- Health, Sustainability, Food Sovereignty and the Future of Food and Farming: Critical Issues in Food Studies
Like labour studies, food studies is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that operates outside the boundaries of traditional disciplines to investigate specific issues of import in the world today. A recent addition to the interdisciplinary fold, food studies emerged in the 1990s and gained momentum during the last decade with the burgeoning interest in food. Over the years, it has evolved into a “field of research and scholarship that focuses on the web of relations, processes, structures and institutional arrangements that cover human interaction with nature and other humans involving the production, distribution, preparation, consumption and disposal of food.”1
Since we all need to eat, food touches us more directly than many other subjects. Food studies makes the most of this fact, using food as both an object of study, and an entrée into larger questions like sustainability, human health, [End Page 279] globalization, governance, and power. To fully explore these topics, food studies takes a critical stance, not only vis-à-vis traditional disciplines, but also with respect to the wider world. This critical stance is in keeping with Kroker’s definition of interdisciplinarity as “an active migration beyond the disciplines to a critical encounter with different perspectives,” which helps food studies avoid “vacant interdisciplinarity”2 – a form of inquiry that reinforces the status quo.
It is within this spirit of critical interdisciplinarity that these books situate themselves. Although dealing with different areas of food studies, all three challenge the status quo in terms of perspective, analysis, and conclusions. In addition, they critique neoliberalism, which in terms of food “prioritizes export-oriented production and trade liberalization, international harmonization of regulatory practices and the deepening of transnational capital integration,”3 with cascading negative consequences that are meticulously described. They also focus to a greater or lesser extent on policy as a vehicle for regime change in the food system. And they all aspire to a more sustainable food system – one that is fairer, cleaner, smaller, safer, and healthier.
Health, Sustainability and Food
Health is one of the fastest growing areas of food studies, reflecting some of the most pernicious effects of our current dysfunctional food system. Rod MacRae and Elizabeth Abergel’s timely book, Health and Sustainability in the Canadian Food System: Advocacy and Opportunity for Civil Society, addresses questions of health through the lens of civil society organizations (csos). Overall, the book aims to identify new ways that civil society actors can influence the evolution of sustainable and health-promoting food systems by playing a role in the developmental stages of policy making, as long as they can identify access points and opportunities when working with a range of other actors. The editors begin with the premise that our food system appears to be “increasingly implicated in creating the conditions compromising human and environmental health,” which is “exacerbated by the entrenchment of food and agriculture policy making in ineffective and unresponsive, and somewhat closed, institutional networks.”4 They point to the establishment of a global [End Page 280] food system in a neoliberal era where some states have given up their capacity to determine national priorities because of international trade treaties or have even gone so far as to deregulate their capacity to respond to internal agro-environmental pressures. While this situation clearly highlights gaps in governance at the supra-national level, the editors argue that these very gaps “have opened up new spaces for political involvement by civil society actors eager to advance a fuller set of policy goals and effect change in the food system.”5
The editors use cso to describe “the mix of community-based and environmental groups, farming organizations...