International researchers call for a comprehensive redesign of agrifood systems

The world’s food system faces major issues. Today’s rising climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war against Ukraine continue to drive food prices, disrupt supply chains, and exacerbate justice and fair trade issues. In a recent perspectives paper in Nature Sustainability, more than 30 researchers from a dozen countries call for a profound overhaul of how we approach systems of food production, processing, distribution and consumption, and demand innovative, sustainable solutions to meet today’s urgent global challenges.

Tractors on a cornfield
Credit: James Baltz/Unsplash

The paper was led by Steven McGreevy from the University of Twente and includes Joost Vervoort and Astrid Mangnus from Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. It highlights that the current agrifood system is exploitative of humans and animals, ecologically destructive, dependent on fossil fuels, and controlled by a small number of multi-national corporations from farm to fork. The system produces massive quantities of the wrong foods at incredible social, ecological and economic costs. With food crises again looming on the near horizon, they argue, a strategy to tweak and maintain the current growth-driven food system is highly questionable.

Examples of post-growth in action

The authors call for policymakers, researchers, and community groups worldwide to rethink their approach to developing new solutions beyond the current “growth paradigm.” The paper identifies post-growth agrifood system endeavours already in action around the world. “There are so many examples of seeds of change already happening. Now we must further develop them, support them and make this important transformation actually happen,” says Mangnus, who is now a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research.

The paper synthesizes current empirical research on agrifood systems around the globe through the lens of five principles: sufficiency, regeneration, distribution, commons and care, and present “post-growth” strategies that are currently in practice at different scales. Some examples of post-growth agrifood system elements in action around the world as identified by the study’s authors include:

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. Diversified small farms have shown that by working with nature and engaging with the complex relationships between plants, soils and pollinators, producers can produce higher yields while using land and water more efficiently than industrial agriculture. 

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 well-being of the environment and the public. A suite of tools and methods in alternative finance and investment, such as crowdfunding schemes, ethical banks, credit unions or impact investors can better align with smaller-scale, community-oriented needs of agrifood systems.

Food culture: Closer relationships with food and the processes that it goes through to reach us can create a culture of appreciation in which we value food and the people working in the agrifood system. Often grounded in forms of spirituality and traditional ecological knowledge, a culture of care has been the backbone of traditional food cultures and agricultural heritage, demonstrating collective agency rather than focusing on lone farmer, corporate or scientist heroes. 

Food system governance: Agrifood system governance and institutions must bridge the institutional silos of agriculture, food economy, public health, education and development planning in pursuit of sustainable post-growth agrifood systems. Food policy councils (FPCs) are one example of such new governance structures. Ideally, FPCs are inclusive and representative of diverse public and private stakeholders, and cut across multiple sectors of policy expertise related to food.

A new research agenda

According to the study, a redesign of the global agrifood system should be supported by coordinated education and a new research agenda that (as opposed to the dominant problem-centric research agenda) advances the understanding of how current solutions work, adopts and transfers existing solutions to different scales and regions, and supports the creation of new solutions. 

“The future of food is far more than a technical question,” reflects Vervoort, associate professor in foresight and anticipatory governance. “It is fully existential and political. Food systems are deeply connected with what it means to be alive, and what we understand to be ‘a good life’. We are currently in a crisis of the imagination around food systems, much like we are around many other human systems. This means that researchers have an important role in opening up the space for imagining and realizing more sustainable, just, and inclusive food futures that actually benefit most people as well as other life on the planet.” 

McGreevy, S. R., Rupprecht, C. D., Niles, D., Wiek, A., Carolan, M., Kallis, G., ... & Tachikawa, M. (2022). Sustainable agrifood systems for a post-growth worldNature Sustainability, 1-7.