After the Green Revolution Summer School Overview | Samuel Wairimu & Ylva Koch
10 August 2023
The Centre for Global Knowledge Studies (gloknos) recently convened the second and final summer school of the ARTEFACT project in collaboration with the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and the Global Food Security Interdisciplinary Research Centre (GFS) at the University of Cambridge. The summer school delved into a myriad of captivating topics pertaining to food systems from different disciplinary lenses under the thought-provoking theme, 'After the Green Revolution: The Science and Politics of Sustainable Food Systems in the Anthropocene’. The summer school featured a diverse range of presentations on critical aspects of sustainable food systems. Dr. Inanna Hamati-Ataya, the founding Director of gloknos, set the scene by highlighting the role of agri-food systems in the Great Acceleration – the basis of the Anthropocene transition. She later presented two broad alternatives currently deployed for transforming food production:
- Land-based food-systems, including those of the Green Revolution now using ‘optimal’ or 'sustainable' resources and hi-tech, and ‘traditional agriculture' which often focuses on micro-scale, indigenous modes of farming.
- Non-land-based models of food production: Vertical/soil-less/ artificial soil farming and cellular agriculture.
While being introduced to the bases of such systems, the significance of agriculture was highlighted, considering its intertwinement with both culture and its socio-economic context. As such, specific agri-food systems are not just about cultivating the land but cultivating people. Whether that be through the process of food production itself or any of the various rituals, festivities, and traditions associated with it.
Prof. Shailaja Fennell's presentation on ‘Sustainable Crops and Landscape Regeneration’ introduced the overlooked and marginalised crops such as taro, yams, and millets, which were bulldozed by the ‘three Green Revolution staples’ - rice, wheat, and maize. These three cereals account for half of the global caloric intake. Although the Green Revolution increased the global supply of calories which was necessary at the time, it came with a huge cost that is being felt now. It was a package of genetically modified monoculture varieties that had higher yields but needed more water, chemical fertilisers, energy, and pesticides at the expense of varieties that were adapted to local climatic conditions. With the advances of climate change, pests, and diseases among other challenges, it is now clear diversity is necessary for a resilient food system; hence the proposal to look to the past for inspiration with millets.
Millets are one of the crops belonging to the Poaceae (grass) family. They are drought- and pest-resistant and can thrive in less fertile soils. Nutritionally, they are gluten-free, rich in antioxidants, and have a lower glycaemic index. Recognizing the multiple benefits of millets, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2023 the International Year of Millets (#IYM2023) to raise awareness of, and promote policy interventions for the production, nutritional, and health benefits of millets. And yet, what is so often overlooked, is the current gender divide when it comes to the strenuous, time-intensive process of production. While women’s involvement in millet production and processing could be beneficial, the hours they spend chained to its production will not be. Rather, as Shailaja stressed, we need to redirect technological development toward easing the current burden women must go through. Here, she emphasised the need for community action, as it is through communal empowerment that agricultural diversification creates inclusive value chains and thus ultimately reshapes both society and diets. Through such an example, the societal implications of (re)introducing crops into various agri-food systems are emphasised and the struggle between balancing both technological advances and the preservation of knowledge systems is brought to light.
The Green Revolution, of course, has had a far wider impact than just an overemphasis on rice, wheat, and maize. Dr. Nadia Mohd-Radzman drew from these shortcomings in her presentation on ‘Rehabilitating Forgotten Crops for Resilient Food System Post-Green Revolution’. Specifically, she argued that it is high-input, standardised monoculture farming that has led to a fragile food system as both abiotic as well as biotic stresses have a far stronger impact on the system. Conversely, forgotten legumes such as the African Yam Bean that are drought resistant, fix nitrogen in the soil, and have a high protein content in their beans and tubers are ideal resilient crops for (re) introduction. And yet, farmers struggle to adopt the bean - long cooking times, small tuber sizes, and a short shelf life present just a few of their problems. It is here where Nadia’s expertise comes in handy as she is currently working on eliminating any of the issues by improving the crops through genetic modification. While she recognises the limitations of such approaches such as lack of scientific expertise, legumes being recalcitrant, and the need for expensive licenses, she remains optimistic. After all, as the current legumes campaign explains - Beans Is How!
Diving into the realm of media, Dan Saladino, the Producer and Presenter of BBC’s The Food Programme and Author of Eating to Extinction had a fascinating presentation on ‘Storytelling in Food Journalism’. Dan recounted his accidental foray into culinary journalism which is now his way of explaining global affairs. His award-winning book documents tens of foods and associated cultures such as the Kayinja bananas in Uganda, the O-Higu soybean in Japan, and Qvevri winemaking in Georgia that are endangered denying the planet and people the much-needed diversity. While the book is not a campaign for the return to a mythical past, it is an invitation for everyone to draw lessons from the past to transform the current food system that is working against the people and the planet.
Dan would later take us through the challenge of reporting on the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) +2 ‘stocktaking’ event that was taking place in Rome. The UNFSS has been criticised for advancing the agenda of big businesses driven by profits and with limited corporate accountability. One of the notable critics is Michael Fakhri, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food who has been advocating for a human rights approach to address the challenges in the global food system. Other interesting stories from the UNFSS+2 were the Swiss government and Rabo Bank delegations' proposal to adopt the ‘True Cost Accounting (TCA)' of food, and FAO’s commitment to invest in farmer’s markets. Perhaps, bottom-up solutions such as farmers’ markets might be the catalyst for global food systems transformation rather than the top-down solutions being proposed on such platforms.
