Workshop Report: Envisioning the Future of Food Across North-South Divides: Transregional Food Networks and Movements

written by Stephanie Assmann

Roundtable Discussion Prior to the Workshop on December 1, 2016 at the Center for Art and Urbanistics (ZK/U), Berlin

Convenors: SARAH RUTH SIPPEL (Leipzig), NICOLETTE LARDER (New England), CORNELIA REIHER (Berlin) and FELIPE ROA-CLAVIJO (Oxford)

Location: Forum Transregional Studies, Berlin

Date: December 1-3, 2016

Link: http://www.geas.fu-berlin.de/events/workshops/reiher_Transregional-Food-Networks_16.html

Food insecurity, volatile food prices, a growing world population, the need for innovative forms of agriculture, and food-related risks such as the use of genetically modified foods are only some of the challenges that the food system is facing. These challenges are tied to the powerful dominance of the food industry and agribusiness. Worldwide, a variety of food networks and movements seek to develop alternative ways to establish food self-sufficiency, sustainability and food sovereignty. To bring together farmers, activists and researchers on this pertinent topic was the objective of the exploratory workshop entitled Envisioning the Future of Food Across North-South Divides: Transregional Food Networks and Movements, which was held at the interdisciplinary think tank Forum Transregional Studies, Berlin and convened by SARAH RUTH SIPPEL (Leipzig), NICOLETTE LARDER (New England), CORNELIA REIHER (Berlin) and FELIPE ROA-CLAVIJO (Oxford). The workshop was part of the strategic co-operation between Forum Transregional Studies and the Max Weber Foundation.

The workshop was preceded by a round-table discussion jointly organized by the Forum for Transregional Studies, the INKOTA-Netzwerk, MISEREOR, the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation and the Collaborative Research Centre “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” at the University of Leipzig. The round-table discussion, which was open to the public, brought together activist farmer LYNN DAVIS, NGO campaigner BENJAMIN LUIG, expert on agricultural policies and nutrition JAN URHAHN and the academics CORNELIA REIHER (Berlin) and SONY PELLISSERY (National Law School of India) who examined potentials for collaboration between activists, farmers, NGOs, and academics with the objective of creating knowledge networks that address alternative food production and agricultural systems.

In the workshop itself, more than twenty scholars from different scholarly disciplines and academic institutions of eight nations came together in a pioneering effort to discuss activities of food networks that seek to develop alternatives to the current food system. By unpacking linkages between alternative food networks along the north-south divides, scholars presented theoretical frameworks, activist approaches and altogether twelve ethnographic case studies in nine panels that addressed Australia, Finland, Germany, China, Japan, Nicaragua, India, Mexico, South Africa, and the wider region of South America. In the opening lecture, SARAH RUTH SIPPEL (Leipzig) introduced the conceptual framework of the workshop and posed the leading question: Do alternative food networks seek to achieve a change within the food system or a change of the food system? In the research literature, the global north has been regionally conceptualized as affluent regions in Australia, Europe and the United States whose consumer-oriented alternative food networks address food justice and environmental issues through civil society organizations and NGOs such as Slow Food, Fair Trade, and organic food networks and farmers’ markets. In contrast, transnational food networks in Latin America and Asia – the global south – are portrayed to be largely producer-driven and agrarian-based and aim to establish food security and access to and control over agricultural resources. The workshop addressed three main questions. Firstly, a number of panelists examined alternative ways of establishing sustainability and food sovereignty while investigating the power relations between the global north and the global south. The second theme addressed emerging and existing transregional food policies, collaborations and linkages and their potential to create alternative food networks. The third topic addressed visions of agricultural innovation against the trajectory of power relations between the state, food producers, and consumers.

