Episode 3: Lauren Baker on Food System Transformations
Debates about the future of food have become more polarized than ever, and little attention is paid to why people hold genuinely different beliefs.
We are here to fill this gap by exploring the evidence, worldviews and values that people bring to the global food system debates.
Welcome to feed, a podcast in conversation with those who are trying to transform the food system. I'm Matthew Kessler.
And I'm Samara Brock and we've been engaging with these issues for years, through our work on farms, around policy tables, and at universities.
This show is presented by table, a food systems collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of agricultural sciences, and Wageningen university.
So Matthew, what's on the table today?
There are many ways to think about Scale in the food system – how localised or globalized should our food system be? Does the food system need to be reformed or transformed? And at what scales should this change happen?
We discuss the scale theme of this series and related debates in our trailer episode, so please check it out you haven’t already.
Our guest today is Dr. Lauren Baker, who reflects that the reality between what is global and what is local is often blurred. And the scales at which people work to create change are highly interdependent.
Lauren previously led the Toronto Food Policy Council, a citizen advisory group embedded within Toronto’s division of Public Health, and currently teaches in the Global food equity programme at the University of Toronto.
Lauren Baker is also the Director of programmes at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. This organisation is an alliance of mostly philanthropic foundations that leverage their resources and networks to build a sustainable and just food system. They aim to stimulate local and global action for transformational change.
In our conversation, we discuss Global Alliance’s theory of transformation, the importance of relationship building in food systems work, and why Lauren finds it essential to link local and global scale to place.
However, Lauren’s response to what she had for breakfast reminds us to not think about food too much or we might forget to eat it!
What did I have for breakfast? Oh, my gosh, I didn't have breakfast, but I had some leftover pasta.
Thanks for joining us. I am looking forward to speaking with you today, as I think both your work and way of thinking are really relevant to what we're doing with the scale project.
Thanks for the invitation to be part of this conversation. And really looking forward to digging into the issues of scale.
So how did Lauren end up working with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food? The first seeds were sown when she began working at the local scale in Toronto, Canada at a food bank. A quick note here to the listeners from Sweden, where I’m based – a food bank might not be as familiar a concept as it was only introduced into Sweden in the last 5 years. Food banks are places that distribute food to those in need, often salvaging products that would normally go to waste. Lauren talks about her experience working there.
First of all, it revealed the extent of poverty and food insecurity right in my backyard, which you hadn't been totally aware of as a young person. And secondly, it made me really aware of the corporate capture of the charitable food sector. So actually, right down the street was a large food company, and the majority of food that was being given out to food bank clients were damaged food from that company.
While redistributing food waste to those in need might be seen as a good idea, critics of the corporate influence into the sector worry that it treats food like a logistical problem, taking attention away from systemic issues such as low wages, poverty and inequality.
And then the third thing that I found troubling and surprising, were just issues of kind of racism within the food bank environment, and how some people were treated differently, and preferenced in that situation. So I realized that there's a lot of work to do right at home on these issues. And then food really was a great entry point into exploring my very broad interests, and social justice, and environmental sustainability. So I just followed on from there. And I've been working on food issues from one perspective or another ever since.
Lauren continued to learn more about the parts of the food system invisible to most consumers and how a globalized food system connected people and ecologies across great distances. Her master's thesis followed a particular crop across a whole continent.
We followed the trail of a tomato from Mexican field to Canadian table and looked at the political economy of the tomato along that trail. So we looked at labour and production, and the economic drivers of those systems from production to retail and food service, it was super interesting. And very revealing of all the kind of hidden things that we don't consider when we see that final tomato on the Big Mac or in the supermarket.
Lauren then went on to work for the non-profit Foodshare, one of Canada’s largest food security organisations. Foodshare believes that community leaders have a central role in defining and advancing food justice. I asked her about her experiences working at FoodShare and what lessons she learned.
I learned so much when I worked there, the organisation is really focused on addressing food insecurity, and in Toronto, or building food security, two very different things, actually. And we're operating many programmes at a small scale, sort of at a pilot scale, at a scale of innovation, around these issues. And yet, through their advocacy, and their linkages in terms of the broader food movement across Canada, we're diffusing ideas, and bridging into also those kind of structural issues that need to be resolved.
Food share works at different levels to both address and build food security. They support programmes dedicated to community building and organising. They advocate for policy such as an increased minimum wage, and they support direct food distribution. Lauren explains why they chose this approach.
