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Can “food citizenship” contribute to sustainability?

Just as globalization has led to a growth of people moving across borders, the production, distribution and consumption of food is taking place on a global scale. As a result, we can see a steep increase in the number of projects that study “food citizenship” as part of the broader phenomenon of “global citizenship”. Food is in fact closely linked to democracy and sovereignty, as shown by the case of Greece. Last year we saw that the report “Democracy not for sale”, published by the Transnational Institute, concluded that the Greek people’s human right of access to adequate food was violated because Greece’s food sovereignty had been severely undermined. Initiatives such as Food Citizenship therefore approach the food system from the bigger idea of humanity and give suggestions how to reimagine every role in the food system – “from shareholders to NGOs to government, producers and brands”. Addressing people as “citizens” rather than “consumers” is also the key concept underlying the work of the Food Ethics Council – a concept that is given further substance through the toolkit “How to be a Food Citizen” and how to shift to a “Citizen Mindset” in the food system.

A global perspective on how to implement a sustainable food system is also adopted by Alessio Mennecozzi, who feels that global citizenship can help bring about change in the way food currently impacts on sustainability. Our relation to food not only has important health implications, as we discussed earlier, but Mennecozzi notes that “among all the economic sectors, agriculture is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its use of land and water has serious consequences on our environment (deforestation, loss of biodiversity, water pollution)”. In that connection, research published in the journal Science this month demonstrates the incredible potential of tree planting to tackle the climate crisis. In order for a sufficient number of trees to be planted, however, forestry will have to compete with agriculture: there is only 1.7bn hectares of potential forest land, as the remainder of the total treeless land of 3.2bn ha is used for growing food.

Ray Goldberg, author of the book Food Citizenship, tells that the technological revolutions impacting agriculture seem to be occurring more rapidly than ever. Robotics and other labour-saving technologies have become widespread, the medical community is better able to relate patients’ health to what they eat and can accordingly give concrete recommendations on food, and climate change is forcing people to focus more on recycling. Goldberg warns, however, against the negative effects of technology in food systems, which are primarily caused by “over-attacking” a problem and thereby exacerbating it. Goldberg, who has taught at Harvard for several decades, is particularly hopeful of the millennial generation: “I think that millennials understand [the need to move from a commodity orientation to a win-win perspective] far better than any other generation I’ve taught”.

Food citizenship is indeed becoming an established part of the academic curriculum. Leiden University offers a course on how to reduce global food waste, an objective that is part of the Sustainable Development Agenda (see Goal 12 dealing with “Responsible Consumption and Production”). From that perspective, food citizenship easily fits the broader citizenship agenda set by the Sustainable Development Goals, consisting also of securing access to citizenship and eradicating statelessness.

A counter movement to the globalisation of the production, distribution and consumption of food can also be witnessed. The phenomenon of “collective food procurement” approaches these three dimensions to food through the lens of social and local participation, according to Cristina Grasseni, who also points to the important role of cities in the emergence of food procurement networks. Authors such as Benjamin Barber have indeed been arguing that “man is an urban animal” and that the future will show a growing role for cities (possibly with a global parliament of mayors), and bottom-up initiatives such as local governments for sustainability. Collective food procurement indeed revolves around three concepts where cities can play an important role: the production of food for self-consumption; short food chains between producers and consumers; and local food governance.

According to psychologists, local food systems can also repair the disconnection consumers feel from agriculture and food production by enabling them to experience community and seasonality and by helping them “to establish a sense of place by providing them with opportunities for engaging in food citizenship and rekindling a connection to agriculture”.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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