Sustainability and Food Sovereignty: The Global North-South Divides under Investigation

The ethnographic studies revealed that food producers and food consumers in areas that are generally perceived to be affluent are facing difficulties with regards to food security, nutrition, and food safety. This brought the concept of the north-south divides and the conceptualization of power relations between global north and the global south under intense scrutiny. In this context, food sovereignty was a recurring theme. Coined by the movement La Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in 1996, food sovereignty asserts that farmers, peasants, fishermen and agricultural workers should have the power over their own food systems including land, water, seeds, livestock, and food products. Albeit initially ascribed to rural areas, food sovereignty is gaining significance in urban contexts, as was discussed by NICOLETTE LARDER (New England) who addressed food sovereignty in Australia as a traveling concept (Bal 2002), which resonates with urban consumers and intellectuals. CAROL RICHARDS (Queensland) examined efforts of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, formed in 2010, to improve food literacy with an emphasis on obesity and food insecurity among elderly and indigenous populations, in single parent households and in low-income families in food deserts. An empowerment of consumers through food sovereignty could be the creation of a self-sufficient food system based on food citizenship and the implementation of self-sufficient agroecology; these two approaches were discussed by SOPHIA ALBOV (Helsinki) for Finland and JANE DIXON (Australian National University) for Australia. In Japan, the Japanese Farmers Movement and the Japan Consumer Association assert food sovereignty and national food security through protest campaigns against the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), which was discussed by CORNELIA REIHER (Berlin). Her study revealed the urgency with which farmers defend their livelihoods, even in affluent regions such as Japan.

By 2050, a growing world population will require food security and sutainability, an assumption which was investigated by PRAJAL PRADHAN (Potsdam) who captured the interdependency between rural and urban areas in terms of food production and food consumption through an analysis of 7,000 urban administrative units (UAU). PRADHAN argued that in order for peripheral food production regions to meet the food demands of urban areas, a closer connection between urban and rural areas is essential as is the reduction of food waste and the closing of yield gaps, which will lead to greater food security and a decrease of greenhouse gas emissions.

Emerging Transregional Collaborations and Linkages

The second theme of the workshop were emerging and existing transregional collaborations and linkages within and across the north-south divide. EMILIO TRAVIESO (Oxford) examined the Yomol A’tel, a group of social businesses in the indigenous Tsetal region of Chiapas, Mexico as an example. The Yomol A’tel engage in local organic coffee production but collaborate transregionally with stakeholders in South America, Europe and Japan in order to export their local product and integrate it into the supply chain. In an effort to democratize biodiversity, SONY PELLISSERY (National Law School of India) discussed the civil society initiative Green Foundation in Karnataka in South India, which promotes community seeds banks as an opportunity for farmers to gain access to genetic resources. Potential alliances between transregional movements were investigated by FELIPE ROA-CLAVIJO (Oxford) who identified the search for transregional connections to establish food sovereignty in rural contexts in Latin America, specifically in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia.

Identification with a transregional alliance might lead to policies and legal agency to develop reformist approaches in Europe, the United States and Japan. This was asserted by PAULA FERNANDEZ-WULFF (Louvain) in a large-scale interview study with over one hundred food-related organisations. PAULA FERNANDEZ-WULFF differentiated between NGOs such as Slow Food and Transition Towns and de facto movements such as farmers’ markets and urban agriculture projects that seek to develop counter-hegemonic approaches. An encouraging example of the empowerment of non-state actors was highlighted by JULIA DENNIS (Alexander von Humboldt Foundation) who investigated concerted efforts to include the participation of civil society actors in Germany into governmental food and development policies with the goal of implementing sustainability.

