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A global food polity: ecological-democratic quality of the twenty-first century political economy of food


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Modern food production may be considered an epitome of the paradoxes that humanity is facing as we edge on into the twenty-first century. It is as much the source of problems that plague modern societies as it can be its solution. While more food than ever is produced, more people than ever suffer from some form of malnutrition. Even though agribusiness is overtaking energy as the biggest money maker, small-scale farmers and rural populations are still the poorest people in the world. Although food appears cheap, calories are largely outweighing nutrients, creating food deserts in otherwise wealthy countries. Finally, agriculture is potentially as damaging to ecosystems and human health, as it is part of the solution for major social and ecological challenges: biodiversity loss, systemic pollution, gross social and economic inequities, and climate change. The politics of food are a mirror of geopolitics, touching on all the big questions: Grow or degrow? Heed the precautionary principle as heralded in international agreements or continue to "manage" risk? Industrialise and scale up further or switch to a holistic farming practice that places people and the Earth at centre, such as agroecology? Continue to allow the commodification and privatisation of natural resources or protect them as a commons? Allow countries in the Global South to defend their food self-sufficiency or pressure them to produce for global markets? Give consumers a real choice or deny them the right to know? Underlying all these questions are issues of power and conflicts of interest, with some people part of the “haves” and many others of the “have-nots”, some scientists embracing ecology whereas others hold on to classical economics, some calling for reform while others prefer a revolution, in other words: with many shades of “green” occupying the wide spectrum of food politics. In my thesis, I contend that a food system that is simultaneously healthy and fair can only be realised in conditions of “substantive” democracy, understood as a polity where social and ecological concerns take precedence over other interests, where common resources are under social control, and all those people affected by decision-making are also the decision-makers. My thesis analyses the democratic and ecological quality of modern food politics to improve understanding of the leveraging factors for achieving such a substantive or food democracy.
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... The objective of this study is to contribute to one possible Food Future for Portugal, that of strong sustainability, by drawing on scientific knowledge (e.g. on the functioning of food systems 14 , the political economy of food 15 and lessons from agro-ecology) as well as practical knowledge and experience of the actors involved in innovative sustainable farming initiatives and the respective food chains, so as to develop decision-making tools that are of use to all actors. By strong sustainability-a term coined to counter the hollowing of the sustainability concept-I understand the conducting of human activities not only with respect for ecosystems and all manner of lifeforms but also with the active promotion of their thriving, while ensuring that social, economic and ecological costs and benefits of these activities are equitably distributed. ...
Research Proposal
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The specific objectives that help shape the research are: 1 - the development of an inventory of innovative sustainable farming initiatives in Portugal. The cut-off criteria for selection will be the size of the enterprise (no bigger than SME) and its ecological and social footprint (indicators such as water efficiency, water recovery, soil regeneration, all-round productivity per hectare, energy consumption, job creation). Other criteria for the initial selection have to do with region, gender and years of education of initiators, so as to involve a broader spectrum of entrepreneurs; 2 - the participatory creation and testing of a socially and ecologically valid performance assessment matrix to help characterise and evaluate the potential of different sustainable farming initiatives. The purpose of this assessment tool is to assist different actors in evaluating how well a particular initiative performs on a range of attributes that are important to the different actors and that may be used to decide whether an initiative is living up to its promises, and if not, where the bottlenecks lie; 3 - the collaborative identification of the best forms of organisation for small-scale ecological farming initiatives. Small may be beautiful but can be overshadowed by projects that favour economies of scale.
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