In the present context of intertwined and intensifying economic, environmental and climate challenges and crisis, we need to enlarge our thinking about food systems change. One way to do so is by considering intersections between our longstanding interdisciplinary interest in food and agriculture and new scholarship and practice centered on transitions to sustainability. The general idea of transition references change in a wide range of fields and contexts, and has gained prominence most recently as a way to discuss and address sustainability challenges. To explore connections to food systems change, I highlight two broad approaches in the sustainability transitions research field. First is a multi-level perspective that examines sustainability innovation pathways and second is a social practices approach that illuminates the possibilities (or not) for shifts in normal everyday routines and practices. Taken together, these approaches offer different and useful ways to think about the dynamics, durability and significance of innovations in food and agriculture, and the part they play in transitions to sustainability. Numerous opportunities exist to forge more productive links between work on food systems change and the broad and growing sustainability transitions field. First, our research and practice insights about the importance of politics, governance, values and ethics in food and agriculture could help to strengthen the sustainability transitions field, which initially underplayed such questions. Second, the sustainability transitions field’s implicit systems sensibility and its futures orientation could help to widen the scope of inquiry and the contribution to policy and planning of research and practice on food systems change.
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And other fields have their transitions. In music, a transition occurs when the melody and harmonies of one theme modulate and move into another theme, related yet new. In chemistry, a transition state exists between the state where molecules are reactants and the state where molecules are products.
Brown et al. (2012) specifically highlight a distinction between transition and transformation in the political-economic realm. Transition may address urgent public issues requiring change, but it tends to be more gradualist and less inclined to make a wholesale break with foundational political, social or economic institutional arrangements than transformation. Following this distinction, transition’s character is more reformist and transformation’s more revolutionary.
Details on search procedures in Scopus and key terms are provided in Markard et al. (2012: 959–961). The final sample of articles addressing sustainability transitions included 540 peer-reviewed articles. Four journals (Energy Policy, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Technology Analysis and Strategic Management, and Research Policy) were the leading venues and together accounted for 30 % of the articles.
Markard et al. (2012) do not identify specific articles or the journals where such food systems focused sustainability transitions research appears. Examples of articles on agrifood topics that were published in the time period reviewed by Markard et al. and could have been included in their review include Wiskerke (2003), who analyzed the emergence and operations of Zeeuwse Vlegel, a promising Dutch sustainable wheat supply chain, in light of the constraints posed by the prevailing wheat socio-technical regime and Smith (2006), who examined the development of the organic food sector and the directions and patterns of influence between a “green niche” like organics and the established regime.
For the purposes of this address, the solar photo-voltaics example is selective and illustrative, rather than authoritative and complete.
There are parallels here to niche agricultural markets and marketing, centered on the idea of strategic smallness. Niche marketing targets a small, often specialist segment of the overall market, e.g., enthusiasts for heritage varieties within the much larger general market for lettuce.
The terminological echo with “food regimes” is striking here, but for the most part the food regimes literature and the sustainability transitions literature also appear to move in parallel universes. The productive connections and significant differences need to be examined more closely.
A social practices approach has a rich intellectual heritage in social theory and philosophy that predates its uptake in the sustainability transitions research field. Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens offer obvious roots, while Andreas Reckwitz, Theodore Schatzki and Alan Warde have each made central contributions to theories of social practice.
Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society
Social practices approach
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I am especially grateful for the advice and support of Tom Richard and for the patience of Harvey James.
Presidential address presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society held at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, June 19–22, 2013. This paper was not subject to the journal’s standard review process.
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Hinrichs, C.C. Transitions to sustainability: a change in thinking about food systems change?. Agric Hum Values 31, 143–155 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-014-9479-5