New Direction. Food Systems Research

14 Sep

I have been on hiatus as I have moved back to college. This blog will now change focus to a broader perspective on food systems research. My thesis in Geography is to design a food systems curriculum and write an introductory course. To get there I will be reviewing much of the food systems research and education happening at universities across the country and world. Follow along as I explore some of the major themes of research. Much of the visioning of alternative food systems is being done by practitioners; people on the ground staring urban farms, building a food hub, ensuring a fair price for food in low income neighborhoods, and demanding fair wages for food system employees. The next step, one that is starting to emerge, is to discover best practices and to imagine new possibilities. Higher Ed can assist in both those tasks.

Before we begin, the question “what is a food system?” must be addressed. I recently found this definition and it couldn’t be stated better. A food system is:

“A dynamic structure consisting of the production, distribution, acquisition, consumption and disposal of food. The food system is manifested through a wide array of spatial, social and economic scales, and therefore implicates all sectors of society and a number of competing interests. Food systems are generally categorized as conventional or alternative.” (1)

Research in conventional food systems has existed for decades: economists have proposed free trade agreements, food scientists have invented High Fructose Corn Syrup, geneticists have created GMO plant strains…you get the idea. But there has been a shift.

Victims of our conventional food system from around the world have been loudly stating that the conventional food system doesn’t work for them or the planet. Scientists, researchers, and the general public are finally catching on. People are demanding more organic food than ever before, signalling a shift in public desires. Indian farmers are organizing against the push for more GMOs.  But in order to create a more equitable, sustainable system we need to know more about how the current system works and how to build a new one.

That large, very broad mission  will include the work of biologists, ecologists, agronomists, economists, psychologists, sociologists, geographers, anthropologists, etc. Food touches on almost every aspect of life. Building an alternative food system will take the expertise of all of these fields. As new research is happening, a new field is emerging, Food Systems.

Researchers look at the production, distribution, acquisitions, consumption, and disposal of food, but more importantly how these take place over various spatial and social scales. Spatial questions could include, if 20% of farms in Minnesota committed to an 80% reduction in fertilizers, by how much would the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico shrink? It takes the agronomists research in alternative fertility management and synthesizes it with river hydrologists and ocean ecologists. Social questions could include, to whom are the benefits of the organic foods movement going? Is race, class, and gender denying access to some people? A third question might be: since large distributors won’t work with small to medium producers, what distribution mechanism can be used to ensure sustainable, mid-sized farms don’t disappear, thus leading to further market consolidation?

To create an alternative food system, much work must be done. New theory must be developed to internalize the costs of pollution caused by the conventional food system. New research must happen in sustainable agriculture production, fair labor standards, and composting systems. New best practices in pest management and cooking must be discovered. Only with the development of new theory, research and practice will a sustainable food system emerge.

The next post will address the major themes of research in Food Systems. I am trying to organize all the research in food systems into framework that is clear and defined. In the mean time here is one example from the Real Food Challenge.

Food Wheel



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