Reimagining our food

We can still remodel the food system to provide us what we really need, writes Sean Connelly.

Sean Connelly
Sean Connelly
Earlier this year, the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ released Our Land 2021, the state of the environment report with a focus on land use. It highlighted the pressure that the loss of highly productive agricultural land to housing and increased intensification of agriculture is placing on our environment.

With rapid urban expansion around our cities (e.g., Pukekohe in Auckland or the Taieri in Dunedin), the conversion of highly productive land to housing has increased by 54% between 2002 and 2019, a loss of more than 25,000 rugby fields.

At the same time, agriculture has intensified, with more livestock, fertilisers and irrigation being used to increase productivity on a smaller land base. The push for increased productivity and intensification of agriculture has come at the cost of degraded rivers and soils and increases in carbon emissions.

Our food and agriculture system is facing a crisis on multiple fronts. The question is, what do we do about it? The challenge of building a food system that operates within environmental limits and provides healthy and nutritious food for us all can be daunting at a local, national and global scale. But it helps to explore our options and to generate scenarios of future possibilities to guide the decisions we make in the present.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) have released a report A Long Food Movement: Transforming food systems by 2045 to do just that. In it, they consider the implications if business-as-usual were to continue and also imagine an alternative, where control over the food system is reclaimed by civil society and rebuilt with a different set of objectives.

In their first scenario, technology is central to resolving global food system crises. In response to environmental crises, digitisation and tech-centred agriculture could shift decision-making about what to grow, where to grow it and with what inputs in the most efficient manner to cloud-based algorithms that remove human error from farming. The internet of farming things would provide all the data required, matched up to on-demand global commodity markets that would generate the greatest return for farm investors.

Genetic manipulation, the production of protein in petri dishes and new ultra processed foods would provide solutions to food security, to reducing emissions from agriculture and reducing the risks of increasingly variable environmental conditions. To make these solutions viable, increased centralisation of food systems is required, with greater control in a handful of integrated agrifood-technology-pharmaceutical corporation giants.

This food system of the future would result in greater distancing of people from food, greater distancing of food systems from environment, increased homogenisation and the erasure of people, cultures and environmental differences from food production.

Their alternative scenario for the future places civil society at the centre of solutions to global food system crises, using appropriate technology where appropriate. It is a scenario built on embracing diversity for resilience (diversity in seeds, in practices, in products, in terms of what food is produced, where, by whom and how), food produced in partnership with the environment and that places the right to food at the centre.

These efforts are tied to shifts in ethical consumption based on strengthened relationships between producers and consumers reliant on shorter supply chains and more localised food systems. This scenario would also result in shifts in how decisions about the food system are made, providing space for a diversity of stakeholders and perspectives to emerge at multiple scales, through dedicated food policies, food policy councils and greater opportunities for citizens to engage in food.

The IPES concludes that a future food scenario based on technology will not be able to shift food production into line with environmental constraints and it will increase inequalities, and decrease food security. In contrast, a future more closely associated with civil society has the potential to shift $US4 trillion from the industrial food chain into alternatives, while reducing food-related greenhouse gas emissions and improving livelihoods of food producers. However, it is uncertain and requires lots of time and resources to make that shift happen.

Of course, the future food system will not be so simple and straightforward as choosing between these two scenarios. However, these scenarios do provide useful reference points about where the choices about our food system in the present are leading us.

If we are not happy with the direction we are heading, how might we shift directions? How might we address concerns about the loss of agricultural land, environmental limits and healthy food for all differently? These questions need to be taken into consideration when we think about how we will deliberately transform our food and agriculture system for the future.

- Sean Connelly is a senior lecturer in the University of Otago School of Geography. In this weekly column different writers address issues of sustainability.

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