Which contested food topics should TABLE work on?

Our mission at TABLE is to explore contested food systems topics in ways that dig into how and why disagreements arise and where consensus can be found. Our work takes many forms including events, podcasts, blogs, explainers, letter exchanges and infographics.

A crucial part of our process is listening to you, the TABLE community, to ensure that the issues we work on are interesting and topical. Our new dialogue platform is an important way in which we will try and listen in - so please use it!

To kickstart the discussion, we asked TABLE’s advisors and associates what they feel to be the most contested food systems debates underway right now, and they came back with a list (see below) that ranges across the food system.

We’d like to hear what you think about the issues they identified. In particular, we’re keen to know:

  • Which topics do you find the most compelling? Why? What specifically do you want to learn about them? What additional knowledge or insight might help reduce disagreements or polarisations?
  • How is your perception of each topic influenced by your personal context, for example by your line of work or education, where you’re from or what particular values you hold?
  • Which topics make you feel uncomfortable? For example, because a particular avenue of enquiry might lead to conclusions that conflict with your current assumptions? (We recognise that this might be a difficult question to answer!)
  • What have we missed? Which other food systems debates do you feel to be of critical importance, and how do you feel we should go about examining them?

Here is the list of contested topics:

Agriculture and production

  • Do we need both high- and low-intensity agriculture? In what contexts should we choose one or the other?
  • How can we sustainably protect crops from pests, weeds and diseases? Will we need to continue using broad-spectrum herbicides and pesticides, which can have side effects on non-target species? Are non-chemical crop protection methods viable? Should we use new biotechnology options?
  • Can agroecology, regenerative or organic agriculture be sustainable and accessible at scale?
  • Should we continue to produce livestock? How much? What does “less and better” mean in relation to livestock farming?
  • How can we make sure farming becomes a profitable business for the next generation, especially in sub-Saharan Africa?
  • How can we clarify definitions around different types of production (regenerative, agroecological, organic and so on), and reduce the dogma associated with some of the concepts, when in reality there is a continuum of production practices and it is not always accurate to use one particular label for one particular farm?

Distribution

  • Should global or territorial markets be promoted for better food systems?

Consumption

  • Should we eat meat or switch to plant-based diets? How can the debates become less ideologically entrenched on both sides? Is there room for compromise between the two positions? Is compromise in fact what the quiet majority are already doing, for example through flexitarian or reducetarian diets?
  • How is lab-grown meat framed by different stakeholders and understood by consumers?

How is change created?

  • Who is responsible for changing the food system - industry, governments or consumers? To what extent do each of these groups have the desire and ability to change the food system?
  • What is our agency as consumers to change the agrifood systems?
  • Does a bottom-up or top-down approach produce change more effectively? To what extent is fast, imperfect change in the current system good vs slow change in the overall structure of the system? Alternatively, is change within the current system likely to be slower than drastic systemic change?
  • What does inclusive, participatory, transparent governance look like at multiple levels from local to national to international?
  • How do we reconcile multilateralism vs multistakeholderism?

How is knowledge produced and disseminated?

  • Who is an expert - scientists, policymakers, farmers, manufacturers, consumers, journalists? Are people with specialist or technical knowledge still widely perceived as experts? Has the public really “had enough of experts”? Who do policymakers, industry, civil society and consumers listen to when forming their opinions? How does a piece of information become widely accepted as a fact?
  • What role should states play in funding and conducting public research into food systems? How should this relate to research led by the private sector?

We look forward to reading your thoughts and comments!

The TABLE team

All of these topics are hugely important, but I believe there is huge opportunity right now on topics of ‘change’ and ‘how knowledge is produced and disseminated’ following from the UN Food Systems Summit and COP-26. I’m based in the UK, and there is a growing push here for more practical and policy-driven system solutions for transformation – a trend that I think is rising globally. There are differences between ‘transformation’ and ‘transition’ (i.e. fundamental/ radical change and incremental change) and lots of blurry contestation around those processes, however. I think there’s a lot of exciting opportunity around building coherency and integrating learning from social-environmental change, management, food systems, communication, policy and best practice industry literatures/ fields on this!

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Thanks for this comment! The issues of how knowledge is produced and who gets to frame and define solutions are certainly important. It’s something we hope to explore in our upcoming work them on “power in the food system”.

We recently featured a paper in our Fodder newsletter that may be of interest: The UNFSS and the battle over authority and legitimacy.

I also encourage you sign up to our event An open-ended discussion on ‘Power in the food system’, which will be held on 8 Dec. There will be the chance for audience members to ask questions - we’d very much welcome your input.