Proposing a new food utopia

By food utopia, we mean a shared vision of a world without hunger that acknowledges the ethical, cultural, social and environmental aspects of food (its production, processing, exchange and consumption).

by Christopher Rosin and Paul Stock

Since engaging with the issue of global food security in the book, Food Systems Failure (co-edited with Hugh Campbell, Routledge 2012), we have embraced the idea of a food utopia as a positive means to address the failures underlying the 2008 food crisis. By food utopia, we mean a shared vision of a world without hunger that acknowledges the ethical, cultural, social and environmental aspects of food (its production, processing, exchange and consumption). Currently, as a global society, we predominantly refer to a food utopia founded on production. This utopia is deeply rooted in the context of the mid-20th Century in which technological triumphalism and the growing sense of control over nature promised untold benefits to humankind.

Despite the spectres of climate change, expanding land degradation and increasing toxicity of air and water as well as the increasing number of hungry, we are unable to shake the embrace of that utopian vision. As a result of its myopia and arrogance, the food system oriented toward “production-first” also overlooks its inherent stratification of both the beneficiaries and the producers of enough food. In the process, objectives of family and community engagement, independence and caring for the environment—valued by a majority of farmers—are sidelined relative to economic competitiveness and growth. In New Zealand, this is evident in farmers’ contentious response to greenhouse gas mitigation in the agriculture sector—an objective that they associate with reduced production.

As argued in the conclusion to Food Systems Failure, it is imperative that we—as a global society and as local communities—begin to negotiate a new and more relevant food utopia for the 21st century. Utopian theorists have mapped the processes through which our food systems can be re-imagined.  Essential to such plans is the negotiation of a shared vision of what a more equitable and secure food system would ultimately involve—not necessarily as a goal to be achieved, but always as a measuring stick of progress.  In an overly politicised and contentious world, it is more important than ever to identify common ground for cooperation. Food offers an ideal means to achieve this goal.

Utopias remain, of course, more a vision than a reality. History shows that, without concerted action, they can be reduced to palliatives that convince the weak that something is being done. They can also be captured, as we would argue has happened with the utopia of production. Despite such apparent weaknesses, utopias also provide an arena for critical engagement with contemporary social issues. In reaching beyond the ‘real’, a utopia provides a space in which ideal outcomes can be envisioned without the immediate constraints of economic and geopolitical competitiveness.  It can also encourage new perspectives on pathways to approaching cherished ideals and enable the celebration of alternatives that are currently marginalised.

The origins of Food Systems Failure lie in attempts to develop a better understanding of the 2008 food crisis, including the 2009 Otago Foreign Policy School (OFPS). Like many conferences at that time, the focus was on global commodity prices and associated social unrest. The overwhelming sense of the situation was one of shock, especially given the growing complacency with regard to global food security.  This raised questions regarding the potential for advances in food production to be undone by global financial mismanagement and the selfishness of biofuel production. The consensus that emerged during the OFPS was that the crisis was more a continuing process than an event.

Our book offers a two-part explanation of conditions related to the situation in 2008. First, it examines established features of the global food system, including food aid and free trade as well as the implications of business-as-usual for the environment, human rights and nutrition. At this point, utopia is used to explain both an unwavering focus on the quantity of food produced and emerging demands around its quality. Second, five case studies examine points of engagement with the global food system amid challenges of climate change, politicised food policy, trade in international niche markets, bias toward ‘modern’ commodity production, and urbanisation. These studies provide evidence of both the impediments of the global system as well as the resilience and ingenuity operating at its margins. Responding to these contributions, we concluded that the food systems failure did not lie in a lack of viable solutions. We did, however, require the type of transformative change made possible through a new utopia of food.

Rosin Christopher, Stock Paul, Campbell Hugh (ed. by), The Global Food Crisis and the Future of Agriculture, 2012, Routledge. Click here for more information.

 

Christopher Rosin is a Research Fellow and Deputy Directory with the Centre for Sustainability: Agriculture, Food, Energy, Environment (CSAFE) at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Paul Stock is a Lecturer in Sociology and a Post-Doctoral Fellow with the Centre for Sustainability: Agriculture, Food, Energy, Environment (CSAFE) at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

 

Photo: Gusjer/flickr