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Scientists offer blueprint for sustainable redesign of food systems

The global food system is Exhibit A in the crisis of growth-addicted development. In a new perspective paper published in Nature Sustainability, a team of 32 food system scholars provide the blueprint for something very different: sustainable post-growth food systems. “If we want a useful discussion around food system sustainability, we have to start looking past the current ‘economic growth paradigm’ and into post-growth food systems”, says UT co-author Dr Steven McGreevy.

The researchers describe food systems designed not by the logic of growth such as efficiency and extraction, but by principles of sufficiency, regeneration, distribution, commons, and care. It argues that food systems can instead be the foundation of healthy communities, ecologies and economies. “For this agenda-setting article, we’ve reviewed the vast experience of diverse farmers, food cooperatives, home gardeners, alternative retailers, and other endeavours to re-claim what sustainability for food systems means in high and low-income nations.”

Growth paradigm

The authors call for policymakers, researchers and community groups worldwide to rethink their approach to developing new solutions beyond the current ‘growth paradigm.’ “We have seen what food systems designed to achieve relentless economic growth and profit maximization do to the environment, farming communities, and our health, and it’s not good,” says McGreevy.

The current system is exploitative of humans and animals, ecologically rapacious, hooked on fossil fuels, and controlled by a small number of multi-national corporations from food to fork, this system produces massive quantities of the wrong foods at incredible social, ecological and economic costs. With food crises again looming on the near horizon, a strategy to tweak and maintain the current growth-driven food system is highly questionable.

Post-growth food system

“Fortunately, there are countless examples from around the world of post-growth agrifood system elements in action. We need to support these models where they exist, and rediscover, transfer, or further develop them where appropriate,” says McGreevy. The authors identified post-growth agrifood system endeavours already in action around the world.

  • Food production

The adoption of agroecological farming and gardening into the current food systems can enhance biodiversity, maintain fertile soils, and improve system resilience to social and ecological shocks.

  • Food business and trade

Community-based business models such as cooperatives and benefit corporations without profit-maximizing motives can anchor sustainability in businesses and prioritize the health and wellbeing of the environment and the public. 

  • Food culture

Closer relationships with food and the processes which it goes through to reach us can create a culture of appreciation in which we value food as a “commons” and the people working in the agrifood system.

  • Food system governance

Food is connected to multiple siloes of governance—agriculture, public health, land planning, education, tourism, etc.—that are often working independently, rather than in an integrative way. Food policy councils (FPCs) are one example of new governance structures that are inclusive and representative of diverse public and private stakeholders and cut across multiple sectors of policy expertise related to food.

New research agenda

According to the study, the conventional wisdom of mainstream sustainability science–including its underlying logic of economic growth—is fixated on narrow solution space: increasing production efficiency, high-tech innovation and individual behaviour change. To break free of these intellectual constraints, the redesign of the global agrifood system should be supported by a coordinated education and a new research agenda that challenges conventional wisdom and focuses on understanding and developing diverse solutions outside of the growth paradigm.

More information

Dr Steven McGreevy is an assistant professor of institutional urban sustainability studies in the Department of Governance and Technology for Sustainability (CSTM; Faculty of BMS). The article, titled Sustainable Agrifood Systems for a Post-Growth World, was recently published in the scientific journal Nature Sustainability and can be read online.

Joint first-authors also include Associate Professor Christoph Rupprecht (Ehime University, Japan), Associate Professor Daniel Niles (Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Japan), and Professor Arnim Wiek (Arizona State University).

DOI: 10.1038/s41893-022-00933-5

FEAST research project

Exploring alternatives to this decidedly Western sustainability narrative is one of the goals of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN), a national research institute located in Kyoto, Japan, and home of the FEAST research project from which this article emerged. Led by McGreevy (also a visiting Associate Professor at RIHN), the author-team was assembled by the FEAST project for the 2021 RIHN International Symposium “Transitioning Cultures of Everyday Food Consumption and Production: Stories from a Post-growth Future”

K.W. Wesselink - Schram MSc (Kees)
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