Substitution (Research)

Changing federal science and technology policy related to food

Changing the place of food studies in the university

Promoting on-farm research, citizen science,  and barefoot agronomy

Creating and disseminating system transition plans


Changing federal science and technology policy related to food

The articulation of a new national food policy creates the impetus for a reconsideration of federal science and technology policy related to food systems.  The fundamental problem is that Canadian science, technology and innovation (STI) policy and programming has been too tied to industrial product development and goods export (see for example the priorities outlined in the federal governments Innovations and Skills Plan announced in the 2017 budget). Much of the current agri-food innovation focus is on Superclusters.  Even basic research is often supported in the hopes that it will lead to some new technological innovation that will drive economic development. This made some sense historically, when the product was clearly linked to a national public need, for example the development an edible vegetable oil, canola, when the federal government realized after WWII that Canadian did not have a reliable edible oil supply (see Kneen, 1992).

But innovation is about finding new solutions to problems and needs, and many food system problems are related to weak processes, knowledge and management, designs, organizational form and management, and sometimes also products that can be bought and sold in the marketplace.  Canadian STI policy and strategies only address a limited array of these problems. In fact, many current food system challenges are related to poorly considered technologies and products that have generated  secondary and tertiary problems after their introduction, in other words, technologies themselves are often the problem, their development often supported directly or indirectly by Canadian governments.  Synthetic chemicals and genetic engineering are prominent food system examples (see Goal 4).

As with most countries, Canada lacks a solution assessment culture, process and associated institutional arrangements.  However, starting from the 1960s, other countries, particularly the USA and European states, invested  in technology assessment, perhaps most famously through the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment which existed from the 1970s to 1990s. Using an interdisciplinary and futures oriented approach, technology assessment attempts to fulfill two objectives:  a) identify promising technologies that could resolve existing problems;  and b) prevent potential secondary negative effects that often result from commercialization of new technologies that are examined too narrowly.  Because technology assessment is assumption and value-laden, given it is attempting to anticipate future problems, it is critical that it be rooted in a clear set of principles and values that can come with a robust national food policy.

A related concept from the 70s and 80s was research impact assessment, which involves examining the possible socio-economic and environmental implications of a range of possible research outcomes associated with a given project. These kinds of assessments were rarely performed and their methodology, as a result, was not particularly developed. Many were compromised by the biases of the investigators, by being overly bureaucratic, and by incomplete examination of the issues (Friedland and Kappel, 1979). Busch (1984) cautioned that impact assessments were limited because  the scientist, having invested considerable energy in developing a particular research approach, would likely to be very resistant to such an assessment and any changes it suggested.

Solutions assessment builds on these approaches but more appropriately happens earlier in the R&D cycle.  In the food system, it is very common for researchers and product developers to romance a solution, in other words, before the problem has been fully assessed, a solution has already been imagined.  Once that has happened, it is often very difficult to more fully assess the problem and imagine a wide range of solutions that might be applied.  Examples include an interesting chemical or genetically engineered crop or food that goes looking for a problem to solve.  This is a result of the capitalist R&D imperative, that the investment in products needs a payoff, regardless of how well it actually addresses a problem.  Many of the technologies are enormously expensive to develop, and because of this the developers are under significant pressure to find a robust market for them.  Part of the strategy is then to link the product's development to government STI policy and programs, so the existing model reinforces this market-driven outcome.

STI policy must require of researchers and developers a solutions assessment before support is provided.  It must also more broadly define innovation, beyond products and technologies, with a focus on long-term solutions that do not generated significant negative secondary problems.  In this approach, economy and trade are considerations, but only secondary to the question of whether the proposed innovation will really solve problems.  This shift requires substantial changes to STI policy and programming.  Government STI units will also have to develop expertise and protocols for solutions assessment, building on existing Sustainability Assessment work (see Gibson, 2017).

