Truly sustainable agricultural systems require scientific innovation based around new social and economic principles, says Geoff Tansey.

Geoff Tansey

The fundamental reasons why people face food insecurity are not mainly the scientific and technical.

As a Food Ethics Council Food and Fairness inquiry concluded, the problems we face cannot simply be solved from within a food system perspective but are rooted in institutional features of how the world works today. Within existing frameworks, technological innovation alone will not deliver the kind of change needed to achieve a well-fed world, sustainably and equitably.

Which direction?

Food is at the heart of the four key challenges for humans this century:

  • Climate change
  • The continued marginalisation of the poorest
  • Growing competition over resources
  • Continuing high levels of militarization

Meeting these challenges is very much a question of creating a future. Assuming we avoid collapse, there are two main approaches.

One approach assumes we humans have the creative capacity to invent our way out of the problems we have created, through technological innovation under the dominant economic orthodoxy, largely run, managed and controlled by corporate enterprises and in which demand is somehow external to the system. This, essentially, is what the EC’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR) 3rd Foresight report calls the ‘productivity narrative’.

The other approach they call the ‘sufficiency narrative’. This is a world which is built around agro-ecological principles and cyclical mechanisms across the food system, with respect for and building upon biodiversity. This gives the strength and resilience needed to maintain not just food and farming systems but long-term sustainable societies, in which equity and justice are fundamental. 

Unfortunately, as Paul Rogers from the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford argues, the direction we are heading in is a variation of the productivity narrative but one in which the richest 1.5-2Bn  people in the world extend their lives and lifestyles by every means possible. They assume that any unforeseen or adverse consequences will be suffered by the bottom billions and/or that those with power will be able to keep ‘the lid’ on the problems and discontent this generates. I think this approach, which Rogers dubs ‘Liddism’, is likely to lead to collapse of various kinds.

Innovative innovation

When thinking about where research and development (R&D) money should be put, we must think about innovation much more imaginatively, and more broadly, than it being primarily about science and technology. We require innovation across a wide range of legal, social, cultural, economic, as well as scientific and technological areas. It is the view elaborated in SCAR’s sufficiency narrative and elsewhere that should direct our efforts.

This future is built on a vision of sustainable development that understands Prosperity Without Growth, as Tim Jackson argues in his book and report for the Sustainable Development Commission.

And as Chandran Nair notes in his book Consumptionomics, in the end what the UK, Europe or the US decide to do is far less significant than what China and India do in creating their future. To follow the West’s production and consumption patterns will surely bring collapse and conflict.

Yet in some ways they are in a better position to change. They have considerable rural populations still. If their lives are made better and their productive capacity enhanced, then feeding 9Bn or so will, while not easy, be eminently possible. But it will require both the social and physical sciences to support changes in paradigms and practises.

New ecological transformation

One challenge is to rewrite the rules of technological and scientific innovation around a new economics that is based on ecological principles rather than neoclassical or neo-liberal ones. We also need innovation around business models that are not based on continuous growth and expansion of markets and products.

In Europe, we too need much research on ecological intensification within an ecological economy, rather than so-called sustainable intensification in a neo-liberal, market-based economy. This is the key issue in interpreting the meaning of ‘bioeconomy’, the current EU buzz word, as discussed in What Bio-Economy for Europe?.

 Within the EU there are huge challenges to achieve a common sustainable food policy. Internationally, there are competing interests and a need to support and build upon the recently reformed FAO Committee on Food Security, which now has full participation from civil society.

A real sustainable security agenda, of which food is a part, requires wide ranging R&D that will link sustainable production systems and equitable and sustainable consumption patterns, including:

  • Developing farming systems that move away from the current intensive fossil fuel based farming models
  • Examining the determinants of unsustainable and unhealthy eating patterns, including the use and power of the advertising industry, and restructuring the taxation system and the reward systems of people as consumers, producers and researchers themselves

We also need R&D on reframing the laws, rules, regulations and incentives that currently produce perverse outcomes, including:

  • Rules on the monopoly/exclusionary privilege or ‘intellectual property’  system, as discussed in a book I co-authored, The Future Control of Food
  • The rules and regulations on commodity trading, the financial system and corporations
  • Finding better ways of managing food supplies than the commodity trading system

Yes, this is a daunting, wide-ranging and challenging agenda. But both the UK and the EU, through Horizon 2020, are well-placed placed to support it, if there is the vision and will to do so.

About Geoff Tansey

Geoff Tansey has worked on food, agriculture and development issues for over 35 years. He has degrees in soil science (University of Aberdeen) and the history and social studies of science (University of Sussex). He helped found and edit the journal Food Policy in the mid-1970s, has worked on various agricultural development projects in Turkey, Mongolia, Albania and Kazakhstan. Since the early 1980s, he has been an independent writer, consultant, and occasional broadcaster. In June 2005, he received one of six Joseph Rowntree ‘Visionaries for a Just and Peaceful World’ Awards. He is a member and a director of The Food Ethics Council.

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