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Skilling for sustainable food

Is Europe skilling for sustainable food?

This question preoccupies many of us, including the anthropologists who contributed to a recently-published special issue of kritisk etnografi – the Swedish Journal of Anthropology. As Cristina Grasseni and I note in our introduction, sustainability has become mainstream today, and nowhere more than in the food system. Yet as the contributions to the special issue make clear, Europe’s denizens have rather different ideas about what sustainable food entails, and so what skills are needed to achieve it. For example, among the agroecological market gardeners that Loodts studied in Wallonia, sustainability hinges on optimising the day-to-day conditions for plants to develop. By developing their capacity to see what is happening in the garden beds and anticipate what is needed to promote healthy plants, the gardeners avert the need for pesticides and produce vegetables that they consider more sustainable than those provided through industrial agriculture. For the coastal fishers who participated in the research described by Gillette, Arias Schreiber, and Siegrist, sustainable seafood is linked to their own capacity to continue wild fisheries capture despite a management regime that prevents them from fishing a multitude of species they encounter in local ecosystems. These fishers have unwillingly learned to navigate regulations, paperwork and bureaucracy to continue fishing, while also developing skills to argue for their desired fishing practices in the hopes of influencing public opinion about sustainable fishing. Vasile’s interlocutors in Turin, by contrast, take a very different approach to sustainable food. As she describes, numerous small non-governmental organisations have collaborated to form a network that cuts back on food waste at Turin’s open-air markets while offering assistance to vulnerable populations. Yet while this network won an award for its contributions for sustainability (the result of a public-private partnership), Vasile notes that such practices do not only contribute to food waste reduction, they also “sustain” the government’s retreat from social welfare. The two food cooperatives that Plender scrutinises are premised on still different understandings of sustainable food. Food sustainability is central to Britain’s cooperative movement, not only because such cooperatives purchase and sell food that is local and organic, but because they promote working cooperatively in order to acquire food from outside the mainstream provisioning system. As Plender’s research shows, the skills required for cooperation are not easily acquired in contemporary Britain: organisational structures and deeply-rooted individualism inhibit cooperative participants from developing coherent shared visions for collective action to promote sustainable food.

Sustainability’s bottom line – the individual and the collective approach

Recent reports suggest that sustainable food, and the skills to achieve it, have taken on new meanings in contemporary Sweden. Sweden’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the price of food has risen more than 20% over the past year. Such a rapid rise in food prices has not occurred since 1951. Given that this has been accompanied by higher interest rates on mortgages, higher electricity prices, and general inflation, many Swedes have had to change how they buy food – in other words, reskill. According to Swedish public radio, one new skill Swedish food shoppers have manifest in recent months is buying cheap food, which, as the Swedish meat producer interviewed in this reportage points out, means food “produced on the other side of the world.” It also means abandoning nearby food shops in favour of superstores which are farther away. Yet another manifestation of such new skills is cutting back on purchases of fruit and vegetables, a development that the Swedish Food Agency has criticized. Swedes are also buying less dairy, fewer eggs, and less organic food. Consumption of candy and ice cream, however, remain high.

By and large, such news suggests that that the individual’s or family’s economy is the bottom line for “sustainable food” for many Swedes these days – at the expense of health, social solidarity, and the environment. On the individual or family level, these newly-manifest skills are about making personal finances work. At the system level, the cumulative impact of these newly-manifest skills is billions in profits for the three food giants ICA, Axfood, and Coop. In addition to sustaining (or enhancing) economic inequality, these practices of “sustainable food” also maintain an agri-industrial food system that makes a significant contribution to global warming and environmental degradation –  undermining the systems and processes on which it depends, as the European Environmental Agency points out. The Swedish government has thus far refused to take any steps to address this situation. By contrast, France has budgeted significant sums to compensate families for inflated food prices, and the French government has successfully pressured major food retailers to cap food prices, at least temporarily. At least some European countries appear to recognise that food sustainability is not simply a matter of individual choices.

Banner image: Josh Graciano on Flickr. Limpa bread frosted in the colors of Sweden's flag for Swedish National Day, June 6th.

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