much less water is being added to the aquifer through infiltration per year than is being extracted from wells for farming, domestic and industrial use. Although stating this clearly the paper doesn’t mention this being unsustainable in the medium- to long-term. As such, the paper overlooks another of the dynamics of producing water-intensive crops such as soya and alfalfa which are used as livestock feed. There is no questioning of the sustainability of the system in relation to water use, only in relation to energy prices.
  • The United States of America (USA) is the biggest grain exporter in the world so a change or reduction in exports could have a significant knock-on effect in other countries. For example, Saudi Arabia is an arid country so cannot produce as much grains as wetter areas. Saudia Arabia are ceasing wheat production and import much of their grains for consumption. Should the USA export less because of shifts in production patterns or reduced production due to energy prices, there could be significant stresses and feedbacks within the global food system.
  • The discussion then address dynamics of the global food system and economy. Very little food roduced actually gets traded, it is mostly consumed locally (except for predominantly dryland countries such as Saudi Arabia). There is a relationship between water extraction and trade which means that in some semi-arid areas it makes financial sense for the farmer to grow water intensive vegetables because of the higher price they will receive for their goods.
  • Conversation then moved away from the content of the paper under discussion to a more global consideration of the food nexus. In particular this included discussion of ways in which smallholder farmers in semi-arid Northern Ghana respond and adapt to reduced availability of water due to drought.
  • In general, those who contributed to the discussion felt that the paper had not gone far enough in considering the effects of energy price rises on groundwater extraction for irrigation. The global food nexus is much more complex and local action taken in Kansas (discussed in the paper) could contribute to an impact on the global food system. The global food nexus includes issues of policy, politics, ecoomics, and society, as well as food-energy-water-environment.