Food OtherWise

Food is the source of immense energy and power.

I attended the “Food Otherwise” conference hosted at Wageningen University this weekend, where this power brought together 800 academics, politicians, and farmers to discuss the revolution we need in the food system.

Vandana Shiva spoke about why we need a different food system. Her response was “… because the current one was never meant to be.”  It’s impossible to recount even with a fraction of the eloquence and power with which Shiva tells this story, so it’s better you watch the video yourself!

Her core message was that the relevance of small-scale farming cannot be disputed. Supporting small-scale farmers is not a small scale problem, and it’s not an issue that anyone interested in global food security and the daunting task of feeding 9 billion can ignore. 70% of the world is fed by small holders, using 30% of natural resources, whereas large scale industrial agriculture feeds 30%, using 70% of natural resources. This is one of the reasons FAO has announced 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

Oliver de Schutter was stunningly eloquent and convincing. He echoed Shiva’s point that the food system as developed in the 1960s was developed to boost production at all costs. But as his convincing stats demonstrated, this is simply no longer the end goal. Agricultural production has continued to grow at 2.1% /year since the 60s.

We need to shift from an input intensive system to a knowledge intensive system. He described the cyclical nature of hunger and poverty and 4 types of lock-in that are making the transformation in the food system difficult.

  1. Socio-technical lock-in: the system was developed for the growth of industry, and companies now struggle to deal with sunk costs.
  2. Socio-economic lock-in: the incumbent power yielded by agro-chemical systems.
  3. Socio-cultural lock-in: we are used to a fast food culture, we want convenient calories.
  4. Socio-political: politicians and lobbyists still have the veto power.

What we need is food democracy, at the local, the regional and the global level. At the local level we need to imagine food systems based on something other than the market, focus on the direct relationships we have with land. At the regional level, we need to stop talking about agricultural policies, and start talking about food policies. At the global level we need a global commitment to food security. This starts at the dinner table, he said, with making and eating food together.

We (my book co-author and I) were asked to present as part of Oxfam-Hivos Knowledge programme on some of our insights on using food as a lens to uncover sovereign development wishes and trajectories of small-scale farmers. We are working on a think piece for the programme in which we dig into the paralysis often encountered in development practice in our attempts to give the subaltern a voice (see Spivak), without influencing that voice with our own perspective. We frame this problem at three scales. First, being aware of the limitations of development interventions themselves. In framing the problem in negatives: hunger, war, destitution, we may find solutions to those problems, but we won’t change the system in which they arose. External solutions, by their nature of being outside of the system, can’t provide the knowledge generation necessary for long-term adaptation. Second, when we turn to participatory methods, to include the internal point of view, we may find that it has no voice. Food, as a method I describe below, may help (point 2). However, there is a third level of this paralysis to act. Even in our most well-meaning participatory interventions, we may find that these voices have nothing to say.

We propose that food can be a source of new novel ideas, and using food as a method has multiple advantages:

a)    Food frames problems in the positive

b)   Food is simple and levels the playing field; everyone can talk about food. Food makes the woman the expert, and the expert the fool (thanks F!).

c)    This doesn’t mean it’s not complex; Food enables us to talk about interactions between people, their landscape and ideas. Understanding food cultures tell us a geopolitical and environmental history.

d)   Food is evocative; food is more than just calories that feed us, and more than just ingredient that create a recipe. Everyone has a story, an emotion, associated with food. This is what is behind the sovereign space in which ideas are created.

But once we have arrived at this sovereign space in which new ideas emerge, how do they take root? We draw on Bateson’s concept of an ecology of ideas, and Foucault’s analysis of power dynamics on a genealogy of ideas, to assess how different ideas acquire power. More to come!

It was a beautiful conference, a beautiful meeting of ideas, and I left inspired to make the world better, starting one seed at a time.



3 Responses to Food OtherWise

  1. Ryan Marsh says:

    Love your mind, Jamila! Will be in Dusseldorf, Amsterdam and Zurich last week of March. Maybe we’ll cross paths? -Ryan

    • Jamila Haider says:

      Thanks Ryan! Lovely to hear from you. Unfortunately won’t be on the ‘mainland’ in March. But let me know if you come up North to Stockholm!

  2. Pingback: You are what you EAT: so is our planet | SES-LINK

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