Food, the Sustainable Development Goals and conflicts

The seven SDG-clusters outlined above all involve intrinsic and urgent conflicts but the overriding conflict is focused on how to solve the challenge of attaining global food security in 2050 when the global population is projected to be 9 billion people while at the same time addressing global environmental challenges. On one side is conventional agriculture along the ‘productionist paradigm’ (Lang and Heasman, 2015, p. 38), the aim of which is high-yielding monocultures with a drive to level out agro-ecosystem heterogeneities with external inputs driven by ‘fewer entrepreneurial fanners mobilizing high levels of technical skills and financial fluxes’ (ibid.). On the other side is the agro-ecolo- gical approach with methodologies and practices that are adapted to the local ecosystem and using agro-biodiversity rich polycultures. This approach is based on the view that agriculture is not only about food production, but also ensuring the delivery of ecosystem services in order to maintain the ecosystem as well as secure viable livelihoods for farmers and rich and diverse landscapes for all stakeholders. Most of the conflicts over food production are related to this overriding tension between the different approaches to agricultural production. However, some conflicts are not directly related to the above issue, such as the cultural context that influences methods for food production and processing and diets. There is a large unresolved and badly overlooked conflict on the ethics and welfare of animals used in food production. Surprisingly, in studies on local and regional food production in sustainable food systems the ethical and animal welfare dimension is also lacking (e.g., Conrad et ah, 2016). A fundamental conflict in terms of food security is related to the unequal distribution of power and participation and access to basic resources for human well-being including land for food production.

What is a sustainable food system?

Is it possible to outline criteria for a sustainable food system?

All the dimensions listed under the seven clusters above would be included on the criteria list, but such a list must also encompass the resolution of the numerous conflicts that are currently connected to the various steps of the food system. The destabilising dimensions of a sustainable food system have been identified by Schipanski et ah, (2016) as: ‘Increased inequity and injustice; Environmental degradation; Exclusive reliance on global distribution networks; Homogenization of energy dense diets.’ In contrast, dimensions that promote the transformation of a food system towards a more resilient/sustainable state are: ‘Increased equity and justice; [Building onj Biodiversity through agro-ecological management; Increased diversity of distribution networks; Increased dietary diversity and reduced waste’ (Schipanski et ah, 2016). The destabilising dimensions are all characteristics of the global food system based on the conventional intensive agriculture paradigm, while the stabilising dimensions fit well with the food systems aspired to in local and sub-regional food strategies. It is noteworthy that in the seven food-related SDG-clusters described above, the governance of the food production is either absent, insufficiently developed or treated at a very general level. However, there are a number of studies that draw attention to local and regional food production that is driven by collective action and the participation of citizens in decisions about land use, organising livelihoods, local food production and cooperation between local (state) government and civil society (Moragues-Faus and Morgan, 2015; Blay- Palmer et al., 2016; 2018; Raffle and Carey, 2018). Such arrangement has been very successful in the city of Gothenburg, where the city administration offers land for urban and peri-urban food cultivation and provides support for Community Supported Agriculture (Olsson, 2018a).

A sustainable food system needs to include the application of local and traditional knowledge linked to the local ecosystem in combination with academic, agronomic and ecological knowledge in order to optimise the output of the system and build sustainability. Such knowledge can help to maintain local crop and animal varieties and their genetic diversity and accomplish adaptation to environmental changes such as climate change and local forms of sociocultural organisation related to food production (Altieri, 2004; Anderson, 2010; Altieri, 2015; Tengo et ah, 2017; Olsson, 2018c). Such an approach to agricultural production would imply a rebalancing of power in ftvor of farmers so they would once again be actively contributing to the production and dissemination of knowledge, which would challenge the characteristic of expert specialisation inherent in the conventional agricultural model (Caron et al., 2014).

A sustainable food system must come to terms with the issue of the rearing of livestock for human consumption and include an in-depth, participatory discussion about the challenging issues of ethics and environmental justice related to human—animal relationships and animal welfare (Boscardin, 2017).

The urban—rural linkage via the food system is connected to the concept of the Foodshcd, a geographic region that produces food for a specific human population (Peters et al., 2009).

According to Thompson et al., (in Sonnino, 2016), a foodshed can be interpreted as ‘... local food that takes into account not just territoriality, but also a series of quality attributes such as agricultural production methods, fair farm labor practices and animal welfare’. Hence, it seems that the foodshed concept will be vital for the realisation of sustainable food systems.

