Tuesday 28 February 2023

Six hard trends that drive food system breakdown – globally

An IFLAS Occasional paper analyses the trends driving the breakdown of the global food system.

Endorsing the paper, Dr Katja Hujo from the UN Research Institute for Social Development (and lead author of their Flagship Report “Crises of Inequality: Shifting Power for a New Eco-Social Contract”) notes:

“Jem Bendell’s paper (and forthcoming book) is a wake-up call that our global food systems are approaching global breakdown due to a number of interlinked hard trends, from biophysical limits of food production and climate change to growing demand and the destructive implications of our profit-oriented capitalist system. The application of interdisciplinary integrative analysis and the emphasis on economic, social, technological and ecological dimensions of the challenge ahead helps to grapple with the complexity of the issue and to avoid simplistic solutions. It is an analysis that motivates the reader to act at multiple fronts and critically engage with a topic that has a huge bearing on the future of humanity.”

The Contributing Lead Author for the UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction, Scott Williams, notes:

“We are conditioned to fear disorientation and seek safety in certainty and solutions regardless of the information available to us. Breaking that protective screen, this paper adds to the weight of analysis that the collapse of food systems and societies more broadly is inevitable. But how we are in relationship with these changes is not fixed even if, as this paper argues, we are stuck. Perhaps what this paper is calling for is the spaciousness to ask new questions, to challenge habits and myths, that may then shift perceptions. Consequently, we could be in relationship differently with the inevitability of collapse, and sense the possibilities that are perceivable with renewed care, compassion and generosity to ourselves and to all life.”

Co-founder, Extinction Rebellion, Clare Farrell, notes:

“The fragility of our systems is underexplored and we need to pay attention to warnings from integrative analyses like this paper. And then act like never before, with fierce resistance on behalf of life itself.” 

The paper on food system breakdown is a preprint of a chapter in the forthcoming book by Professor Bendell, Breaking Together (Goodworks, TSI, 2023). To get notified of when and how receive a free epub version of the book, subscribe to Prof Bendell’s blog.

The book launch will be at the Glastonbury Deep Adaptation event, with Satish Kumar, Gail Bradbrook, Skeena Rathor, Rachel Donald and Indra Donfrancesco on June 18th in the UK. Information and tickets: DeepAdaptationGlastonbury.co.uk.

The preface to the paper follows below.

Download the pdf of the paper.

Preface from the author

This Occasional Paper is one output from a 2-year research project with an interdisciplinary team including an agricultural scientist, heterodox economist, and environmental journalist, as well as myself, a sociologist undertaking critical interdisciplinary research analysis on sustainable development issues. It outlines six hard trends which drive a global food system breakdown. The paper is an excerpt from my forthcoming book on the topic of societal collapse, Breaking Together, and shared now due to the urgent implications for both local and national governmental policies, philanthropy strategies, and organisational or personal decisions relating to food security.

As an academic it should come as no surprise when I claim that the scientific method is a powerful approach for understanding reality. But it should also be no surprise that an academic also recognises how the cultural, economic and institutional influences on the research process, and the ‘siloing’ of research into disciplines, constrains what specialists in specific disciplines choose to conclude and communicate. Rather than asking too much of science, we have been asking too little of it, by not interrogating sufficiently the way cultural and institutional factors, derived from systems of capital and power, are influencing questions and findings in ways that reduce the impetus for radical change.

Scientists who take these limitations seriously have been sounding the alarm for society. Two hundred of them warned of potential ‘global systemic collapse’ in a report that also explained why we do not hear such warnings so often and so clearly. "Many scientists and policymakers are embedded in institutions that are used to thinking and acting on isolated risks, one at a time," their report said [1].

That is why critical interdisciplinary research analysis is so important. First, it is driven by the intention of identifying knowledge that is salient to an issue of public interest. It identifies research publications from a variety of different disciplines that are potentially relevant to that issue and then analyses them for what might be the most important findings on that issue. Sometimes such findings are not what the original researchers focused on in those publications being analysed. The process of salience identification by a research analyst involves cross-referencing findings and claims from different subject specialisms. It is aided by a ‘critical’ approach, which stems from appreciating the many influences on any process of conducting and disseminating research. They include the financial and political pressures for remaining deferential to established ideas and institutions, the de-radicalising influence of privilege, a wish to avoid difficult emotions and the ideology of progress that can shift where the burden of proof is seen to lie when considering data.

To do critical interdisciplinary research analysis well, it can help to have experience from different cultural, professional, and disciplinary contexts. It is also useful to have training in scientific methodologies, the history and philosophy of science, the humanities, and critical literacy. The latter term refers to understanding how frames, narratives and discourse shape what is assumed, excluded or focused on, in ways that are produced by power relations and then reproduce those power relations. Without such experiences and training, when scientists generalise outside of their field of expertise, it can involve the unconsidered use of ‘common sense’ assumptions that reflect dominant culture and exclude analyses that challenge their worldviews.

By recognising the limitations of reductionist research and siloed disciplines, scholars who are interested in ‘systems thinking’ come close to such approaches but don’t always critically analyse the source material for the biases described above. Unfortunately, critical interdisciplinary research analysis is a capability that is neither taught nor resourced in scholarship, nor rewarded with opportunities for professional progression. Because such analysis can lead to conclusions beyond those made within the specific disciplines being drawn upon, and can relegate to irrelevance some of the nuance and semantic detail, it can annoy discipline-restrained scholars. When the conclusions are particularly troubling, or threatening to the establishment, then reactions can be unusually negative and seek to marginalise the people, concepts and organisations involved. Typically, that can involve accusations of sloppiness, arrogance, conspiratorial mindsets, political bias, or extremism. Unfortunately, the temptation can be high for some experts to make such accusations if they seek to position themselves as more reasonable in the eyes of the establishment (whether for their professional advancement, or their theory of change, or even a subconscious need to fawn to power in response to growing anxiety).

In the case of societal collapse, and the food crisis, the issue is so important that, as scholars, we must not be deterred by such reactions. I encourage you to interrogate the arguments in this paper for yourself, via the references provided. The paper does not provide ideas on how to respond to the crisis it identifies. There are many ideas and positive activities occurring, some of which will be covered in my book Breaking Together. This paper is an preprint of Chapter 6 of that book, and therefore refers to the book and other chapters throughout.

Jem Bendell, March 2023

[1] Scientists Warn Multiple Overlapping Crises Could Trigger 'Global Systemic Collapse': ScienceAlert. https://www.sciencealert.com/hundreds-of-top-scientists-warn-combined-environmental-crises-will-cause-global-collapse

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