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.
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