A food politics of the possible? Growing sustainable food systems through networks of knowledge


There is increased recognition of a common suite of global challenges that hamper food system sustainability at the community scale. Food price volatility, shortages of basic commodities, increased global rates of obesity and non-communicable food-related diseases, and land grabbing are among the impediments to socially just, economically robust, ecologically regenerative and politically inclusive food systems. While international political initiatives taken in response to these challenges (e.g. Via Campesina) and the groundswell of local alternatives emerging in response to challenges are well documented, more attention is needed to the analysis of similarities between community approaches to global pressures. While we are not suggesting the application of a template set of good practices, the research reported in this paper point to the benefits of both sharing good practices and enabling communities to adopt good practices that are suited to their place-based capacities. The work also suggests that sharing community-derived good practices can support and reinforce global networks of sustainable community food systems, foster knowledge co-creation and ultimately cement collective action to global pressures. In turn these networks could enhance the sustainability and resilience of community food systems and facilitate wide scale food system transformation.

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  1. 1.

    See http://nourishingontario.ca/community-food-toolkit.

  2. 2.

    Here the work of academics such as Born and Purcell, Dupuis, Guthman, Goodman, Hinrichs and Winter is important, in particular the conditions that engender defensive and parochial tendencies. It is critical to heed their cautions about co-optation of alternative and/or organic food by industrial and global food corporations as well as their warnings about the “fragility” of local action and the need to embed gains at higher governance scales (Sonnino 2009).

  3. 3.

    A World Café approach is a workshop facilitation tool that provides background information for participants, allows them to formulate their own questions and then self-organize to answer those questions. Sessions end with participants sharing their insights with each other.

  4. 4.

    These framing questions were intended to be a link between the question identified by the online Food-for-Cities listserv and the WUF VI attendees as well as stimulate discussion at the WUF side event.

  5. 5.

    Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) directly links famers to buyers who purchase shares prior to the growing season. In return, share-holders receive regular boxes of vegetables, fruits and other food. The rationale is to spread the benefits and risks between consumers and their farmers.

  6. 6.

    Areas that experience urban decay, for example in Detroit, do also have to mediate these infrastructure gaps (e.g. White 2011).

  7. 7.

    Product includes meat such as game and venison such as elk, bison, duck, rabbit, goose, water buffalo and wild boar, fish, dairy, eggs, produce, cheese, hand-made ice cream, baking and preserves.

  8. 8.

    See, for instance, http://www.cbd.int/authorities/doc/cbo-1/cbd-cbo1-book-f.pdf.

  9. 9.

    See also Swyngedouw (2007) and his work on the post-political condition.

  10. 10.

    Sustainable diets have been defined as those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources (FAO 2010, see also Lappe et al. 2013).

  11. 11.

    See, for instance, http://350.org.



Community supported agriculture


Food and agriculture organization


Food security research network


Lanark local flavour


Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement)


Non-governmental organization


System of food systems


System of systems


System of sustainable food systems


United Nations


World Urban Forum


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The Ontario research was enabled by funding from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The richness of the Ontario research is possible due to the dedication to their communities of food by Peter Andree, Patricia Ballamingie, Irena Knezevic, Karen Landman, Phil Mount, Connie Nelson, Erin Nelson, Linda Stevens, Mirella Stroink, Fiona Yeudall, Sarah Walker and Brynne Sinclair-Waters. We are all indebted to the practitioners that carry out this work from day-to-day. Thanks also to the reviewer comments that made this into a greatly improved paper.

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Correspondence to Alison Blay-Palmer.

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Julien Custot was formely Food for the Cities Facilitator at FAO, La Grange La Prévôté, 77176 Savigny-le-Temple, France

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Blay-Palmer, A., Sonnino, R. & Custot, J. A food politics of the possible? Growing sustainable food systems through networks of knowledge. Agric Hum Values 33, 27–43 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-015-9592-0

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  • Food
  • Sustainability
  • Collective
  • Neo-liberalism
  • Place
  • Community
  • Transformation