Citizen Food Futures – Event Report

25 November 2021

The Citizen Food Futures event was a week-long event aiming to communicate academic research and opinion on the development of more sustainable food systems and facilitate dialogue with the general public and other stakeholders.

Throughout the event week over 6000 people watched the videos, which were posted on the Citizen Food Futures website and social media, with 15K plus views since then. Most of this activity took place via Twitter, with some activity on Facebook and Instagram.

This response to the event goes some way to confirming that issues around what we do and do not want to eat and how we might achieve this, is something that people are really interested in, and that they are interested in knowing more about societal scientific research on this subject.

The outcomes in relation to generating discussion among Manchester citizens are less clear. Hopefully those 6000+ people have learnt something they did not know before, or considered something from a different perceptive, and hopefully went off to have discussions and continue the debate with other people they encountered in their daily lives. However, that discussion did not take place to a great extent online. So while this event has succeeded in reaching lots of people and sharing academic insights, this has been a rather one directional process.

Throughout the week of the event we have had some thought provoking positions on potential Food Futures each highlighting different sets of issues. The first day of the event highlighted two key problems:  

First, Sarah Bridle, brought us vision of a Net Zero Food future - emphasising that different types of food embody different environmental impacts, and suggesting that what we really need to meet this challenge of Net Zero is a dietary shift, alongside a change in the way land is used for food production, which could go a long way into addressing the significant climate change contribution of our current food systems.

The second contribution on Monday was from Filippo Oncini, who highlighted Food Security as another key issue for Manchester citizens. Since around 4% of Manchester citizens were judged to be at risk from food insecurity before the pandemic, which has risen significantly throughout the pandemic

These two Futures highlight very different types of problems. Many social scientists now agree that food insecurity is a symptom of a wider set of inequalities, that have their roots outside the food system, meaning that even the most transformative change within the food system, may not be able to address it.

Net Zero however, along with other environmental impacts, including water scarcity (as highlighted by Claire Hoolahan), and overall population health (as highlighted by Andrew Hollingsworth), could, and arguably should, be addressed by transformations in how we organise the production and provision of food.

Many of the contributions across the week touched on the forms of organisation that would offer improvement in these respects, such as  shorter supply chains, shifts in the geography of food production, bringing production closer to urban centres, and implementing new innovative infrastructures of production, i.e. vertical farms (as discussed by Rebecca St Claire and Tim Lang).

Judging by the number of responses from the public Alan Ward’s suggestion of moving away from cooking in our individual homes to collective provision of meals appeared to be the most controversial one, as his talk focussed on the potential obsolescence of private kitchens.

As well as highlighting problems that need to be addressed the contributions engaged with questions around whose responsibility it is to drive this change and what the role of different groups of people or stakeholders would be in this?

Haleh Moravej envisioned a Youth Led Food Future, highlighting the importance of activist mobilisation and action in demanding change, as well providing a vision for the type of food system that people want to be part of.

The role of government was touched upon in almost all accounts ranging from the ‘catastrophic failures’ of leadership as highlighted by Tim Lang, to the ‘strange behaviour’ described by Alan Warde, in relation to funding to encourage people to eating out in restaurants during the pandemic as a way to stimulate the economy. 

Rebecca St Claire, and others noted the importance of ‘multi scalar governance’ of new ways of producing food – managing how a transformation such as urban farming needs to be managed at the local level, associated with particular innovations such as vertical farms,  but also in the context of coordination of wider regional provisioning infrastructures. As Tim Lang suggested – we can’t grow everything in the Greater Manchester City region, but apples, pears and soft fruit we certainly could, and to do so we need some form governance at the regional and national scale to effectively organise supply.

Many of the contributions touched on the role of us as consumers in shaping the future of food. Diets were noted as something which is an outcome of our current system, and in some cases an indication of its failures. Andrew Hollingsworth noted that if you take into account the health effects of poor diet this up to triples the true costs of food eaten compared to what consumers currently pay. More seasonal diets, with less reliance on meat and dairy, are also featured in several sustainable Food Futures.

As well as an outcome of the food system, diets and dietary change were also suggested as drivers of wider systems change. The contribution by Jonathan Beacham and David Evans engaged directly with the question of dietary change, observing that significant change is in fact already underway, and we need not look to some hypothesised future to imagine what is to come, but must begin right here in the present. They suggested that the current extent of change is such that at some point in the future we might look back on today’s consumption patterns, which rely on extensive intensive animal agriculture, and see them as a strange historical aberration.

Many of the contributions from Haleh Moravej, Tim Lang, Claire Hoolahan, Rebecca St Clair and Andrew Hollingsworth noted the importance of improving consumer-citizen knowledge and understanding of our food systems. There is less agreement on how to do this, but social scientists generally agree that information provision in a limited sense, through labels, or traffic lights on products, will not be enough. However, wider educational programmes and initiatives, which bring people into contact with processes usually hidden from them in the production of food, were noted to likely be a good starting point. Perhaps initiatives like this one, designed to raise questions, stimulate thought and showcase different views on the issues at stake, may also be a step toward improving the Future.

One thing that came out of the week’s contributions is an almost universal feeling that things need to change, for the benefit of us, the citizens of Manchester and beyond, as well as our local and global environment. But if we all agree, then why doesn’t it happen? Tim Lang highlighted the role of government failure in this. He gave the example of the publication of the National Food Strategy, representing a meticulous, rational weighing up of evidence, based on years of research, followed by a government unwilling to adopt the recommendations.

Why is this? Adrian Morley, who is one of the co-organisers of this event, suggested that an important part of the explanation lies in the underpinning ideology and entrenched interests that characterise of the current food system. Adrian described the corporate-Led food future as one of faith in the food industry to deliver solutions to the problems it faces.

This future, which relies on giving business the space to innovate, and the information to understand what consumers want, is the one that is most visible today, and has most support among key interests and the decision makers that wield the most concentrated powers across our food systems. Understandings that this Corporate-led status quo is the best way to organise, arise not only because there are lots of corporate interests whose business models and shareholder returns depend on maintaining it, but also because it is an ideology that our government subscribes to, that provision primarily through the market is the most efficient way to deliver lots of goods to lots of people. Of course, as we know, this is not always the case, and we generally agree that some things are too important to be left to market forces and the inequalities that this creates for access across populations, such as health or education.

Looking across contributions as a whole this is one aspect all contributors agree upon - how important the organisation of food provision is for our society, for our health, for our communities, for our happiness and for our local and global environment. 

We hope that the collection of Food Futures prepared by current and former Manchester academics have not only persuaded you of this, but also perhaps offered some alternative  perspectives on these issues.

All the academic contributions to the Food Futures event are available in full on the Citizen Food Future website and social media. This is where you can also share your thoughts on the future of food and food security in Manchester and beyond.

Dr Jo Mylan is a Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Innovation at The University of Manchester.

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