Farmers and the State: Negotiating Visions for Agriculture

A third theme of the workshop was to develop new visions for restructuring agricultural systems. In this context, relationships between the state and farmers were investigated. In a study on agroecology in Nicaragua through a multi-level perspective (MLP), KATHARINA SCHILLER (Wageningen) revealed a gap between the advocacy of agroecology on the national level and the implementation of this practice on the local level. While some progressive changes are noticable, larger incentives for on-farm transitions toward agroecology and markets for agroecological products are lacking. In contrast to the different interpretations of food sovereignty in national and local contexts, the strong position of the state was noted by ALEXANDER DAY (Occidental College) and RENÉ TRAPPEL (Freiburg) in their studies on China. In rural China, a production-focused agricultural movement remains strongly in place whereas urban and gradually affluent areas in China witness the emergence of alternative food networks, farmers’ markets and niche marketing. Based on a qualitative study in rural China (Qinghai, Shandong, Sichuan and Guizhou), RENÉ TRAPPEL argued that the Chinese government prioritizes national food security over smallholding farming, promotes land transfers and seeks to create a new type of peasant who is organised in co-operatives and works on medium to large production areas. ALEXANDER DAY argued that China’s New Rural Reconstruction Movement does not fit within the concept of food sovereignty but can be more accurately defined as a National Agricultural Market (NAM) which has led to the emergence of a particular peasant who supports the rapid industrialization and modernization of China.

Another pertinent issue was the question of what constitutes a social movement. This question was highlighted by ANNE SIEBERT (Bochum) in her study on South Africa where changing dietary patterns have simultaneously produced undernutrition and obesity and have led to volatile food prices. These transformations are addressed by the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign, initiated in 2015, and by the NGO Food and Fynbos, which operates on a smaller scale with 400 members. Can these efforts count as the formation of social movements, or do such civil society efforts take place on a much smaller scale?

In Search for a Theoretical Framework: Citizen Producers and Citizen Consumers

The various case studies were augmented by the search for an overarching theoretical framework, which was discussed by MICHAEL K. GOODMAN (Reading) who argued for the necessity of “creative disruption” to the food system by studying and supporting collective projects that not only develop alternative approaches but ask critical questions about the role of individuals, consumption and choice and re-think the roles of producers and consumers in terms of citizen producers and citizen consumers. MARKUS KECK (Göttingen) examined transregional food networks in light of multiple modernities theory (Eisenstadt 2002) and argued that hegemonic and alternative food networks should not be seen as a dichotomy but rather as part of multiple modernities that emerge across and within the global north-south divide.

New Directions for Future Research on Transregional Food Networks and Movements

“Some are defending an idea, others are defending their livelihoods.” This remark succinctly summarizes the fluidity of the concerns and objectives of food networks in their search to develop alternative models of sustainability and self-sufficiency. Food networks such as the protest campaigns against free trade in Japan or the transregional coffee production businesses of the Yomol A’tel in Mexico have had an impact on the current food system, but a transformation of the entire food system is not in place. However, the results of the workshop showed the potential for creating linkages and opportunities for collaboration. A significant result of the workshop was the fact that the power relations across the north-south divide have to be seen in a more differentiated light. For instance, the concern for food sovereignty and food security is not only prevalent in the global south but remains a sensitive issue worldwide.

In her concluding comments, AYA HIRATA KIMURA (University of Hawai’i at Manoa) discussed the essential question of how concepts such as food sovereignty, food security and food literacy travel across regions but also across scholarly disciplines, which presupposes interpretative flexibility. She also pointed out that future research should take the variables of gender, class and ethnicity more strongly into account and alerted participants to observe a potential resonance between food-focused networks and the recent rise of political right-wing movements across the globe.

While the workshop was not open to the public, each panel was concluded by comments by the presenters on each other’s papers and questions from the participants, which provided for a lively and engaged discussion about pressing topics in a pioneering and exploratory setting.

Zur Autorin

Stephanie Assmann forscht an der Hokkaido University (Sapporo, Japan) über Zusammenhänge von Konsumverhalten, Gender und soziale Schichtung in Japan.


Maik Krüger

Maik Krüger absolvierte an der Universität Rostock mit dem Bachelor in Politikwissenschaft und Soziologie. In Tübingen schloss er das Studium mit dem Grad Magister Artium in den Fächern Soziologie und Politikwissenschaften ab. Er beschäftigt sich vor allem mit der Soziologie vom Geschlecht und engagiert sich für die Vermittlung von soziologischem Wissen außerhalb der Universität.
Seit Mai 2015 ist er wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter an der LMU München.

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