As public awareness of crises such as climate change, biodiversity loss and inequality has grown, the environmental and social impacts of the food system are now subject to greater scrutiny. As a result, debates about the future of food – and how the food system can become sustainable, resilient, just, and ultimately “good” – are becoming more intense and polarised.
While these debates may nominally be about food, they are also not about food. Rather, they reflect differing beliefs about how we should live and interact with the natural world and one another. For example, when people argue over whether organic farming can feed the world, whether local is better, or whether we need to give up meat, they are not just debating scientific evidence but also the future they want for themselves and humanity. Their proposed solutions depend on what they believe about – among other things – the legitimacy of certain technologies, the malleability of human nature, what landscapes should look like, the role of the state versus the individual and human motivations.
In other words, discussions about how to nourish everyone sustainably are founded on many, often contradictory, values, desires, assumptions and cultural preferences. These influence how people interpret science and understand the world. These underlying values need to be brought into the open and more explicitly discussed. When they are not, the consequences, are all too often miscommunication, the entrenchment of existing positions, and inertia.
Table sets out the evidence, assumptions, and values underpinning different viewpoints on food systems controversies – controversies that have a profound bearing on how we go about tackling food-related climate change, using land, the ways in which food production and distribution are managed and practiced, the governance arrangements, and foods we eat. Through mapping debates, we highlight critical differences and areas of agreement, identify research questions to help resolve uncertainties and suggest paths forward.
A key part of Table’s process is facilitating dialogue between diverse voices in the food system. We aim to engage a wide variety of stakeholders, including researchers, farmers, industry, civil society and policymakers, and bring together representatives of different regions, sectors, areas of expertise and viewpoints. We attempt to engage in debates impartially, while recognising that everyone, including our own staff members, has their own assumptions and values.
We use several methods of dialogue to tease apart contentious issues, including:
- Spoken or written interviews
- Invited blog posts
- Panel discussions and workshops
- Our online discussion forum
As well as providing a platform for a wide range of voices, we will describe and explore the conversation, leading to the following outputs:
- Building Blocks: Short, peer-reviewed, foundational explanations of key concepts relevant to food systems and sustainability (e.g. what is agroecology? What is sustainable intensification? What are nature based solutions?) Their function is to foster greater basic food systems literacy within the stakeholder community and ensure that debates do not simply arise from misunderstandings.
- Debates Dissected reports: Analytical, peer reviewed reports, drawing upon our dialogue process and describing the debate. The goal is to help stakeholders reach a better mutual understanding of the reasons for agreements and disagreements, while highlighting areas that hold promise for more collaborative thinking and agreement.
- Podcasts: Each series will focus on a particular theme and comprise 6 to 12 episodes, each involving a range of speakers and perspectives on a particular question within the theme.
Table plans to apply this methodology to a wide variety of themes. Our first project focuses on the question of scale in the food system, that is, to what extent the future of food should be global or local.
Table’s work is an ongoing and iterative process. We welcome feedback on our methodology and our outputs.