What sustainable food systems need (research)

Changes are needed to both the processes and content of research.  The process category includes the mechanisms by which science is taught, organized, funded and rewarded. The content category includes the research questions asked and the methodologies used to  address these questions.

The need to change the subject (or content) of research, and the associated new sustainable food system research agenda, has been recognized for some time (Madden and Tischbein, 1979; USDA, 1980 and 1981; Harwood and Madden, 1982; Alternative Farming Task Force, 1983; Hill, 1984a;  Hendrix, 1987; Francis and Sahs, 1988; Otis and Fournier, 1989).

Research in sustainable food systems, in contrast to the dominant research approaches, is admittedly value laden. It expresses deep commitment to the land (Leopold, 1949; Jackson et al., 1984), to conserver lifestyles (Buttel, 1980; Parr et al., 1983), to the rejuvenation of communities and culture (Berry, 1977),  to economic systems that place value on human fulfillment and the environment and that discourage  mere commodity exchange in the market place (Schumacher, 1973; Ekins, 1986a), to social justice and equitable access to an affordable nourishing diet. Investigations into problems and solutions must take these realities into account.  The belief of conventional scientists that it is possible to be socio-politically detached and ignore the consequences of one's work (Hightower, 1972; Hadwiger, 1982; Busch and Lacy, 1983; Miller, 1985a) is not compatible with sustainable approaches.

Most of the problems faced by those practicing sustainable agriculture and food systems cannot be solved with commercial products or discrete technologies, but rather require design and management innovations for the production systems themselves (Hill, 1985a; Buttel et al., 1986; Patriquin et al., 1986; Altieri, 1987). University and government agricultural scientists have yet to develop a "design research paradigm"  to investigate potential design and management solutions, even though some other disciplines, faced with similar problems, moved in this direction years ago (Koenig, 1985).

Sustainable food systems research also requires a solutions-oriented focus.  Because we have limited examples of successful food system change to draw on in Canada, we need more normative, or "what could be", research.    This builds on the positive, or "what is", research tradition to explore new possibilities that have yet to be implemented.  Normative inquiry is, however, unfamiliar to many researchers and scholarly disciplines and requires a different conceptual and methodological approach (see Home Page).  Normative inquiry:

  • Looks at what might be possible
  • Focuses on implementation
  • Needs transition frameworks
  • Requires a different kind of evidence and a different approach to validity
  • Analytical frameworks employed are critical to interpreting the data

This does not mean we don't need positive inquiry.  Such traditional research helps us understand more precisely what the problems are.  But positive and normative work needs to be linked so that our understanding of the problems is intimately connected to the solutions we think are viable.