Getting beyond ’empty signifiers’—Food policy expert Corinna Hawkes asks: What are food systems for?

All children’s artworks on this page are from Artsonia Art Gallery.

In the lead up to the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021, Corinna Hawkes, director of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, UK, asks all of us concerned with ‘food systems’ of one kind or another to think beyond ’empty signifiers’, even beyond visions for better food systems, and to get back to a fundamental question—what should be the purpose of food systems? If we can reach agreement on that, she argues, we can then set about creating diverse visions and actions, suiting diverse circumstances, for fulfilling that agreed-upon purpose.

So this is what I’d suggest for the UN Food Systems Summit:
create a universal sense of purpose for the food system
and then inspire millions of communities, cities, and countries
to build visions in their own spaces of what
their food systems would look like if they
were to put that purpose into practice.

It’s a shared, universal agenda that also allows us to celebrate
the wealth of diversity and difference in our food systems around the world.

More excerpts from Hawkes’ thoughtful article follow.

‘. . . [T]here is such a diversity of stakeholders in food systems, such a diversity of goals, that the promise of a “collective” journey seems distant. . . . Overall, this fragmentation means the tremendous power of these multiple communities to connect and act along a common path is being lost. . . .

‘. . . There are many food systems visions out there, full of words like “sustainable,” “equitable,” “inclusive,” “resilient,” “democratic,” “diverse” and “healthy.” Good words. But what do they actually mean? Well, lots of things, depending on how you interpret them. Easy to say, hard (and complex) to pin down. Everyone can agree on the vision of a sustainable, inclusive, healthy food system—and then promptly disagree profoundly on how to get there. . . . It’s a shared vision. But it’s a superficial one. Everyone can stand up and stake allegiance to this vision, and then carry on along their divergent paths. If it’s a collective journey we are looking for, it won’t get us very far. . . .

There is no one vision for every place. The Hudson Valley looks very different to New York City not far south. Nairobi is different to the pastoralist communities out in the Sahel. . . .  It’s no wonder that probably the most talked about visual vision of food systems transformation of the past few years—the Eat-Lancet diet, depicted on a plate—was derided for being culturally insensitive. When it comes to seeing things differently, people like to see it in their own places. A bold vision of the future it might be, but at least it should meet them where they are.

So for a universal agenda, the temptation is
to go back to empty signifiers again—
healthy, sustainable, inclusive, etc.—
useful, at least, in that they can be applied everywhere.

But there is another way:
to step back from the vision and ask instead:
what is the food system for?

‘. . . Funnily enough, unlike the call for vision, this question is rarely asked. Perhaps this is because it is obvious. To produce food, right? Well, yes. But is the universal purpose to produce enough calories? Or to support people’s nutrition, health and development? Is it to produce cash? Or is profitability rather a means to an end? Answers to these questions have profound implications for what needs to be done and how. If the purpose of the food system is to regenerate and nourish, this implies a very different food system to one which aims to provide calories and cash. If the purpose of the food system is to feed the world, this means producing more. If the purpose is to nourish people, this means it also has the task of actively enabling and encouraging people to eat well and nourishing the billions who labour in the food system. If the purpose is to regenerate, this has profound implications for every single action taken to produce, transport and sell food in the future.

It’s this shared sense of purpose for the food system
that ultimately we need to agree upon.

What is the food system for?
It’s a universal question that transcends place, population or plate.

Unlike the call for a shared vision, it allows for a universal answer.

Read the whole article by Corinna Hawkes on her
‘The Better Food Journey’ blog
What is the food system for?
A key question for the
UN Food Systems Summit

27 Aug 2020