At the global level, in a document on food security, several United Nations agencies related to human development and food security (OECD, FAO, UNCDF) have proposed ‘a shift in approach from sectoral, top-down and “one-size-fits-all” to one that is multi-sectoral, bottom-up and context-specific’ (OECD, 2016). They stress the importance of a holistic ‘territorial approach’ to sustainable food systems and the achievement of food security (ibid.), which encompasses the consideration of local and regional ecosystems and their conditions for food production as well as the socio-cultural and economic conditions for local communities. The link to the 17 ‘indivisible’ SDGs is emphasised. These recommendations correspond well with the elements of the sustainable food systems discussed above.

Agro-ecological food systems, local wine cultivation. Portugal, April 2017. (Photo

Figure 14.3 Agro-ecological food systems, local wine cultivation. Portugal, April 2017. (Photo: E.G.A. Olsson)

On the transformative potential of food systems

Pathways towards sustainability transitions

Sustainability transitions seek to address critical challenges of contemporary societies by linking ecological integrity, societal viability and intergenerational justice (Markard et al., 2012; Luederitz et al., 2017). Such challenges include environmental degradation and climate change, growing inequality regarding resource accessibility and the need for participation between different groups and societies at the local, regional and global levels, which demands cross-sectoral and cross-scale societal changes. The transition pathways have been categorised into different narratives, which differ according to the diverging interpretations of sustainability (Luederitz et al., 2017; Hausknost et al., 2017).

An analysis of sustainability transition pathways related to the UN-SDGs was performed within the UN-IPBES framework (IPBES, 2018). The following different pathways were identified: Green economy, Low carbon transformation, Ecotopian and Transition Movements. Of these, the Transition Movements narrative matches best with the SDGs, while the other pathway narratives were strong in some dimensions, for example, climate and energy with carbon-reduction strategies, but weak in terms of the equity dimensions (IPBES, 2018). In contrast to the Green Economy and Low Carbon Transformation narratives, the Transition Movements narrative involves a change in values towards resource-saving lifestyles including, e.g., food and energy, while, in some cases, they explicitly emphasise non-GDP growth or de-growth (Muraca, 2012; Whitehead, 2013; IPBES, 2018). In the Transition Movements narrative, food system changes are important and involve the development of innovative forms of agriculture, combination of indigenous and local knowledge with scientific and technological knowledge to produce food based on methods from agro-ecology, agro-forestry and urban agriculture, and to implement transport and energy models that limit the impact on nature, climate and water. A focus on reduced social inequality and full employment (SDGs 8, 10) is included in the vision of enhancing quality of life in the Transition Movements narrative. The SDGs are achieved through new social models, which aim to reduce market globalisation and inter-regional flows, and support cultural identities, knowledge-sharing and transformative capabilities. Transformative capabilities are characterised here as individual and collective capacity to improve and enrich quality of life by changing factors that affect people’s lives, of which the environment is central. Apart from education, the transformative capabilities include social capital, local leadership and empowerment, trust building, and collaboration and participatory decision making (IPBES, 2018).

Food systems and (pathways towards) sustainability transitions

Food-system activities can facilitate transcultural communication and stimulate new initiatives. Furthermore, they can cross borders between different stakeholder groups (local government, researchers, farmers, food stores, restaurants, etc.), socio-economic groups and generations. Gentral to the (urban) sustainability transition is the (re-)establishment of urban—rural linkages via the food system. The international overview of ‘Gity region food systems linking urban and rural areas for sustainable and resilient development’ (Dubbeling et al., 2016) provides examples from cities in the Global North and South of how food systems can generate political support for the wider urban—rural linkages through coalitions built on food. City Region Food Systems are vital for the implementation of the United Nations New Urban Agenda (UN, 2015) and, specifically, for linking SDG 2 (food security and sustainable agriculture), SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and SDG 12 (sustainable production and consumption).

Recent studies have shown agreement between actions and goals suggested in the sustainable food system strategies and the elements of the Transition Movements (Olsson, 2018b). Such elements include food system impacts on, for example, lifestyle and consumption, diversified land use, agro-ecological production methods, decreased energy consumption, urban—rural planning, local empowerment, social cohesion, and livelihood strategies at the sub-regional scale. The necessary coupling between urban and rural regions will be achieved through changed policies, planning and reorientation of farm subsidies that reconnect the regions and by a number of new opportunities related to food system activities. This includes branding different food products as ‘local’ and development of the ‘terroir’ concept. Those activities will promote innovations in the food system, e.g., new distribution systems and consumer participation, and stimulate economic growth in the peri-urban and rural regions. Such actions would have broader implications for society as a whole which would not be limited to food issues.

Against this background, there are convincing arguments that the development of sustainable food systems and the Transition Movement have overlapping goals and ambitions. It is compelling that the achievement of sustainable food systems would pave the way to sustainability transitions.

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