A patchwork of solutions

What this means is that a global food system that is both truly sustainable and sufficiently productive will consist, not of a few massively scaled practices, but rather a vast patchwork quilt of smaller-scale solutions that vary dramatically from place to place, over space and over time, in an interplay with local climate, ecology, and culture.

Consider the debate over animal-based proteins. It is not uncommon to see this presented as a sort of global average that implies inherent impacts, regardless of where and how those proteins are being produced.

Yet, there is tremendous place-based variability to how different kinds of livestock are raised. In western Ireland, cattle are used at a small scale to great effect for ecological restoration. Likewise, one estimate shows that greenhouse gas emissions from beef from Canadian dairies are less than one-third of the global average.

Finally, there is a colonial logic to be addressed here: that the validity of new approaches rests not on how well they work for the people implementing them, but on whether they meet a set of metrics construed by and for the Global North.

That they must produce a certain amount of food in service of global populations, or eliminate a certain amount of greenhouse gasses, for example.

Many alternative innovations are not meant to simply be swapped into the existing system, but catalysts that support a complete reorganization of food systems around food sovereignty, community well-being, and ecological health.

Thinking relationally

Rather than asking whether a practice “scales” — whether it works if adopted everywhere — we ought to instead ask whether a practice works in and for specific people and places and whether it can align with or enhance existing culturally valued practices and systems in other places.

“Is this approach in harmony with the people and other living things in this region?” “Does it work with or against the goals and needs here?” And so on.

Asking such questions changes the evaluative mindset from industrial to relational. Relational ways of thinking are increasingly recognized as necessary for achieving both sustainability and social justice.

They also move us away from focusing on specific technologies to focusing on systems and ensuring that our food practices work with rather than against nature.

We face an opportunity today to foster in our food systems truly generative relationships between peoples and places, the domesticated and the wild. Such relationships are the engine by which much of the verdant biocultural diversity in the world today came to be.

In certain circumstances, the question of scalability may indeed be relevant and useful. But given the high stakes of problems like climate change, it’s time to move away not only from the technologies that have failed us but the ideologies on which they are based as well.

Originally published by Ensia.