Can incremental change pave the way for system transformation?

December 18, 2012
By Marcy Ostrom

As several CSANR faculty members have agreed to do, including Andy McGuire and David Granatstein, I am responding to the question posed by Center Director Chad Kruger on September 18: Achieving farm and food system sustainability: incremental vs. transformational pathways?

Recent international food crises illustrate the vulnerability of the global agriculture system to environmental factors, political upheaval, and inequitable development. Based on projected changes in demographics and consumption, some estimate that meeting future global food demand will require agricultural production to more than double by the first half of this century, even in the face of climate and energy volatility. “Incremental” change seems insufficient to avert disaster in light of these challenges.

What are the chances we can pull it off?

Competing visions exist about the most effective ways to meet growing world food needs. On one side is a belief that the focus should remain on increasing yields through broadly transferring new, capital-intensive technologies to improve the efficiency of industrial-scale production systems. Another approach, recently endorsed by an intergovernmental panel on the future of agricultural science and technology (IAASTD), stresses the value of improving food access by intensifying sustainable production and resource conservation at a variety of scales and engaging poor and women farmers in development efforts.

Which priorities will prevail? As decision-making power within the global food system increasingly shifts from the public to the private sector, transnational agribusiness firms have gained more control over what will be produced, how it will be produced, and by whom. A new emphasis on food safety standards as enforced by private certifiers rather than government regulators has further enabled a consolidated retail sector to determine the conditions of production and decide which farmers will have access to markets.

Given these dynamics, the drivers for achieving greater environmental sustainability, equitability, or democratic participation in the food system can appear weak and ineffective. However, some counter trends appear to be gaining traction.

In wealthier countries, widespread popular movements have emerged around local, organic, and sustainable foods and have inspired increasing public scrutiny of modern food supply chains. New ways of thinking, eating, and political involvement in food and agriculture have begun to reengage the non-farming public and the popular media in agricultural issues. While this is not entirely new—the roots of a sustainable agriculture movement in the U.S. can perhaps be traced back to the dust bowl and, later, Rachel Carson–incremental changes in awareness over time have suddenly mushroomed into a new lexicon and media obsession with local and organic foods and inspired a proliferation of alternative food production and consumption networks.

In developing countries, a food sovereignty movement, based on a “right to food” concept as originally set out in in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has gradually gained momentum through the 1996 World Food Summit and various UN initiatives and, ultimately, attained international visibility through grassroots groups like La Via Campesina. The basic message–that local communities should have the right to produce and procure foods of their own choosing, as well as control the means of production–has resonated with farmers and consumers around the world, resulting in some pressure on decision makers. A number of Latin American national governments and even some local governments in the U.S. have approved “right to food” legislation. A recent report to the UN General Assembly recommends a reorientation of agricultural development towards systems that are “highly productive, highly sustainable, and contribute to the progressive realization of the human right to adequate food.” This report endorses agroecology as the most promising means for simultaneously enhancing the resiliency of ecosystems, improving farmer livelihoods, and securing widespread access to food.

Thus, social movements for change in the food system are bringing about new food cultures and ways of thinking, as well as rapidly evolving alternative food procurement strategies and public sector policy changes.

It is not clear yet whether these efforts will result in significant or “system-level” transformation towards more sustainable ways of producing, distributing, and consuming food. Will governments be willing or capable of taking up citizen demands for greater self-determination in the food system and injecting these into international trade rules and regulations that can effectively counter the growing power of consolidated agribusiness firms?

This is not an either/or situation. Incremental and transformational change, formal and informal scientific knowledge, small- and large-scale farming, and public and private sector innovation will all be required if viable alternatives are to be constructed in time to meet expanding challenges. Success will depend on the speed with which new knowledge and participatory learning can evolve. With sufficient investments in public sector research and education, today’s seemingly “fragile” or “incremental” alternatives could lay the groundwork for more significant food system restructuring once crisis begins to spark change.

Interested in pursuing this topic further?  From Dec. 10th to Dec. 21st 2012 Oxfam is running a global online policy discussion forum, Future of Agriculture, featuring essays by leading thinkers on agriculture and food justice each day. Join the discussion and check back here to let us know what you think!

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