Un-common ground and diverging utopias in food sciences

Coming back from a two-day workshop organised in the framework of the National Research Program 69 (NRP 69) “Healthy Nutrition and Sustainable Food Production” (http://www.nfp69.ch), I have been struck by what might be seen as obvious for some, but that nevertheless remains a major difficulty in interdisciplinary dialog. Thinking about how to make the food system better, different people were not aware that they were referring to different definitions of what is a “better food system”. In other words, they had diverging food utopias in mind. Let me explain:

A NRP is a multidisciplinary scientific venture funded by the state. It explores issues chosen by the government for their political and societal importance and actuality. Under this umbrella, researchers develop specific projects that address parts of the main topic of the program. This workshop gathered many researchers coming from diverse disciplines (including but not limited to biology, public health, agronomy, economics, political sciences, psychology and social anthropology).

Listening to the majority of my colleagues, I felt, again, as an alien. Coming from the critical social sciences, I had to acknowledge, that I’m still struggling to understand what could be the real benefits of many of the projects presented there. Given the puzzled faces I noticed sometimes in the audience, I am sure that this was a feeling largely shared among the participants. Even in this rather small group, there was no clear agreement on what are the “problems” in the food system, and even less on what are the potential “solutions” science should provide.

Pondering on that situation, I could think off at least two major food utopias that apparently were moving the participants. Many of these projects and researchers had in mind a techno-science utopia, where smart technological tools, highly nutritious processed food products, and more efficient farm systems, would help people to be healthier; to have more sustainable food practices; while at the same time developing new market and business opportunities. These research endeavours seemed to ignore the widely spread criticism on how industrialisation and financialisation of food systems have largely contributed to develop unhealthy and unsustainable food systems. This utopia they had in mind was definitively a modernist one: efficiency, technological progress, monitoring and control were its pillars.

Others, clearly a minority, seemed to draw inspiration from another utopia. Even if not explicitly, those project seemed to look for more structural changes. More democracy in food governance, shorter supply chains, more practical food skills and knowledge among consumers… The utopia in the background was made of less processed food stuff, extensive and organic oriented farms, small scale food networks… in other words the archetypical alternative food network utopia. In this perspective, better food futures will depend on social innovations and progresses, not on smart technologies only.

And here we were, sitting together but dreaming of very different ideal worlds, and still having to find common answers to actual problems… I believe that spending a couple of hours discussing what we are referring to when thinking of a better food system would have significantly helped the whole process.


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