If you're going to actually address something like food insecurity, you probably can't do that by delivering food and creating community gardens, but you need to work cross these jurisdictional scales, work with partners and allies on strategic communications and advocacy, have a political strategy, working at the municipal, provincial, and federal level. And all of those are scales of activity that intersect. And there I was really thinking about in those early days, this idea of nested scales.
Lauren talks about nested scales in a way similar to our previous guest Ken Giller. While Ken referred more to ecological scales – a crop, to a field, to an ecosystem, to a bioregion, Lauren refers to working at different societal scales – from a body, to a household, to a community, to a state or a province, to a nation to globe.
In the article that I wrote with Josée Johnston on Eating outside the box on what I was learning in at FoodShare, we really looked at the scale of social reproduction. And I think that's so relevant today in the COVID moment
Social reproduction is a broad concept used and understood in many different ways. So how does Lauren understand social reproduction and how does it relate to COVID?
Well, I think actually Marx developed this idea of social reproduction to really think about the household, the kind of politics of sexual reproduction, social reproduction, that unaccounted for labour, which is so crucial for society and economies. So that most fundamental level, that's what we're talking about. It's that sort of invisible world of labour that makes everything tick tock along.
So COVID spotlights unaccounted for labour in several ways. When children are attending school from home, parents are doing three jobs at once, being a parent and a teacher and their regular employment, and they are only compensated for one.
Another example is people’s wages not meeting their basic needs – so they are turning to the internet to crowdsource funding to pay for health services or housing.
Here, social reproduction refers to the system of capitalist production reproducing a system of wage labour. And that wages are structurally inadequate to compensate for all the work that people do to survive.
When I was at FoodShare I was really thinking about that scale of social reproduction and how the body, how food security and food insecurity, hunger, are really embodied experiences that are linked to very broad political processes, and political economic dynamics.
The scale of the household is so crucial at this moment. People are really experiencing hunger in acute ways. And then people are mobilizing to address that in really interesting ways, too.
So both in Josée Johnston and Lauren’s article, and in the era of covid, Lauren reflected on alternative approaches to addressing hunger outside of the “global industrial food system”. Lauren discussed building and supporting direct connections between local food producers and community residents experiencing hunger.
Lauren supports establishing these mutual aid networks, to shorten both the physical and mental distance that the international industrial food system often creates between consumers and their food. The basic mission of a mutual aid network is to match people who need something, a good or a service, with people who can provide it.
It’s worth noting that this is only one approach to reducing hunger, and it is not without its challenges.
For example, how can these programmes be sustained over time? And how can the local producers make a living? Small-scale producers that rely on local markets, have to compete with large-scale food exporters who have lower production costs, often making the cost of local food less affordable. There are other aspects here to unpack like national subsidy programmes and economies of scale, but we’ll save that for another time. For a mutual aid network to be effective, these programmes need to be heavily supported or subsidized to meet the needs of both the struggling producers and citizens. We’ll explore this and other approaches to improve food security in vulnerable populations in more depth in coming episodes.
We’re going to pivot now and talk about Lauren’s work in Mexico, which explored the connections between people and plants, and how local food networks are embedded in larger systems. Lauren wrote a book called "Corn meets maize, food movements and markets in Mexico". We’ll soon talk about how Lauren uses the words Corn and Maize to mean different things, but first, she reflected on what brought her back to Mexico.
I was drawn back to Mexico because in 2002, there was a significant study by Quist and Capela that showed that genetically modified corn had introgressed into native maize landraces in Mexico. And there were a whole bunch of really dynamic social movements that were organising around this. And so I was interested in those local global movements, the kind of political economy of trade, which was really about NAFTA at that moment. So NAFTA in the 90s, just opening the doors to Mexico and US corn flooding in. And there was a movement in Mexico to protect these native corn land races, and movements in defence of corn. And I just found the whole thing super interesting.
A quick aside on NAFTA, which refers to the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA went into effect in 1993. Its goal was to eliminate trade barriers and reducing tariffs on imports and exports between Canada, the United States and Mexico. While it boosted each nation’s economic growth, it also hurt some industries, such as the US manufacturing sector and smallholder farmers and labourers in Mexico.
