(adapted from MacRae et al., 1989)


The problems of the dominant research and extension model

What sustainable food systems need




Financing the transition


To a great extent food system research in the Western world has for years happened in a policy vacuum (Mellor, 1977; Gouvernement du Québec, 1979; Center for Rural Affairs, 1982; Ruttan, 1982; Busch and Lacy, 1983; Dahlberg, 1986a). In the absence of clear, holistic national food system goals, agents, other than public ones (individual scientists, disciplinary associations, commodity groups, private funders), step in to determine directly or indirectly decisions about research directions.  The goals identified on this site thus require a new direction and approach.

Food system change requires new research and new research processes across many fields, including agricultural sciences, nutrition, health promotion, wildlife biology, geography, urban planning, political science, sociology, anthropology, ecological economics, feminist, equity and labour studies. Many fields are already contributing  to these needs, while in others, the dominant approach to inquiry offers little of value to joined up food policy work. The problems are particularly acute in the traditional food disciplines, agriculture, nutrition and food science, that still dominate much of the inquiry process.  Many of these problems (and their solutions) are not specific to these fields and have been extensively reviewed in  literature on the history, philosophy, psychology and sociology of science (cf. Maslow, 1966; Kuhn, 1970; Leiss, 1972; Mahoney, 1976; Berman, 1981; Albury and Schwartz, 1982; Levins and Lewontin, 1985; Lincoln and Guba, 1985; Martin et al., 1986; Savan, 1988). Rather, these problematic approaches to inquiry are generalized phenomena that have only been minimally addressed in many food system research areas.

In the last few decades, the social sciences have become a more significant part of the research landscape, although agricultural economics remains the dominant discipline.  Environmental studies, geography, political science, sociology, planning and communications have, however, played a larger role.  Particularly since the creation of the Canadian Association of Food Studies in the mid-2000s, scholars from a wider array of fields have contributed to our understanding of food system change.  However, this work is often difficult to fund, quite conceptual, and is insufficiently focused on the details of transition process.

This review of the challenges facing food studies makes the case for food - related research remaining a largely public enterprise.   Although public - private collaborations have become the norm the past 30 years, widely viewed as part of the neo-liberal project of governments and firms, they are  largely a failure at advancing inquiry to support joined up food policy.  The essential problem is that much of the needed analysis is beyond the level of the firm or business association, the two essential private actors in these public-private collaborations.  Consequently, private actors are unlikely to put money into most joined-up food policy projects.  The roots of this dilemma are explored in The problems of the dominant research and extension model.  What is proposed in this section is a different approach to science and to the organization of the scientific enterprise.

Financing the transition

In the short to medium terms, three financing processes will be happening.  Money allocated for research that does not support deep sustainability (e.g., much current molecular biology and breeding work, agrichemical efficiency, many animal feeding studies) will gradually be shifted to work more aligned with the research agenda outlined here. It must be acknowledged that much of current research funding goes toward solving problems created by earlier waves of conventional technology adoption, so as sustainable approaches are adopted, such "negative consequences" research will be unnecessary (Hodges and Schofield, 1983).  But there will also be a gradual reduction in reliance on industry matching funding for some sustainability projects since many will not be attractive to the dominant industry.  This may result in higher levels of government funding.  As the food industry shifts due to the interventions outlined on this site, the possibilities of industry matching funding will likely increase.

There will also be some implications for institutional training budgets.  Universities will have to adapt their curricula and pedagogies and this process should be somewhat budget neutral, but professional development budgets for faculty and for research institution staff may experience increases in the short term since many current employees will need retraining to comply with the new directions outlined here.  As current employees retire, new hires will be sought with the skills to carry out this agenda.  This employee transition is already somewhat underway as AAFC is now recruiting scientists to fulfill 6 priority objectives, several of which are consistent with this site:

  1. Increasing agro-ecosystem resilience and adapting to climate change through a systems approach
  2. Improving environmental performance of agriculture through Clean Technologies
  3. Unlocking the microbiome to increase soil, plant and animal health and productivity
  4. Revolutionizing germplasm development through phenomics, multi-omics or advanced genetics
  5. Enhancing risk management and reducing losses for producers through big data and predictive analytics
  6. Enhancing the nutritional value of foods and reducing the impact of antimicrobial resistance