Feeding a rapidly growing global population is nearly impossible. Food production is increasingly controlled by powerful organizations, climate change is negatively impacting food production, inequality is growing globally, and menacing geopolitical shifts are likely to make matters worse. Dr William Lacy, a leading sociologist and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of California Davis, USA, has looked back on 40 years of research in the journal Agriculture and Human Values. He uncovered clear guidelines as to how local food systems and democratized science can encourage the necessary changes.
For millennia, humans had an intensive, personal connection with food production – they ate what they produced and traded any extra within a supportive community. Over the last two centuries, as populations have become increasingly urbanized, these local food systems were replaced by large-scale food production systems, increasingly controlled by powerful organizations. Food became commoditized, and inequality expanded throughout the system. According to leading agroecologist Eric Holt Giménez, we produce one and a half times more than enough food for everyone, yet one in seven people goes hungry. The system is clearly inefficient and unsustainable. Moreover, the spectre of climate change and menacing geopolitical shifts may make matters worse. A senior sociologist based in California suggests one solution lies in localizing food systems and democratizing the science associated with food production.
Dr William B Lacy is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, in the USA. He is passionate about the sociology of science, the organization and structure of agricultural research, issues of human values, and empowering the public through science and local food systems. In a special issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values, Lacy looks back on 40 years of the journal’s articles and reviews to get a detailed snapshot of the current state of global food production and draws on the insights of the journal’s community of interdisciplinary researchers, educators, and policymakers for how to secure an equitable and sustainable food system. It makes for troubling reading, but there is a glimmer of hope.
Separated from our food
For most people, the food they eat comes from all points of the globe via a system characterized by intense commodification and financialization. We are consequently separated from our food – we consume a product, not produce. We’re also separated from the knowledge about that product’s origins, the route it followed to get to our plates, and its impacts in doing so. According to Lacy, such distancing disempowers – we may think we have control of what we eat, especially when facing a well-stocked supermarket, but if we delve deeper into the system, we find the control lies elsewhere.
Looking at the shelves of that supermarket, the multiple countries of origin and myriad brands would suggest food production is dispersed and competitive. It is, to a limited extent, but that doesn’t mean it is decentralized. In reality, the food system as a whole is increasingly centralized, controlled through production and marketing contracts, and processed and retailed by powerful multinationals and agricultural organizations. For example, in the USA, four companies process 85% of the country’s beef and 65% of its chicken; four companies control 83% of the ready-to-eat cereal market. Vertical integration allows these companies to control production and distribution lines from source to plate. Furthermore, they influence the legislative bodies expected to protect the rights of those involved – farmers, producers, distributors, retailers, and consumers. The negative impacts of such power include price fixing at the point of production, exploiting suppliers, paying meager worker wages, and the products’ adverse health and environmental impacts. Such impacts disproportionately affect the disadvantaged. The obesity epidemic in the USA, especially among those of lower socioeconomic status, is a case in point.
According to Lacy, the globalization of the food industry is broadly disempowering because it homogenizes our food, landscapes, and communities. And it’s getting worse in the face of three grand challenges: climate change, the erosion of democracy by growing neo-nationalism and authoritarianism, and increasing inequality.According to Dr Lacy, the globalisation of the food industry is broadly disempowering because it homogenizes our food, landscapes, and communities.
Key grand challenges
Sustainable agricultural production generally relies on regular weather patterns and is particularly sensitive to seismic shifts in those patterns. This is why climate change negatively impacts crop yields, nutritional quality, and livestock productivity. Witness the increasing incidents of droughts across the world’s major grain and wheat-producing regions in 2022 that sent prices skyrocketing. Ironically, agriculture is a significant contributor to the problem – it generates 19–29% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Large-scale, energy-intensive monoculture cropping systems that strive to squeeze the most out of the soil can reduce its water-holding capacity, making it more vulnerable to erosion, drought, and flood damage from unexpected intense weather events.
A critical point that concerns Lacy is that climate change risks are not distributed equally. Those outside of the loop, such as smallholder farmers and tribal communities, have been denied access to the critical resources and decision-making processes that could help them adapt to climate change.
Another significant challenge for the global food system is the increasing polarization of social and political discourse combined with the gradual erosion of democratic governance, spearheaded by rising nationalism that encourages the emergence and empowerment of demagogues and autocrats. According to the Swedish think tank Varieties of Democracy Institute, dictatorships now rule 70% of the world’s population. History teaches us that when autocracies control food production, the results can be horrifying. Witness the mass famines in Ukraine, China, and Cambodia during the 20th century that followed the misaligned wide-scale agrarian policies of Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot, respectively.
