Through a Food Lens…

By Simone Plantinga – MSc student

For the Dutch version of this text follow this link

A year ago, I started with the research for my MSc Thesis in Rural Sociology. The research was carried out in Tilburg, a city in the Province of Noord-Brabant, in the south part of the Netherlands. After a couple of explorative meetings within the chair group of Rural Sociology of Wageningen University, with the Brabantse Milieufederatie (Environmental Federation Brabant) and the Provincie Noord-Brabant (Province of Nood-Brabant) this research has been defined. The research is about the preconditions, possibilities and restrictions for the set up of a Food Policy Council, a particular form of food policy. A FPC is a broad social network or platform which consists of multiple actors which have an interest in well developed food system. A successful example is the Toronto Food Policy, which formed in 1991 in Canada. In this blog I’ll explain the (conceptual) background of the research, as well as the key results and conclusions.  

The main cause of the problems regarding food production, is the ongoing modernization of agriculture. Low income levels of farmers, ecological damages and a contested quality of food are effects of this modernization process. In The Netherlands in particular, the pressure on land use is a problem as well. Other problems regarding food production are: environmental pollution, ecological degradation, which is closely linked to the intensive nature of the current food production standards (Wiskerke, 2009) and the loss of organoleptic quality and diversity. Problems regarding food consumption are related to trust and health. Consumers distrust the safety and quality of food.  A second problem is related to the retail sector. Marketing of products is focussed on consumption, the production of food is hidden in these images. This increases the gap between consumers and producers. Besides that, unhealthy food is localised at easy to pick positions in the supermarket.  Health problems are two-sided: on the one hand obesity is an important and growing health problem and on the other hand malnutrition is a growing concern. 

Food is concept which can be used in order to create sustainable regional policy. It is important to incorporate various actors in that process. Food as a concept is a new and forward way of looking at and working with policy. It is a shift from sectoral thinking and acting towards more integrated and territorial way of thinking about and creating policy.

FPCs are networks consisting of various actors who represent the food system. FPCs can be official bodies of government, but exist outside government structures as well. The main tasks of FPCs are: advising, bridging, networking and providing leadership. The goal of FPCs is a sustainable food system in an ecological and social way. This goal is pursued by carrying out different kinds of activities: conducting research and writing reports, developing projects, education, supporting other organisations and facilitating network meetings.

Participation as a concept is characterised by voluntarism and informality. It is about incorporating people in order to get to their opinion or information. Participation can be a goal, to ensure as many opinions as possible are heard. Integration goes further, it has only one central goal. It requires participants to cross personal borders and interests. Policy integration exceeds the individual interest, what matters is the outcome: a collective interest. Sectoring is (an attitude) focused on protecting, or even the strengthening of, the differences between different fields of policy, in order to protect and defend the own agenda towards opposite fields of policy. Sectoring will occur when participation is obligatory and when there is no multiple representation. Representation which is based on the field of policy, will increase the change of sectoring taking place. Participation from a personal perspective and with passion are therefore important.     

The main question, which was guiding in the research is: What are the preconditions, possibilities and restrictions for setting-up a Food Policy Council? The empirical research can be defined as a field research and is characterised as a case study, Tilburg is the selected case. I carried out twelve interviews, from which I derived the following results.

Summarised, the main problems as mentioned by the interviewees are:

  1. The large scale of food production (in the primary industry as well as the processing industry), which leads to a large mental distance between producer and consumer, as well as the anonymity of food;
  2. The place of production – the countryside is under pressure (especially in Brabant, where there is a large debate going on about Q fever and mega barns)
  3. Obesity and malnutrition, caused by poverty and a lack of knowledge

The power of the retail industry as a problem was not mentioned by the interviewees. It can be stated that food related activities in the Tilburg area at this moment, are focussed on consumers. Via consumers other goals are pursued. Producers, the processing industry as well as the retail industry are not involved or targeted. Most of the goals have a ‘green’ point of view. Other goals are focussed up on strengthening the relationship between city and countryside or improving (knowledge about) health. A discrepancy is noticed between the mentioned problems and the current food related activities as a solution. On the one hand a systemic problem exists, on the other hand the solution is defined on an individual level. Looking into the various activities at this moment, it is interesting to see that food appears to have a connecting ability. To het PON, De Groene Kamer, Transition Town Tilburg and de BMF, food is a central theme because of its connecting ability, mainly regarding the relationship between city and countryside. To the other organisations, food is a resource which is, sometimes implicitly, used to reach other goals.

The possibilities and restrictions of a FPC can be characterised with the following concepts: want, urgency, representation, role of the government, responsibility and scale. There is, at the practical level, a want for more cooperation and sharing of information, which requires coordination as well. Besides that, there is a want for government support. Urgency appears to be, based on the interviews, nonexistent. However, during the organised discussion meeting, it appeared there is a sense of urgency, though it is only noticed by a small group of people and still existing under the surface. As for representation, mainly interest groups are mentioned. Supermarkets as well as consumers or left out as possible participants in a FPC. From the government is expected that they will initiate, support, facilitate and be involved. However, government itself states that it will not initiate a FPC, but initiatives for that matter will be supported. The responsibility for a FPC is not taken by any of the involved organisations. Most of the interviewees refer to the scale of the city as the most suitable for a FPC. Most important possibilities thus are: want and urgency exist, and interviewees agree upon the scale. The offering of support by the government to local initiatives provides possibilities, because these initiatives are numerously existent. The main restrictions are that two large parties in the food chain are not mentioned as a possible participants in a FPC, namely the retail industry and consumers. The lack of responsibility is a restriction as well.

The various possibilities and restrictions together form the preconditions from which a FPC in Tilburg could be set-up. Preconditions, based on the literature, are the degree of participation and integration. Currently, policy integration as goal, is too ambitious. Participation as a goal for a FPC is a possibility. Sectoring could be a restriction, but this objection can be met by working together with passionate people, who are not obstructed by having to defend a particular field of policy.

1 thought on “Through a Food Lens…

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