While Lisa Neidhardt introduced us to the ‘space’ of alternative proteins, Tamsin Blaxter of TABLE took us through the controversies behind the research and promotion of proteins, both perfectly combining centuries of history with an exciting future ahead. Whether it be a fixation on hypermasculinity, a rationalisation of colonial dominance, or the question of how much protein we actually need, the power structures around proteins became more than clear. Specifically, Tamsin dived into milk and its increased consumption throughout the latter 20th century. While explaining the panoply of catalysts for such an increase, the concept of marketing to shift consumers’ attention was a recurring idea. This was reiterated by both the head of Technology and the head of Marketing at Perfect Day - an animal-free alternative to dairy products. The challenge for them continues to be an issue of positioning in the market. While traditional meat and dairy industries are comfortable in framing and positioning their product, Perfect Day struggles to find the right balance between ‘the science’ and ‘the food’. While consumers’ awareness of climate change has risen rapidly in the last decade, taste and nutritional value still have an influence on consumers’ purchasing decisions. It is here, where the traditional marketing campaigns of the milk giants and the ongoing positioning struggles of Perfect Day collide - struggles to fit into a society whose demands, tastes, and preferences are changing - but to what extent?
Through Prof. Martin Jones’ ‘Lessons from the Deep Past about Food’s Uncertain Future’ we asked questions such as ‘What is a normal human diet? How did we originally eat?’ Martin debunked the idea of a homogeneous homo sapiens diet and rather highlighted the initial place-based differences and variety of foods consumed. While specific turns such as the creation of weaving/netting accelerated the turn towards the domestication of crops, Martin also questioned the human agency in slow domestication over millennia. And yet, he also emphasized hierarchical societies using multi-growing crops to gain power and thus the clear link between monocultural emphasis, capitalistic ventures, and belief systems. However, if one was to take one key aspect of such a vast history, it is that food systems often were place-based - a message Prof. Alberto Matarán Ruiz picked up in his talk about ‘Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems’. He focused on agroecology, the process of applying an ecological mindset to the management of agroecosystems to achieve a sustainable, regenerative agriculture cycle. Specifically, he argued for the need for bioregions as units of governance, where humans and animals are part of a holistic community, focused on the ecological well-being of the ecosystem. Bioregions can significantly reduce waste and create more efficient packaging while pursuing inclusive and resilient value chains.
The Summer school also dived into the more-than-human realm, intricately combining the socio-economic with the need to look at the ecosystem holistically. Here, the artist Iman Datoo used art and mindfulness to explore the profound connection between food, culture, and the more than human. By fostering mindfulness and a stronger appreciation for food - whether that be the all-encompassing soil or a simple earthworm, we move beyond the logical fallacy of a human/animal or nature/human dichotomy and understand and develop better relationships with nature and protect biodiversity. This was further utilised by Maarten Meijer’s presentation on 'The Changing Cosmopolitics of Nitrogen'. While shedding light on the entangled web of political and ecological factors surrounding the use of chemical fertilizers in agriculture, Maarten highlighted the need to look beyond human beings and associated institutions. In an interactive session dubbed ‘Parliament of Things’ in which the Dutch Agricultural Accord was (re)negotiated, a variety of non-human actors such as cows, the climate, or eels, emphasized the importance of considering all stakeholders in food system planning/negotiations.
To complement the theoretical learning, the Summer School provided us with the invaluable experience of visiting two of the distinct alternative visions for sustainable food systems. First, we explored G's Farm, an industrial farm, responsible for more than 80% of the UK’s lettuce and other fresh produce. Spanning three continents and more than 20,000 hectares of crops, the visit gave a real insight into some of the cutting-edge technology being used to enhance crop efficiency and reduce chemical inputs and labour. This was in complete contrast to CoFarm, a small organic community farm on the outskirts of Cambridge that embodied the principles of agroecology. The farm's approach showcased the significance of local, community-led initiatives in fostering sustainable agriculture and building resilience within local food systems, even when faced with shocks such as pandemics or the cost-of-living crisis.
Through engaging presentations, interactive discussions, and eye-opening farm visits, participants were empowered to contribute meaningfully to the collective effort to secure a more sustainable future for our planet. As we move forward, armed with newfound knowledge and inspiration, we carry the responsibility to act as catalysts for change, fostering sustainable practices in our communities and beyond.
Samuel is an interdisciplinary food system Ph.D. student at the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich under the United Kingdom Food Systems – Centre for Doctoral Training (UKFS-CDT) funded by the BBSRC. His doctoral research focuses on food environments and public health. He holds an MSc in Agriculture and Development from the University of Reading and a Bachelor of Commerce (Finance) degree from the University of Nairobi.
Ylva Koch is a recent Human Geography Graduate from the University of Edinburgh. She has various research projects in the pipeline and is particularly interested in Political Ecology, Contextualised Sustainability, and Local Food Systems.