Thursday, December 15, 2016

The 'Food Systems Transformation' Narrative: a failure to imagine a new food system for unprecedented times

This post addresses the evolving narrative of 'food systems transformation' in Africa. Food systems transformation (FST) is a way of framing and constructing a discussion about how socioeconomic and demographic trends will affect food supply and demand over the next 30-50 years. Basically, what this narrative tells us is that Africa is urbanizing quickly, and that with this urbanization comes income growth.  Income growth, in turn, leads to a growing (or, 'transforming') demand for perishable foods like meat, dairy, and fresh produce. To meet this demand, food systems will need to 'modernize,' i.e. undergo structural transformation.  Structural transformation includes things like lengthening supply chains over a wider geographic area; vertical integration and consolidation; increased use of purchasing standards and contracts; mechanization; and, increased capacity to process foods (see this and this, for example).  In short, FST is really nothing revolutionary (even though it is sometimes presented as just that, perhaps because it helps to 'sell' the narrative); rather, it is a 'wash, rinse, and repeat' repackaging of the same trajectory that brought western food systems to their current configuration (a configuration that is increasingly charged with being unsustainable and inequitable, and with producing unhealthy results).

The sureness with which this framing is presented, almost as if it is a fait accompli, is the most worrisome thing about it because it truncates the impetus to grapple with uncertainty and therefore undermines the possibility for inventing new food futures. It also negates the need to look at how current configurations are not all that good at providing high quality food at an affordable price to all people. And shouldn't that be the ultimate metric of whether or not a food system is succeeding? (according to at least one economist I know, the answer to this question is a resounding 'no.'  Some level of starvation and malnutrition are just universal, unavoidable truths, apparently).

The narrative is appealing to decision-makers because it is neat and tidy and provides them with a road map for making choices about where and how to make investments.  It doesn't hurt, I'm sure, that this narrative relies on multinational food corporations playing an integral and positive role in the transformation. But, it must be noted that a couple of the assertions that this narrative relies on are questionable.  First, income growth does not necessarily coincide with urban population growth (e.g., see here and here). Secondly, urbanization might be more closely linked with economic growth, but much of what is happening in Africa isn't urbanization; rather, it's population growth in both cities and rural areas (David Satterthwaite and Deborah Potts, both long-time urban scholars, have written extensively and carefully on this subject).*

But, perhaps most objectionable is that this narrative asserts the need for a food systems transformation, comprised by already-defined processes and practices, and thus completely ignores the ways in which current food systems function and how they are important to both food security and livelihoods. I've looked for and failed to find a characterization of the current food environment and an examination of why it is not up to the task of future food provisioning.  It's almost as if those who favor the food systems transformation narrative can see nothing of value or of interest in knowing, appreciating, and understanding current food exchange relationships and practices. I find this offensive as both a scholar and as a human being.

In Africa, food provisioning and exchange is largely the province of individuals.  It makes sense that in agriculturally-oriented economies, many people would find their livelihood in food-based employment, even if they aren't necessarily farming.  This is true in both urban and rural areas. Most of this work takes place in what is referred to as the informal sector, which means that people are very often working for themselves, and are not afforded any social or legal protections. Very often, what goes on in this sector is invisible to those who rely on formal sources of data.**  If you are familiar at all with these highly individualized systems of exchange, you know that they often appear chaotic.  In cities, especially, they can appear both chaotic and unsanitary. When I was doing data collection for my dissertation, I started to refer to them as 'in-your-face-food systems' because, once you start noticing where food is, you see that it is everywhere and is not confined to the strict boundaries found in western food systems. Food roams the streets, is in the back of cars, carried on heads, grown in vacant lots, and is being pounded, killed, butchered, or otherwise processed for consumption in kitchens, on street corners, and in markets. Importantly, these food systems have evolved over time, and in association with local social, political, economic, and physical change.  What they lack in efficiency, they make up for in nimbleness. Furthermore, the various practices in such food systems are well-suited to contemporary social and economic conditions (I've addressed how different conceptual frames can highlight the qualities of these food systems in different ways.)

I believe new food futures are inevitable; I do not believe that the western world holds the key to inventing those food futures. By assuming there is nothing of value in non-western forms of food provisioning and exchange, we do a disservice to the need to dramatically reconfigure food systems to be more sustainable.  In the short term, we undermine the need to generate grounded research on how people navigate situation-specific food environments, and, thus, overlook how we might support their efforts to food-provision their households. Furthermore, we cheat ourselves of important insights that might be applied to fixing our own broken food system.

*It is necessary to distinguish between urbanization and urban growth. Urbanization refers to the proportional increase of urban populations in relation to rural populations and may indicate a shift out of an agriculturally-based economy into a more industrialized and production-oriented economy.  Urban growth does not.
** My go-to source for definitions and statistics on informality is WIEGO.org.  This publication gives a good overview of the history and conceptual understanding of informality: "The Informal Economy: Definitions, Theories, and Policies (pdf)."

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