Breaking away from ‘growth-addicted development’ vital to achieve sustainable food system redesign, scientists say

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Achieving genuinely sustainable food system redesign will require breaking away from the current “crisis of growth-addicted development”, says a team of 32 food scholars in a new paper published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The team provide the blueprint for something very different, they say: sustainable post-growth food systems. 

“If we want a useful discussion around food system sustainability, we have to start looking past the current ‘economic growth paradigm’ and into post-growth food systems”, says Dr Steven McGreevy, from University of Twente (UT) in the Netherlands, one of the co-authors of the paper. 

The researchers describe food systems designed not by the logic of growth such as efficiency and extraction, but by principles of sufficiency, regeneration, distribution, commons, and care. It argues that food systems can instead be the foundation of healthy communities, ecologies and economies. “For this agenda-setting article, we’ve reviewed the vast experience of diverse farmers, food cooperatives, home gardeners, alternative retailers, and other endeavours to re-claim what sustainability for food systems means in high and low-income nations.”

The authors call for policymakers, researchers and community groups worldwide to rethink their approach to developing new solutions beyond the current ‘growth paradigm.’ “We have seen what food systems designed to achieve relentless economic growth and profit maximization do to the environment, farming communities, and our health, and it’s not good,” says McGreevy.

The study team say the current system is “exploitative of humans and animals, ecologically rapacious, hooked on fossil fuels, and controlled by a small number of multi-national corporations from food to fork”, and that it produces massive quantities of the ‘wrong foods’ at “incredible social, ecological and economic costs”. With food crises again looming on the near horizon, a strategy to tweak and maintain the current growth-driven food system is, they argue, highly questionable.

“Fortunately, there are countless examples from around the world of post-growth agrifood system elements in action. We need to support these models where they exist, and rediscover, transfer, or further develop them where appropriate,” says McGreevy. The authors identified post-growth agrifood system endeavours already in action around the world.

  • Food production The adoption of agroecological farming and gardening into the current food systems can enhance biodiversity, maintain fertile soils, and improve system resilience to social and ecological shocks.
  • Food business and trade Community-based business models such as cooperatives and benefit corporations without profit-maximizing motives can anchor sustainability in businesses and prioritize the health and wellbeing of the environment and the public. 
  • Food culture Closer relationships with food and the processes which it goes through to reach us can create a culture of appreciation in which we value food as a “commons” and the people working in the agrifood system.
  • Food system governance Food is connected to multiple siloes of governance—agriculture, public health, land planning, education, tourism, etc.—that are often working independently, rather than in an integrative way. Food policy councils (FPCs) are one example of new governance structures that are inclusive and representative of diverse public and private stakeholders and cut across multiple sectors of policy expertise related to food.

According to the study, the conventional wisdom of mainstream sustainability science–including its underlying logic of economic growth—is fixated on narrow solution space: increasing production efficiency, high-tech innovation and individual behaviour change. To break free of these intellectual constraints, the redesign of the global agrifood system should be supported by a coordinated education and a new research agenda that challenges conventional wisdom and focuses on understanding and developing diverse solutions outside of the growth paradigm.

Main image: Creative Commons 4.0 BY

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