President’s Corner – Food People Planet: the 21st Conference of the Australasian Agri-food Research Network

geoffrey-lawrenceThe 21st conference of the Australasian Agri-food Research Network was held in Sydney, Australia, from 24-26 November 2014. I have provided an outline of the program and some of the highlights.

The Australasian Agri-food Research Network (AFRN) has been holding annual meetings for the past 21 years. Beginning with a small group of critical scholars seeking to understand the dynamics of change in the food and farming industries in Australasia, the Network has expanded to include the views and insights of many of the most influential academics in global agri-food research. Over the last five or so years, keynote speakers have included Philip McMichael, Jennifer Clapp, Michael Carolan, and Terry Marsden.

Dr John Ingram

Dr John Ingram

For the 2014 conference Dr John Ingram, Food Systems Program Leader, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, delivered a keynote entitled ‘Food and Nutrition Security and its Interactions with Environmental Change’. John provided a comprehensive analysis of the interactions between activities relating to human food-and-nutritional-security and the environment, focusing, in particular, on ‘planetary boundaries’. John argued that current ways of producing and distributing foods are not being held within planetary boundaries. Not meeting environmental requirements they are, therefore, unsustainable. The current production system is one which raises carbon dioxide levels and thus contributes to climate change. It also reduces biodiversity, disrupts biochemical cycles and depletes fresh water resources. He called for a more holistic appreciation of the ways in which food is grown, transported and sold – in the hope of developing policies and actions which can help create a nutritious and sustainable diet for the planet.

There were many themes which emerged during the conference including: value chains and nutrition; traditional food systems; urban agriculture; agricultural innovation; rural place; and, biogovernance. But the three major themes were those of food security, food sovereignty, and the ‘post-human’ turn in agri-food studies.

In the arena of food security, speakers focused upon the importance of India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) in providing food to millions of vulnerable households. It was argued that past practices of the ineffective targeting of beneficiaries, corruption and the pilfering of granaries were being addressed by better local-level knowledge, and ‘ownership’, of the PDS. The importance of out-migration as a livelihood strategy in places as diverse as Nepal, India and Vanuatu was the focus of several papers. Basically, the movement from a totally agriculturally-focused economy to one where remittances from family members – now earning wages in the cities – were repatriated to the farms, provided a new basis for poverty alleviation and food security. A paper by Professor Joerg Gertel of Leipzig University, Germany, contended that the protest movements during the Arab Spring of 2008 were a direct result of the speculative activities of the large grain traders whose actions followed the logic of neoliberal privatization. The flexibility gained by these traders actually undermined the food security interests of millions of people directly affected by food price rises.

Food sovereignty was the second main theme. Alison Henderson (University of Waikato) and Lee Edwards (University of Leeds, UK) argued that as the Fair Trade movement becomes more mainstream, so-called ‘ethical consumers’ become increasingly distant from the real conditions of production. They argued that disconnected consumers were unaware that Fair Trade actually reinforces the role of mass consumption, rather than challenging it. Another paper was critical of the view that ‘local’ food could enhance ecological sustainability. Doubts were raised as to whether local food initiatives could ever produce the ‘transformational’ change needed to create a sustainable and socially-just system of food provision. Other papers focused upon: Maori women’s role in promoting local food sovereignty; the creation of so-called ‘architectures of choice’ that provide consumers with new means of making healthy decisions about food purchase in supermarkets; and the need for strong government and stakeholder involvement in the emerging bioeconomy – thereby ensuring that potential benefits are channeled into small-scale farming and into rural communities.

Many readers will be interested in the third major theme of the conference – that of the ‘post-human turn’ in agri-food research. What is meant by this? Inspired by the writings of authors such as Foucault, Latour, Busch, Rose, Law and Whatmore – and largely within the framework of Actor Network Theory – it gives acknowledgement and stature to non-human actors in their interactions with humans. The aim is to enliven the post-human by understanding how other species are ignored or marginalized – and doing something about it. Erena Le Heron from Auckland University described how the ‘giant, carnivorous, endemic land snail’, P. Augusta, has been enrolled in a controversy between the biological and the economic in New Zealand. Other papers focused upon: the array of domesticated and wild animals that are occupying suburban Sydney; the ‘cow assemblage’, and the effect of non-human agency on dairy cattle; the ways animals de-centre human sovereignty; and the role that ‘more-than-human’ agency plays in changing water cultures. Other papers were concerned with ‘metrological assemblages’ – basically, the ways measurements are created and applied to give meaning to standards and practices. According to Chris Rosen and Hugh Campbell, University of Otago, metrics can be theorized in three ways – as representations of largely uncontested values, as signifiers of power in wider society, and as having their own ‘power’ to guide conformity to rules. Speakers applied metrologies to New Zealand kiwi fruit, as well as to rice, applies and wine. There were some fascinating insights into the ways metrologies promote calculative practices, and shape relations between human and non-human actors in agri-food supply chains. For those interested in the conference, and wish to read the abstracts, please visit:

Finally, the business meeting brought to light a concern of the three Australia and Oceanic Network (AON) members of the International Rural Sociology Association (IRSA). Basically, the AON is no longer functioning and needs to be replaced by another, suitable, body from which Council members can be elected to IRSA. It was unanimously decided that the new body would be the AFRN. Actions will be initiated to incorporate AFRN into the constitution of IRSA.

The next meeting of AFRN will be in Queenstown, New Zealand, in either late November or early December 2015. Preliminary details will be available from AFRN and IRSA early in the new year.

Congratulations to Associate Professor Bill Pritchard, Professor Elspeth Probyn, Dr Alana Mann and to a large and enthusiastic group of postgraduate students for organizing a stimulating and highly-engaging Agri-food XXI meeting held on the campuses of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence and Sydney University, 2014.

Geoffrey Lawrence PhD FASSA
President IRSA
December 2014

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