Scientists offer blueprint for sustainable redesign of food systems

A new perspective article published in the journal Nature Sustainability describes 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 endeavors to re-claim what sustainability for food systems means in high and low-income nations,” the authors state.

The authors call for policymakers, researchers and community groups worldwide to rethink their approach to developing new solutions beyond the current “growth paradigm.” They compare the current growth paradigm, which they argue is exploitative of humans and animals, ecologically harmful, dependent on fossil fuels, and controlled by a small number of multi-national corporations, with an alternative paradigm that is based on a post-growth agrifood system.

“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 Dr. Steven McGreevy, an assistant professor of institutional urban sustainability studies at the University of Twente.

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 identify post-growth agrifood system endeavors already in action around the world including:

  • Food production: How 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. For more information on the benefits of agroecology, view the new book by Dr. Stephen Gliessman and colleagues titled, Agroecology: Leading The Transformation To a Just and Sustainable Food System, 4th ed. (CRC Press: Boca Raton, FL, 2022) (see book cover below).
  • Food business and trade: Community-based business models such as cooperatives and benefit corporations can anchor sustainability in businesses and prioritize the health and well-being of the environment and the public.
  • Food culture: Closer relationships with food and the processes which it goes through to reach people 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/sectors of governance—agriculture, public health, land-use planning, education, tourism, etc.—that are often working independently, rather than working together 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 authors of this 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 behavior change.”

To break free of these intellectual constraints, thee authors argue that “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.”

Similarly, an article by McCullum and colleagues (2005) published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association provides dietetics professionals with a three-stage continuum of evidence-based strategies and activities that applies a food systems approach to building food security within communities.

“Stage 1 creates small but significant changes to existing food systems through such strategies as identifying food quality and pricing inequities in low-income neighborhoods and educating consumers regarding both the need and the possibilities for alternative food systems. Stage 2 stabilizes and augments change for food systems in transition by developing social infrastructure through multisector partnerships and networks and fostering participatory decision-making and initial policy development [e.g., serving on food policy councils]. Based on these changes, stage 3 involves advocacy and integrated policy instruments to redesign food systems for sustainability. Data collection, monitoring, and evaluation are key components of all stages of the community food security continuum.”

Source: University of Twente. Scientists offer blueprint for sustainable redesign of food systems. Phys.org. August 9th, 2022. Available at: https://phys.org/news/2022-08-scientists-blueprint-sustainable-redesign-food.html

McGreevy, S.R., Rupprecht, C.D.D., Niles, D. et al. Sustainable agrifood systems for a post-growth world. Nat Sustain (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022-00933-5

McCullum C, Desjardins E, Kraak V, et al. Evidence-based strategies to build community food security. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005;105(2):278-83. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2004.12.015 https://www.jandonline.org/article/S0002-8223(04)01973-X/fulltext



Published by greengrass50

My name is Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RDN. I am a registered dietitian nutritionist with expertise in environmental nutrition, food and nutrition policy, food and nutrition security, food justice, chronic disease prevention, regenerative & organic agriculture, and sustainable healthy dietary patterns. Currently, I serve on the Editorial Review Board and as a Column Editor for the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. I live in Bogota, Colombia with my husband, two teenagers (boy-girl twins), and our dog Honey. My website is: www.sustainablerdn.com. You can follow me on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/cmccullumgomez/

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