Is It Time to Design a New Food Paradigm?

To ensure resilient food systems, we don’t need new products – what we need is an entirely new paradigm, argues Alana Mann in her new book, Food in a Changing Climate.

Image by Raphael Rychetsky, via Unsplash

Today’s responsible, ethical eater is bombarded with messages about how our food choices matter. Our diets are nudged, meal by meal, towards personalised nutrition and climate-friendly options like plant-based protein and meat mimics that promise to reduce our carbon footprints.

We think our choices make a difference, and they do. Focussing on personal consumption is worthy for those of us who can afford it, and vital for our health, but risks a reductionism that splits food out from the larger political project of creating equity and resilience in our food systems.

This project is the topic of my new book, Food in a Changing Climate, which aims to shift our gaze away from our plates to focus on what’s really at stake – the democratic governance of global food and agriculture policy and the well-being of food producers and their communities everywhere.

Cries of corporate capture surround the upcoming 2021 UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), which aims “to launch bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs…each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems”. How can this goal be controversial, when ‘bold new actions’ are exactly what we need given the ‘global syndemic’ of obesity, undernutrition and climate change we are currently experiencing?

COVID-19 is anticipated to double the number of people experiencing acute hunger, globally, according to the World Food Programme (2020). Meanwhile the over-production of food via commodity crops and industrial-scale factory farming is contributing not only empty calories for those who can afford them, but up to 37 per cent of GHG emissions.

It is the leadership of the Summit that is raising the ire of civil society groups. The World Economic Forum (WEF) , a global business elite that meets annually in the alpine playground of Davos, will be central to the organisation of the Summit. Further, the Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Summit is Ms Agnes Kalibara, president of Bill Gates’ brainchild, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Founded in 2006 with the objective of doubling agricultural yields and incomes of 30 million small-scale farmer households by 2020, AGRA has, conversely, undermined community resilience by promoting corporate-sponsored crops over climate-resistant and nutritious local varieties like millet, yield of which has fallen 24 per cent across 13 countries. Under the leadership of AGRA and the WEF, the Summit is viewed as an attempt to strengthen corporate control over the global food economy while undermining hard-won democratic spaces like that introduced to the reformed UN World Committee for Food Security, the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM).

The CSM was created in 2010 to provide an autonomous, open and inclusive space for the voice and participation of those previously marginalised in food policy including agricultural and food workers, indigenous and landless people, youth, small-scale farmers, fisherfolk, women, and the rural and urban poor.

Contrary to the CSM agenda, the Summit threatens to ‘dismantle democracy’ by following “a trajectory in which efforts to govern global food systems in the public interest has been subverted to maintain colonial and corporate forms of control”. The ideological schism between these two camps is a battle between paradigms – one centred on agri-business and technology-led solutions achieved through ‘multistakeholderism’, and another focused on transformative change driven by civil society actors and based on principles of diversity, agroecology, and human rights.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES Food), with the ETC Group, call the second approach the Long Food Movement. The Long Food Movement has roots in the alter-globalisation movement and beyond, to the rural social movements that make up La Via Campesina, ‘the peasant way’. This global network of small-scale farmers, which converged in 1993 in opposition to the neo-liberal free trade agenda promised by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), has only become more relevant as the trade regime falls into first stagnation and then disarray with Brexit, the decline of the US, and the rise of China.

Agroecology, a central principle of Via’s campaign for food sovereignty, offers an alternative value system to the industrial model of agriculture. It draws on traditional local and indigenous knowledges as well as science to promote diverse scale and site appropriate ecological processes that enable ecosystems to self-regulate, improving soil health and biodiversity. Most vitally it is a political strategy and praxis of change that considers growers and eaters as co-producers, and confronts exclusions based on race, gender, and ethnicity in food systems.

The potential of agroecological practices in addressing both sustainability and social justice has gained global attention – ironically, in part, through the engagement of its practitioners through the CSM. For these advocates the ‘cherry-picking’ of the ecologically sustainable and regenerative elements of agroecology by Big Ag ‘while denying political realities’ raises concerns of co-optation.

The Agroecological Research Collective is calling for academics to disengage from the forthcoming Summit on the basis that a hostile takeover by corporate actors will lead to the normalisation of a ’watered-down’ agroecology which excludes its political, social and participatory elements. This depoliticised hybrid – Junk Agroecology – aims to “ensure big business can continue profiting, without fundamentally transforming either the unjust socio-economic, political and ecological relations on which the agrifood system is based, or the exclusionary and short-sighted ideology that legitimises it”.

The implications of these global machinations are not immediately apparent to the WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic) consumer with privilege and a full pantry. They are frightfully apparent in post-colonial states where export-driven agriculture leaves populations at risk of acute food insecurity.

We can’t shop our way out of this lock-in. So how will we respond? Join us to find out at the launch of Food in a Changing Climate, with a discussion between Alana Mann and Laura Dalrymple, founder of Feather and Bone on May 14, 2021 at 6pm. This event is hosted by Gleebooks in Glebe. This is a free event, with refreshments provided – please register your interest here.

Alana Mann is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), University of Sydney, Australia, and a key researcher in the University’s Sydney Environment Institute. Her research focuses on the communicative dimensions of citizen engagement, participation, and collective action in food systems planning and governance. She is a Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project FoodLab Sydney (2018-2020) with partners including the City of Sydney and FoodLab Detroit, and is collaborating with Macquarie University and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) on the project Growing Food and Density Together: Enabling Sustainable Place-making through Local Foodscapes in the Inner City, funded by Urban Growth NSW.