Changing the place of food studies in the university

Most professors doing food studies are dispersed across multiple units in the universities, from environmental studies, to communications, to information systems. Canada has 8 agricultural faculties,  though many faculty members situated in them don't associated themselves with food studies, which is part of the siloed history of the field (see Busch and Lacy, 1983; Koc et al., 2010).  There are also at least 21 schools of nutrition, many of which also include food science.  These are associated typically with agriculture, health or community service faculties. There are also many community colleges that offer agricultural, nutrition, hospitality and culinary programming.  All these comprise the food studies network, in theory.

Many faculty members are linked through the Canadian Association of Food Studies, whose members are largely in the social sciences and humanities, or practitioners, and the Canadian Association for Food, Law and Policy, a combination of social scientists,  legal scholars, government staff, and food policy advocates.

At this stage, Faculties of Agriculture should become Faculties of Food Studies, reconfiguring their structure, faculty composition, programming and pedagogy to embrace the full range of food studies.  The university that is closest to this configuration is UBC, with its Faculty of Land and Food Systems.  Many other agricultural faculties have joined forces over the last few decades with environmental sciences or environmental studies to broaden the scope of their activities.  Some others have retained a relatively robust relationship with the social sciences.  So, each faculty of agriculture would have its own unique transition path. And these transitions will be difficult because universities, in general, are not good at management and governance, particularly when it comes to reorganizing units and transforming programs and pedagogies.  In this instance, we would be blending units and scholars from very different intellectual traditions, except that they all work on food.  Since much internal management focuses on universities as work places, not as social purpose organizations with transformative missions, the transitions will need extensive outside support and facilitation, definitely a challenge to the majority in the university who believe that lived experience of the university is sufficient to know how to manage it.  A key consideration will be how to move food studies expertise within and across universities.

Equally significant, it will require some rationalizing of food studies based in non-agricultural faculty.  Universities can no longer create or eliminate programming based on their internal perceptions of what is needed.  Governments have recently tried to reorganize who does what, for the most part unsuccessfully because their skills in this area are also limited or their perceptions too blinkered by neo-liberal ideologies. Given resource limitations, it will be important for new approaches to university programming to be put in place, a topic beyond the scope of this site.

However, retaining nutrition expertise in medical schools will be essential.  Law schools will still need expertise in public and private law related to the food system.  Environmental studies programs and geography departments  in universities outside those with the new food studies faculties, however, may no longer need to direct resources to food studies.  Sociology departments may focus on a narrower set of food issues, focused primarily on identity, gender, culture and commensality.

Promoting on-farm research, citizen science,   barefoot agronomy and indigenous knowledge

Farmers, and other individuals directly involved in the food and agriculture system, have long been recognized as having much to contribute to our understanding of ecological processes in agriculture (Altieri, 1983; Levins and Lewontin, 1985). The value of lay science was reflected years ago in the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment (1985) conclusion that most innovative research was not taking place in the institutions normally associated with research activity.

Although farmers have always experimented (cf. Center for Rural Affairs, 1980), the organization of on-farm research shifted in the 1980s in response to growing institutional recognition of the value of such research efforts. Farmer associations were created specifically to perform research (Krome, 1988; Exner, 1990), and manuals for lay scientists were developed (Brusko et al. 1985; Thompson and Thompson, 1985). Scientists consulted with producers on appropriate research programs and projects (cf. Kelling and Klemme, 1990).

On-farm experimentation can involve a number of scientific approaches, some more traditional, others falling under the banner of new paradigm research. These methods have in common a belief that the practitioner has at least as much to contribute to the process of understanding biological systems as does the investigator. These approaches are also concerned with much more than the natural environment in which farminq takes place. Sociocultural, economic and political factors are all considered to be part of the investigation to obtain a more complete understanding of why certain  practices work. The farmers' objectives as producers are critical to this understanding (Bennett, 1986; Parkhurst and Francis, 1986; Wagstaff, 1987). On-farm research employs statistics, but in a more limited fashion than laboratory or small plot research. For example, Thompson and Thompson (1985) and Rzewnicki et aL (1988)  outlined simple field plot designs  convenient to use on a large scale with
normal farm equipment and practices.