NAFTA also led to some uneven outcomes, as seen in agriculture. For example, US farmers quadrupled their exports under NAFTA, including, as Lauren said, an enormous increase in the export of corn. Meanwhile, Mexico transitioned from being almost self-sufficient in their production of corn pre-NAFTA to In 2016 importing 2.6 billion dollars worth of corn from the US – mostly for livestock feed. There was also a shift to large-scale production in Mexico under NAFTA. The land consolidation and the cost of cheap imports resulted in almost two million farmers losing their land or their jobs. Some of this labour shifted to other industries – though these new jobs were often in other regions in Mexico, leading to a documented increase in migration to Mexican cities and also across the US border.
We’ll now get into Lauren’s multi-layered answer from the perspective of how some of the Mexican farmers responded during this time. First Lauren describes what happened at the local scale.
At the very local scale and communities, I looked at very concretely a tortilleria in Mexico that was forging these local food networks. So creating an economy around maize land races, and bringing that into town, for consumers to enjoy. So really kind of that idea of building local food networks that we understand,
Then Lauren looked at ANEC, a Mexican farm organisation and movement with over 60,000 members, which had a larger scale response to organising for smallholder farmers livelihoods.
So building again tortillerias, but more industrialized nixtamal facilities all across Mexico, and then making tortillas in local communities with that corn. So the idea was to buy local corn varieties again from farmers, from campesinos, support them to improve their corn over time, and really build markets for those diverse varieties.
Can you say more about what are the opportunities and challenges associated with that scale of response?
The opportunity at the scale that ANEC is working at really relates to the potential for small and mid-scale agriculture and food system infrastructure which is so important, and this includes infrastructure for farmer extension and support, so those would be agricultural sciences or agronomy in partnership with and service to local farmers. I am relating to aggregating, processing and distribution, as well as marketing and retailing infrastructure, so that whole suite of what a lot people in the US called agriculture of the middle.
There were some challenges I observed related to the quality of tortillas, which I thought was really interesting and the need for more standardisation. So as you move into larger scale processing and production, there is a need for more standardisation which could be in conflict with that household, artisanal scale. I think we often pit different scales against each other, but another way of looking at this issue is from a systems perspective and really thinking about how the scales can better align. Right now, the scales are often completely misaligned, and they’re actually detrimental to one another.
And lastly, the state-wide response.
And then I looked at a state as state level response, that was in Michoacán at the time, there the political situation lent itself to people really within the government organising for agroecological networks and markets, and extension and bringing a participatory certification scheme. So it was a very interesting time in Michoacán to see how the state could support different kinds of agricultural economy at a different scale.
In Lauren's book, she also distinguishes the words ‘corn’ and maize’ to illuminate how they relate distinctly to different scales.
I use the words corn and maize as sort of symbols of food systems conflicts. So, I was using corn as a way to describe the dynamics of the more industrialized food system, and all of its associated impacts and achievements. And corn is a really interesting example of that. Because in my book I argue that corn has a lot of agency in the food system and has been able to mobilize in really incredible, interesting ways in terms of its role in livestock production and in sugar sweetened beverages, corn syrup production and industrial uses as well, plastics, etc. So corn is like a central agent in industrialized processes in the industrial food system. And of course, corn is also very trans local. It's really interesting to trace the history of corn and corn breeding over time as well and the kind of consolidation of few high yield corn varieties and then genetically modified corn varieties over time.
And then I would use maize to symbolize another way that corn has expressed agency in the Milpa connected to millions of campesino farmers in Mexico and across the Americas really. And how maize travelled through the Americas in a very significant way really transforming cultures and communities, rooting communities and agriculture systems of exchange and nutrition and culinary diversity. So I explore some of these ideas of how corn has agency and some of the tensions between these two food systems and also of course, the political ecology or political economy of the food system.
If you’re confused about what is a Milpa system, who are campesinos, and how has a single plant transformed cultures and communities - we will explore this topic later when we speak to Elena Lazos Chavero, a biologist and social anthropologist from Mexico. So instead of unpacking how the Milpa system grows food through a polyculture – cultivating multiple crops in the same fields at the same time, and plants for land use on multi-year cycles - we’ll Table this for a moment and return to it later.
I then asked Lauren to reflect on why she found it so difficult to draw a distinction between global and local systems. She shared an example from a convening held at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food on resilient seed systems.
And there was a whole conversation about formal and informal seed systems. So formal being seeds that are bought from companies that have intellectual property around the development of those varieties. And informal, being farmer managed, community managed seed systems, farmers saving their own seeds. And we had a number of farmers with us at that convening, and they're all involved at the same time in both of those activities, they're buying seeds, and they're saving seeds. And so for them, this division, between the formal and informal, the local and the global, I'm trying to build a parallel here, was a really false division, because, they were just kind of caught up in this reality, which is like, on my farm, I'm doing both of these things, I'm relying on all of these kinds of systems. And the system for them was very dynamic, and interrelated. And so that was really important to understand. And it's this idea of scale and local and global as it relates to place.
