Towards holistic paradigms and mindsets
The conventional scientific paradigm is based on a materialist philosophy of nature, which places humans above and separate from nature. This paradigm has been driving science, research and economics, and by extension our food and agriculture system, for at least the past few hundred years. It elevates science and ‘rational thinking’ above other ways of knowing (e.g. traditional, indigenous, ‘non-expert’). In reality the dominant scientific paradigm is an old fashioned and out of date belief system. We need to move towards more holistic paradigms and mindsets which view nature as organic, interconnected and alive and which accommodate complexity, diversity, non-linearity and uncertainty. This shift is needed if we are to effectively address the root causes of the complex and interconnected crises we are facing.
A key aspect of this shift is the need to reconnect with and learn from nature. The dominant Western worldview is based on the domination of nature. We need to go back to understanding ourselves as part of nature. This requires radical and fundamental changes in our anthropocentric, speciesist and human supremacist worldview and our attitudes and relationship toward the living world, including our relationships with other animals. We cannot hope to reset our worldview and come back into right relationship with the living world and all her inhabitants, without re-evaluating and transforming our relationship with other animals and recognising them as our evolutionary kin. The moral obligation to end the exploitation and oppression of other animals that this recognition reveals requires us to forsake the ‘hubris of our unfounded human supremacy’.
Towards a narrative of abundance
The dominant materialist paradigm has given rise to several deeply entrenched narratives that sustain and strengthen the current food, agriculture and economic systems. These narratives are constructed and promoted by corporate, governmental, academic, philanthropic and media actors and legitimised in various ways by international institutions. One of these foundational narratives is the narrative of scarcity or lack of food, which has been shown to be false. This narrative promotes fear and justifies actions such as repressive policies and corporate resource grabbing, producing new scarcities. This narrative also hides the true causes of hunger and poverty. It leads to a narrow focus on production and its intensification, resulting in singular technology and market based, corporate driven solutions, which are ineffective, destructive and unsustainable.
The needed systemic solutions are unlikely to become mainstream until the narrative of scarcity is replaced by a more accurate and meaningful narrative of abundance rooted in more ecological, holistic paradigms. Narratives of abundance can be heard from peasant, women and indigenous communities and activists around the world. These communities know the potential abundance of local food systems, and the possibility of its creation through holistic and multifunctional approaches to food and agriculture, and rural livelihoods.
Towards ecological and multifunctional paradigms of agriculture
The dominant industrial Green Revolution paradigm of agriculture is ecologically, economically and socially unsustainable. It is at the root of the unabated degradation and erosion of agricultural lands and agroecosystems globally and a key driver of climate and ecological breakdown. It also pays little attention to the interconnected and multifunctional roles that agriculture must perform for landscape health and ecosystem functions for society and nature.
We need to move away from the industrial Green Revolution paradigm of agriculture towards paradigms that are ecologically and biologically sustainable and optimise agriculture’s multifunctionality beyond just production. Such paradigms would be able to rebuild and regenerate biodiversity (both above and below ground), food webs, pest-predator dynamics, and soil, landscape and watershed health and functions, as well as adapt to and mitigate climate change. There is no shortage of alternative paradigms to choose from, though each are works in progress and can all be strengthened to optimise their biological and ecological multifunctional sustainability.
Towards decentralising power in the food and economic system
One of the key drivers of the dominant industrial agriculture paradigm, along with the interconnected crises we are facing, is the neoliberal capitalist economic system. This system has an in-built propensity to concentrate power, wealth and resources into fewer and fewer corporate hands that are unaccountable to society or nature. This has led to the current corporate food regime.
It is highly unlikely that we will be able to transform the food and agriculture system into one that is truly sustainable and just, without resisting, challenging and developing alternatives to the corporate food regime. We need to decentralise power, wealth and resources away from the corporate sector back down to the grassroots. One powerful way forward is to move away from the depoliticized corporate claim for global ‘food security’ and towards ‘food sovereignty’. Unlike food sovereignty, the concept of food security says nothing about where food has come from, who has control over the food system or the social and environmental cost for this ‘security’. Food sovereignty is promoted by the global peasant movement, La Via Campesina, and defined as:
“the rights of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and the right to define their own food and agriculture systems”.
Food sovereignty and the global movement behind it, is fighting for the systemic transformation of the corporate food regime and the wider capitalist economic system. It aims to establish ‘new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations’.
An integral aspect of food sovereignty and decentralising power in the food system, is a wider move towards localisation. Economic globalisation is central to the crises we are facing. Thus, we need to move in the opposite direction – to localise – if we are to have any hope of stopping and reversing the destruction globalisation has wreaked on humans, other animals and the planet.
Towards diets which promote human and planetary health
Our current corporate food system promotes Western diet patterns high in processed food, sugar, salt, oil and animal-based foods and low in nutritious whole plant foods. This has led to the exponential rise in obesity and diet-related diseases globally, alongside high rates of chronic hunger and malnutrition. We need to move towards a food system that can provide all people with the nutritious food they need for a healthy diet, while also minimising its impact on planetary health.
There is an increasing body of scientific and clinical evidence, showing that a healthy dietary pattern is one centred on unprocessed whole plant foods. Animal flesh and secretions are not necessary for good health, especially for those of us with access to a variety of plant-based foods in Western countries. Many traditional diets before colonisation were also plant-based, e.g. in Africa and the Americas.
Industrial animal factory farming, along with the associated habitat destruction for feed production and the wildlife trade, has also led to the increasing spread of novel zoonotic diseases. COVID-19 is just one of several zoonotic infections in the last century caused by our use of other animals. Our continued destruction of natural habitats, driven mainly by intensive industrial animal agriculture, means further pandemics are inevitable. Eliminating our reliance on industrial animal agriculture would contribute enormously to both individual and public health. This also applies to reducing, and where possible eliminating, our reliance on non-factory farmed animal agriculture which also contributes to the spread of zoonotic diseases and maintains large swathes of landscapes and watersheds in a degraded state, due to its destruction of vegetation, biodiversity and habitats.
A plant-based food and agriculture system would also be hugely beneficial for the 70 billion land animals and 1 to 3 trillion aquatic animals killed for food each year. An added bonus would be the vast amount of land that is currently used for animal agriculture (including feed crops) that could be restored to natural vegetation. Ecological restoration of this kind is currently the best option at scale for removing CO2 from the atmosphere and reaching net zero emissions by 2050, as well as halting and reversing the ecological emergency.
Towards powerful social movements and civil society
Social movements have been central to social change in the past. They are crucial for building the people power needed to make radically transformative structural change in the food and agriculture system. Most successful social movements undertook some form of protest, direct action and civil disobedience to shift public opinion and force change in society.
However it is not just mass protest that is needed for social change. Protest movements are embedded in civil society that plays an important role in harnessing the energies and hope of citizens. There is a whole ‘social movement ecology’ that is ultimately needed to create transformative social change. This movement ecology is made up of different individuals, groups and organisations located in different sectors of society with different theories of change but working synergistically.
To bring about radical transformative change in the food and agriculture system, we need to build the power of existing grassroots social movements. All of us need to support those movements working not only to change the food and agriculture system (the food and animal justice movements) but also those which are working to change the economic system (global justice, anti-capitalist, degrowth, workers’ and peasants’ movements) and those addressing the climate and ecological emergencies. We also need to support farmers and their communities to drive transformative change. All of these issues are interconnected. Building strong broad-based alliances, networks and coalitions both within and between movements is needed to build and mobilise the critical mass required for systemic change.