The on-farm research model is not foreign to AAFC or provincial departments of agriculture, having been practiced for many years through the PFRA and farmer research clubs. The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) operated Salinity Cooperatives for many years. A recognized co-operative of farmers arranged with PFRA to hire a technician to assist with salinity problems faced by coop members. The technicians monitored the problems, and recommended changes, often tested in on-farm trials. Similarly, in Quebec, agronomes, researchers and technicians have worked for years with producers in Clubs du Production, many addressing difficulties facing sustainable agriculture producers.  The system has allowed a group of producers with similar problems to band together, determine their priorities, and obtain government support for the hiring of a staff person. There is evidence that they improve adoption of best management practices (Tamini, 2011). These models essentially create farmer - to - farmer and farmer - research networks. In Canadian universities, on-farm investigations have not historically been  encouraged by administrators, although individual professors and graduate students, committed to this concept, have carried out successful studies.

Somewhat similarly, indigenous ecosystem knowledge and the knowledge of artisanal and commercial fishers can be integrated with scientific knowledge to create a much more robust picture of the state of fisheries and water systems.  Many concrete examples exist of scientist / fisher knowledge collaborations (cf. Haggan et al., 2007).

Citizen science, though lacking a precise definition, has emerged particularly in North America since the 1990s, now with numerous projects in operation, particularly related to biological conservation. Although there are numerous challenges to make citizen science effective and useful (including study design, volunteer retention, social engagement, funding, and data collection and quality), it has had impacts on scientific discovery and policy (for a detailed review of the literature, see MacPhail and Colla, 2020).

Part of the challenge is integrating knowledge from different realms and actors into a coherent picture.  However, many tools now exist to do, including focus groups, field visits, decision-support systems, multi-criteria evaluation, participatory mapping, mediated modelling and a range of digital tools including GIS (Reed et al., 2013).

Changes to reward systems, first elaborated under Efficiency, can help shift researcher commitment to these activities.  Reward systems should favour:

- long over short-term projects;
- multi-authored over single-authored papers;
- farmer/fisher/extension/scientist/social scientist teams over teams of scientists (many farmers and fishers are interested in joining such teams);
- projects with an on-farm or water system research focus or component over a laboratory focus;
- project compliance with the departmental over disciplinary mission;
- high-quality popular (widely read) publications at least at par with high-quality scientific or economic (narrow audience) papers.

See MacRae (1991: Table 58) for a more detailed interpretation.

The exception to such reward system criteria is work on basic ecological processes that will help with ecosystem design and management. Our understanding of certain pest life cycles, many basic soil processes, marine and lake habitat and fish stock assessments,and symbiotic plant, and plant - microbe interactions is limited. More basic work on these topics will be necessary before many practical ecosystem design and management features can be implemented. Scientists working on these projects may be adequately covered under existing reward systems, although the priority areas may still have ta be specified.

Creating and disseminating system transition plans

Canada does not have a strong record of creating detailed transition plans for moving systems from one state to another, especially in the food system.  The Canadian food system does not have a planning culture, relying largely on market forces to determine its directions.  Food studies does not have a transition research tradition.

Farm-level transition plans have been developed (see MacRae et al., 1989; Goal 5 Sustainable Food) and these are important, but they do not represent system level transformation.  Part of the deficiency is that food system transition is not really considered a research area in Canada.  Some research proposals have been submitted to SSHRC over the years, with unsuccessful results, likely a combination of the quality of the proposal and the limitations of SSHRC processes as they relate to this topic.  Modelling studies have sometimes been funded, though these are only pieces of transition planning.

Building on the Efficiency proposal for dedicated funding  from SSHRC for transition planning, Faculties of Food Studies (see above) need to establish sustainable transition research teams and government units dealing with food and agriculture need to establish transition planning research units.  These teams and units would contain researchers across a range of field including policy and program design.