Teaching and Learning Food Systems

By Wayne Roberts

Earth Day has long been a day to celebrate joy in our relations with the earth, aearhdaynd renew commitments to do our personal best to respect the Earth’s needs and act on our ability to protect the planet.

In that vein, I want to introduce you to an article on researching food system agendas; it just came out in the April edition of a journal called Food Security. I think it’s game-changing for professional practitioners, citizen activists and young people looking for a career path in the food sector, as well as the target audience of academic researchers.

secuirityMy comments below aren’t a substitute for reading the article, which is an easy read. I

hope to just point you to some easy ways to organize your thoughts as you read it. In a tight spot, you may get away with using my points to bluff your way through a cocktail conversation without anyone being the wiser about you not having read it.


Point 1: I was shocked to see that all authors of the paper were “hard” scientists. Yet the article repeatedly emphasized the need to combine natural science insights into food with insights from the social and political sciences, as well as philosophy and humanities.

Acceptance of interdisciplinary thinking has come a long way — not yet in the upper levels of the civil service and professions, but certainly among the people teaching the next generation of civil servants and professionals.

Don’t underestimate the practical significance of this.

A keystone of the industrial agriculture system that needs to be phased out is that it rested entirely on hard science, often the kinds of science that had been hardened doing war research during World War 11, and looked down on any point of view that came from the great unwashed “softies” who were influenced by the humanities, philosophy or social sciences.

To have a respected group of hard scientists welcome diverse perspectives on food is momentous. It puts people and their needs, rather than the needs of equipment capable of domesticating Nature so it can produce more crops, at the forefront of our searching for improved ways.

In my view, anything that moves us toward people-centered food policy (a term I learned from Toronto geographers Michael Chrobik and Luke Craven), and away from the paradigm of increasing yields by overpowering natural systems, is almost inherently a good thing, because tools are cast and judged as means to an end, not a self-justifying end in themselves. Since that’s so important to our thought processes about food and environment, I’ve put it first in my summary of the themes in this article.



Point 2: Horton and his colleagues heard a who, as a great poet once wrote. The who is the people of the world. The object of their article is the challenge of global food security, which they call one of the “grand challenges” that humans and other creatures face. They follow academic methods and standards, but the problem they choose to study is a real problem in the real world.

For all the problems that bedevil the uses of the term “food security,” the term is where most conversations about a Big Picture of food start. The authors state their argument in the second paragraph: “we conclude that achieving adequate food production whilst ensuring environmental and economic sustainability and promoting human health and social equity will require changes in all parts of the food system.” In this use, the food in food security embodies multi-functionality: it serves a range of social, economic, health, equity and environmental goals.

I believe this is the proper starting point for any discussion of food policies. Problems in food policies arise mainly because people get fixated on only one goal, most often a goal that is exclusively economic or exclusively about providing calories to end hunger, and forget about helping the whole interactive system work better.


Point 3:The context of new research needs to set its sights on the entire lifecycle of food, not just the supply chain part that preoccupies the business of growing, making and selling food. Humans are a narcissistic species, and we can easily slip into ways of thinking based on the assumption that we are the centre of the universe. The whole narcissism problem in ways of thinking about the world didn’t get solved way back when Galileo figured out mathematically that the earth was not the centre of the solar system.


Food and food cycles are situated within life cycles and these cycles must be understood and respected. Creating food for humans is about interacting with the life process, not just organizing a commodity chain. The human food chain may go from farm to fork, but the life cycle goes from dust to dust, soil to soil. The authors have a good reason for not putting waste at the end of their list — waste is created at every point in the cycle, they argue — but I think the unifying of the cycle needs to “end” with waste because that is where the process of new soil begins.


Point 4: The article argues in favor of an ecosystem view of the food process. I just became aware of the business literature around transformative businesses operating within a ecosystem (I hope my next column will present this idea), and I’m blown away with the ways thinking about a pond as an ecosystem and thinking about and organizing around a set of food transactions as an ecosystem help us to generate balance, win-win relationships, and complex adaptation of our behaviour. This is another creative and expansive way of thinking about food, and gets us away from linear thinking, which is the thought pattern we must break from to do food well.


Point 5: The article reconceives the supply chain as a two-way process. Food may be going from farm to fork, but relationships are going both ways. This is the understanding that Kevin Morgan and Roberta Sonnino, authors of a book on the public plate, brought to our understanding with their term “creative public procurement.” Lori Stahlbrand (my wife) developed the notion of procurement creativity in her study of local and sustainable food purchasing systems established at Canadian and UK universities.

Local and sustainable food purchases only thrive when communication is ongoing all the time, and when chefs and students are helping suppliers figure out what needs to be done, and how it can be done. Again, food initiates a relationship, not just a business transaction. We are partnering and helping each other meet each other’s needs, not conducting a take-it-or-leave-it or one-off contract offer. There has to be continuing feedback and interaction for any complex food system to work, the authors write. Farmers or processors may focus actions on the food, but they have to be also thinking in terms of health outcomes that are relevant further down to food cycle; the health and environmental outcomes cannot emerge if they are just afterthoughts.


Point 6: The article concludes with a plea to think of food in terms of a nexus of water, energy and food. Without water and energy, there is no food.

Governments can organize with water, energy, and food in totally different departments, but when they don’t think of the set of three as a set of one, we get into trouble. That happens at every level, including our temptation to think in terms of food security, when the essence of food security is that there is also energy and water security. They are not separate systems, the authors argue and have to be approached with full awareness that there will be ongoing dependencies and trade-offs between these distinct domains.

I would argue, by way of constructive criticism, that true nexus thinking goes beyond natural resources that go into food production, and must include human uses of food in the creation of culture, health and social cohesion. In people-centered food policy, we need to put people in the picture at all times and ways. One exciting article, by Henk Renting and friends, points us in this direction by posing a food system that incorporates civil networks and food democratization.


Point 7: We use the term “food revolution” too lightly within the food movement (if you think in terms of the nexus, a food revolution isn’t possible as a strictly food thing, for example), and the authors of this article have a better word: step-change. It comes from the hard sciences, and is another case of improving by learning from each other.

A step-change in innovation is required, they argue, meaning change has to be system-wide, and needs to flow at least two-ways. We have to think in entirely different ways, and put relationships, not just commodity movements at the centre of food thinking.

Seven great ways to refresh your thinking on Earth Day, or any day.

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