Parallel to the erosion of democracy and the shift of political power into the hands of autocrats is rising global inequality and the concentration of wealth by a handful of corporations and individuals. The United States is a case in point. Lacy points out that the country is now facing its greatest wealth disparity in 80 years – reflected in a general lack of social justice in its agri-food system. At every production stage, from farms and processing to retail and service, labor is highly gendered, racially divided, and characterized by low wages and challenging working conditions.
If such a troubling state of affairs exists in a robust, mature democracy like the United States, what hope is there for the future of our food supply?
The recovery of the community
In his analysis of recurring themes in Agriculture and Human Values, Lacy has identified the growing call for the recovery of active involvement of communities in food production, distribution, consumption, and recycling. He invokes the noted American novelist, environmental activist, and farmer Wendell Berry, who argued for a new ethic for eaters that should address the fact that the condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition – one reason to eat responsibly is to live free.
Such regeneration of local food systems, as championed by Berry, is emerging and expanding. Farmers’ markets are one example. There is a growing trend among consumers for more ethical eating and to trace the source of the food to as direct an origin as possible. Farmers’ markets offer these consumers the opportunity to buy produce with minimal environmental impact and return greater profits into local farming operations, not the food conglomerates that control them.
Lacy has also identified growing research into the innovative and transformative potential of community-supported agriculture projects around the world and locally aligned food systems such as sustainable agriculture organizations, community and school gardens, urban food projects, food banks, community food security organizations, produce and consumer cooperatives, farm-to-school programs, city and regional food policy councils, and restaurants prioritizing sourcing local produce. Though the projects may be diverse, they all encourage the recovery of the role of communities in their relationship with food. This is not a nostalgic return to the agrarian economies of old; it is a responsible shift towards more sustainable food and agricultural systems and proactive policy agendas.The agendas for science and technology must be inclusive and compatible with local food systems, community sustainability and democracy.
The science of food
However, such an empowering shift requires informed decision-making. Food production is an increasingly scientific and technological endeavour. Our food systems are arenas for battles around biotechnology, gene editing, robotics, and bioinformatics. As Lacy points out, technology is legislation conferred by the few. Consumers must be aware that the technology designed by powerful organizations that often fund scientific research is not always driven by aspirations for the greater good. Consumers and other members of the food system should have a voice and more significant influence over the technologies affecting their lives.
Furthermore, argues Lacy, such science policies guiding food production need to be democratized through public hearings and forums, advisory and oversight panels and councils, and public surveys. The research that drives our understanding and consumption of food should not be primarily funded by corporates with a commercial imperative and an eye on securing patents and trade secrets. Applied university research and citizen science should step up and focus on addressing the needs of sustainable food and agricultural systems. Finally, Lacy notes ‘The agendas for science and technology must be inclusive and compatible with local food systems, community sustainability and democracy’.
He elaborates, ‘It’s clear that current globalized and commodified food systems are inefficient and unsustainable. The efforts to transform to a sustainable food system must be broad-based and comprehensive. At the community level, the local government, for-profit and non-profit organizations, and school systems need to be actively engaged. There are numerous promising developments. For example, the recent Good Food Org Guide identified and celebrated more than 500 US-based groups who are cultivating a better food system. Charity Navigator, which provides comprehensive ratings on the cost-effectiveness and overall health of a charity’s programs, identified over 340 US food system charities with their highest ratings (eg, Action Against Hunger, Feeding America, First Nations Development Institute, and World Central Kitchen).
The local activities need to be complemented by informed policies and agencies at the state and national level. Finally at the global level, governmental and non-governmental organizations need to continue to take active leadership roles and prioritize their agendas for a just and sustainable food system. There are both excellent historical and emerging examples on all six continents of such organizations: eg, Act4 Food/Act4 Action, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, Asian Farmers Association for Sustainable Rural Development, Global Action Platform on Sustainable Consumption and Diet, Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, Rockefeller Foundation, Sociedad Cientifica Latinoamericana de Agroecologia, and the United Nations programs.’
Such a seismic shift to a sustainable local food system will not happen overnight, but it must happen. For Lacy, the benefits of local food systems are real, and empowering communities to reconnect with food is critical if we are to redirect an unsustainable and destructive environmental, economic, political and social agenda towards a viable, liveable, and just democratic society.