Lauren demonstrates how entangled these local and global systems are. One of the questions this podcast is asking, should the future of food be increasingly globalized or localised, doesn’t really capture the interplay between two. Can we have global without local and local without global? Do local food networks benefit from the ongoing process of globalisation?
I think that's a really great question. And probably the most problematic part of the kind of Local Food Network idea is this idea of local, because of course there's local things happening. But actually, all food work happens locally, like you're producing monoculture corn, and that's local, it's happening locally somewhere. I think in my research in Mexico, what I was really trying to shine a light on was the fact that most of these local food networks, we were part of global conversations, global movements, global trade, global networks. So it's really hard to think about scale as kind of closed, that these are all very permeable boundaries. And of course, there are these influences.
I want to return to what you said earlier about how local and global relates to place. In your book, you have a quote, transnational movements are place-based, not place bound. And I'd like to talk about your project Beacons of Hope – where you’re building a network of groups working to transform the food systems at different scales. Can you share more about this initiative and why and how you've chosen to spotlight these projects across the globe?
Thanks for bringing me back to the Beacons Hope. It's a really important initiative and I'm really excited about it. The past couple of years, through the initiative, we really looked at sustainability transition theory, how do major transitions and transformations happen globally? What is the kind of systemic dynamic that leads to those transitions and transformations? We're very interested in agroecology as a transformative process, both an ecological, social, cultural and political process. And so that is also reflected in that work. We ourselves thought about a theory of transformation, which is about these connected networks leading to tipping points.
If you’d like to learn more about Global Alliance for the Future of Food’s theory of transformation ,we’ll link to it in our show notes. We’ll have to check back with them in a few years to learn if these projects have endured, and what is their local, regional and broader impacts? And if and how they succeeded? Lauren reflected more on building out this strategy
Food Systems are really challenging in terms of the transformation theory, because they're very diffuse, and they're so multi actor. And the main point of it was to demonstrate and to acknowledge that transformation is happening, that people on the ground - I've been involved in all of this great work in Toronto and beyond, where people are really building alternative realities, alternative food systems.
I was curious to know how these beacons of hope projects worked and what they looked like on the ground. I asked Lauren if she could share a few examples.
So one is Lagos Food Bank, which is in Lagos, Nigeria. And it's at once a typical food bank. But then, like many food banks actually have started to work upstream on the root causes of hunger, and then have a whole bunch of different programmes. And I think that's one illustration of scale, which is really understanding the interconnectedness between issues and responses. Yes, people need food, maybe right away on that day, because they're hungry, but then taking these longer term approaches around, supporting entrepreneurial efforts, supporting gardens, supporting maternal health and infant health and nutrition. And really thinking holistically advancing policy at the same time. So in a way, it's the same as Foodshare, it's a very similar kind of idea where there's at once actual food delivery, but also all of these other associated programmes that are working upstream and downstream on the issue.
And then the other one is a different example of scale, which is the Common Market in the US. So they're like a food hub. And they do sort of institutional procurement, working with local farmers and vulnerable communities, to increase access to healthy food. And they've replicated themselves across the US so that there's this kind of experience of replication as well. So that sort of scaling out idea,
Lauren shared one more example of an early project in India. While it focused on an agricultural solution – to improve the soil microbiome through covercropping, mulching, and utilising locally-sourced materials like fermented cow urine and cow-dung – it also differed from the other projects in how it was supported.
One of our original beacons of hope was community managed natural farming and Andhra Pradesh. And that's a really interesting initiative, because it's like a state run supported initiative. And they're trying to really scale this approach, community managed natural farming, across the whole entire state. And they have this whole outreach programme, they have trainers, they work with women's self-help groups, and they're going village by village to introduce these ideas to build capacity around this approach of using local inputs and ecological agricultural approaches. And so there's a whole conversation now about what does it look like to scale that across India? It's pretty significant.
While that has the potential to make a significant impact, Lauren cautions against scaling out one particular solution.
We have to challenge ourselves. It's not like scaling that programme necessarily. It's about looking at all the place based approaches in India that are taking up these ideas of natural farming or agroecology in different ways that are rooted in particular cultures and ecologies and supporting those to flourish. I mean, right now we have a system that doesn't pay any attention to those initiatives, basically, there's certainly not very much financial support or policy support. So it's really about rethinking, we don't want to just spread one approach across a whole country, it's a more nuanced place-based approach.
