November 12, 2021, by Lexi Earl
(Re)thinking a different future: sociological perspectives of climate change
It is time to employ some radical thinking on the future of our food systems, write Lexi Earl, Anne Touboulic and Lucy McCarthy
The imperative to rethink our food systems to avoid further long-term damage to our climate has never been more pertinent. Yet much of the thinking on the future of food systems is stagnated in the practices and preferences of the current system. Rather than working from a place of disruption, solutions to food system problems (meat contributions to carbon emissions, animal welfare, exploited workforces, agribusiness dominance, disconnections from local food sources and the like) are presented in a way that replicates those practices already dominant within the system. Rather than re-imagining the food system for equity and ecological harmony, ‘new’ approaches still appear to work within the current system, often relying on technological solutions or minor alterations to problematic processes.
This is not entirely surprising. Who gets to speak, and with what authority is linked to what we can know to be true. Power and knowledge are inextricably connected and interwoven. Solutions to food system concerns tend to be driven by those already powerful, and generally wealthy, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Take, for example, the concept of lab-grown meat. The contributions of cattle to climate change are significant, and one way to therefore reduce our emissions is to reduce our reliance on cattle-as-red-meat. There are numerous ways this might be done, including charging for externalities, shifting to other environmentally sustainable protein sources, regulation around grass-fed beef and regenerative agricultural practices, or developing meat-like alternatives in the laboratory. A government report, published and then deleted in October, suggested making sustainable options more prominent and available within canteens, restaurants, and supermarkets.
Developing meat-like alternatives has gained traction in recent years, as part of a ‘technology will save us’ approach that is well supported within our current food systems paradigm. Lab-grown meat, often funded by venture capitalists from Silicon Valley, is not yet a reality for the ordinary consumer. But the thinking that underpins the idea is illustrative of how solutions are shaped by current power/knowledge structures. Lab-grown meat does not disrupt consumers’ desire to eat red meat, or require them to undertake any deep thinking on their consumption habits and the impact those have on the planet. It does not require a major overhaul of our current agricultural systems to make them more sustainable. Lab-grown meat is, in fact, perhaps a perfect food for a sanitised, disconnected populace, squeamish about where their food comes from.
Lab-grown meat will, one imagines, eventually require a factory of workers to produce and package the ‘meat’, similar to regular meat distribution chains. But that is a way off yet. And those workers voices are currently obscured. We rarely hear from them. What is to say that these power structures will be different for lab meat than cow meat? Who is thinking these things through?
The way we have organised our current food systems is deeply damaging ecologically and to those whose labour is involved at different stages of the food chain. Both human and non-human labour is often left voiceless. For many workers, climate change is a harsh reality already, not a future predicament where there is time to imagine and implement solutions. A striking example is that of sugar cane workers in Nicaragua who are dying of kidney disease due to their inability to protect themselves from heat stress. They cannot adapt and do not have the resources for climate adaption. They may seem very remote but in fact they are simply entangled in a global food system that is primarily set up to serve the Western consumer. Food consumption and production are deeply interconnected and are inequitable, and the climate crisis only highlights the vulnerabilities and inequities that exist across food systems more starkly.
How could we go about disrupting present thinking? We could move away from this apathetic vision of the future of our food systems and stimulate the public imagination, for example through art and literature. We could bring previously marginalised voices to the centre, and give them opportunity to contribute to wider debates. Much of the radical rethinking around food is already happening at a local, grassroots level. Spaces like community gardens, community eating hubs, pay-what-you-can cafes, worker led co-operatives, and redistributed food markets all operate in paradigms different to the corporate, global food system. Perhaps we can learn something from their practices? At the very least in these decisions we can consider questions adapted from Aristotle:
- Where are we going?
- Is this (food system) development desirable?
- What, if anything, should we do about it?
- Who wins and who loses? And by which mechanisms of power?
Foucault, M. (1985). The History of Sexuality: Volume Two. London: Penguin Books.
Foucault, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. In: Rabinow, P., and Rose, N. (2003) The Essential Foucault. New York City: The New Press, pp. 126-144.
Islam, F. (2021) Climate plan urging plant-based diet shift deleted. BBC News 20 October 2021 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-58981505
Touboulic, A., and McCarthy, L. (forthcoming) (Re)-imagining ecologically harmonious food systems beyond technofixes. Revue de l’Organisation Responsable.
McCarthy, L., Touboulic, A., and Glover, J. (2021) Who’s milking it? Scripted stories of food labour. Work, Employment and Society https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0950017021997357
Dr Anne Touboulic and Dr Lucy McCarthy have interdisciplinary backgrounds in the social sciences and their research is inherently boundary-spanning. Their hope and purpose is to foster change through research and activism.
Their work lies at the intersection of socio-ecological transitions, and organisational and critical theory. They are interested in questions and problems related to the governance of societal grand challenges in the global economy and particularly in relation to equitable socio-ecological transitions in food production and consumption networks. Their recent work explores issues of food labour, marginalisation, and power in food supply chains. Methodologically, they are critical and engaged qualitative scholars. They have used various approaches in projects, including multimodal critical discourse analysis, semi-structured and life history interviews, participant observations and participatory methods.
Anne is an Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham (UK) and a member the leadership team of the Future Food Beacon, an interdisciplinary centre for food research, and of EcoSocieties, an interdisciplinary research cluster for creative approaches to ecological transitions and ecological approaches to social issues.
Lucy is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol, School of Management. She is a member of the Food Justice Network, the Sustainable Production, Inclusivity, Consumption and Economy research cluster (SPICE) and ARCIO, the Action Research and Critical Inquiry in Organisations group.
Lexi Earl is the Outreach and Engagement Manager for the Future Food Beacon. She is interested in the ways we tell stories about food, the power relations involved, and how people come to learn about food and foodways. She has written two books and publishes widely on food education in schools.
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