So how does Global Alliance reflect its values and work to create their desired vision of a good food system?
There are a variety of supports that are needed. We need systemic and inclusive governance across, and connecting the various scales we’ve been discussing. We need public research for the public good and a fundamental shift in focus of programmes and subsidies that reconnect agriculture and health, in my opinion, human and ecological. We need a shift from the dominant focus on productivity and yield to a more holistic focus that sees human, social, ecological and economic issues as interrelated and interdependent. I think government needs to catalyse new investments in funding flows that support and encourage ecological food systems and create the enabling environments for agroecology, regenerative approaches and Indigenous foodways to be strengthened and thrive. And I think this also speaks to that missing middle we discussed earlier. It’s really hard to build that local and mid-scale infrastructure because there is such a mismatch between the programmes, the subsidies, the investment funding, etc.
I asked Lauren how Global Alliance for the Future of Food and the Beacons of Hope think about scale in their day to day work?
We don't talk a lot about scale, actually. And I think it's not a great word. To describe anything that we do. And I guess, what we're trying to do is connect networks who are working on a more principles based way. So we're interested in work that illustrates resilience and diversity and equity, healthfulness. So I think we're trying to not necessarily support work at particular scales or increase projects, work at a small scale to make it a larger scale initiative, but connect across scales and sometimes that work will be very large, like Andhra Pradesh and sometimes the appropriate scale will be very community based. And sometimes it's both at the same time.
So we like to conclude with some wrapping up questions that we ask each of our guests. First, what evidence and knowledge base do you draw from in your own research and work?
Well, I think evidence is also needing to be very diverse. So we talked a lot about scientific evidence or peer reviewed literature. And of course, I understand the importance of that, but also think that the evidence related to lived experience, traditional knowledge, indigenous knowledge is really important, and try to build that into my way of thinking about building the evidence base.
What do you think we miss if we put too much of our evidence strictly on scientific or peer reviewed literature?
I think we miss other ways of knowing, that scientific peer reviewed literature reflects particular knowledge paradigm, has particular epistemological roots. And I'm very interested in other ways of knowing as well,
Next question, what do you think is the most valid argument that people make, who maybe hold a different view of the food system than yourself?
Well, I think one of the arguments is that economics matters. And I agree with that.
We acknowledge that this is a highly polarized conversation, and we want to bring in to the forefront under discussed areas. So what in your opinion, is receiving too much attention? And what is being forgotten about?
Well I think one of the things that frustrates me is this kind of idea of just setting targets without really understanding how those translate back into particular places and communities. So I'd love to look at that, just like flip it around, like how do we start from a more community based way to do that work of transformation in terms of linking to those broader social and environmental goals that we have as a global community? And I'm not against setting targets, and I think you're right, you have to be careful with creating polarization, because I think I'm a great example of trying to walk lines between a lot of these issues.
And you probably hear some noise in the background. As we're wrapping up, Lauren was no longer the only one in the room recording. Part of the joys of remote recording sessions during the pandemic.
We often think in our work, how do we really increase the diversity of perspective, so find people from other places, really try and work outside of the kind of global north frame, find people working at different levels and in different contexts. So I think that would be really interesting, like what does a Dalit woman think about scale? And there are women out there who think about these things and their communities and think about transformation and are involved in these social political projects at very local levels. So super interesting to bring in some of those voices.
And thank you so much for your time Lauren, I really enjoyed talking to you.
I enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much, Matthew. And we'll be in touch.
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Today's episode was edited and mixed by me, Matthew Kessler, with special thanks to Ilja van Lammeren and TABLE research director Elin Röös. Music in this episode by blue dot sessions. We'll be back in your feed soon when I speak to Sahil Shah, co-founder of Sustainable Seaweed.
Sahil Shah 35:21
If you use 9% of the oceans to grow seaweed, you produce enough food to feed the world, you produce enough biomass to meet global energy demand and you have absorbed total global carbon dioxide emissions. And with new technologies that are increasing yield, that number is now significantly lower than 9%.
So is Seaweed a silver bullet – a food, climate and jobs solution? Or is it snake oil? Learn about how scaling transformative technologies might impact livelihoods differently - and how and if this can be scaled in a just and equitable way - in the next episode of the Feed podcast.