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Technological Transformations in Food Consumption and Production Systems

University of Manchester
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End date
Understanding the dynamics of food and sustainability are pressing academic and public policy concerns. The food system in developed countries, especially that of the UK, often seems to be bedevilled by periodic alarms about the safety of food. Anxieties about food safety and quality are allied to broader concerns about the relationships between producers and consumers, between producers and retailers, between retailers and manufacturers, and between economic actors in the food chain and policy makers and regulators. In other words, the very structure of the food system is under scrutiny. Given the internationalisation of food sourcing and manufacture, these issues are not restricted to the individual nations but are played out across the European Union and beyond. In this project we have critically analysed the sustainability of current dominant Food Consumption and Production Systems (FCPSs), the extent to which the systems are capable of internal transformation (so-called “transition management”) to make them more sustainable, and the potential for the mainstreaming of one particular alternative FCPS, namely an ‘organic’ food system. From the outset, though, we have recognised that there is not one FCPS but multiple food systems constructed around different foods.

In our research we have, therefore, concentrated on a variety of foods that are important in the UK to explore the breadth of food systems and their potential for sustainability transitions. Those foods are: chicken, potatoes, yoghurt, fish and peas.

  • To identify which technologies are critical for determining the sustainability/ unsustainability of Food Consumption and Production Systems in the food types studied and whether the key actors promoting technological changes recognise the sustainability and system implications of their actions.
  • To review the 'strategies' for sustainability of Food Consumption and Production Systems that are being advocated by analysts and practitioners of food production and distribution. • To identify what policy issues arise from the analysis of the technological innovations across Food Consumption and Production Systems. To conduct the research we conducted in-depth interviews with key persons in the food systems supply chains and analysed secondary data such as market reports produced by consultants and trade associations.
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The main results of the project are these:
  • Validation of the food system perspective: Sustainability is a contested concept, so there is no one version of a sustainable food system. Rather there are competing interpretations of food sustainability (e.g. organic food, foods grown for regional/local markets to reduce 'food miles'). Alongside alternative versions of sustainability each food that we have studied has its own internal dynamic and potential for 'transition' to a more sustainable state.
  • System Stability: Much of the work on 'transition management' envisages system instability. We were working with food systems that showed considerable vigour in maintaining themselves. Thus, despite the strains within the systems that we have mentioned, the UK food systems we studied and, by implication, the UK food consumption and production system as a whole shows little sign of embarking upon any transition pathway. In theory it would be possible to construct an alternative, organic, food system to challenge the current conventional system. In practice, however, to give one example, the organic chicken supply chain largely mimics its conventional counterpart.
  • System Innovations: By examining each food system we were looking for 'pinch points' – that is, sites in the system where some particular combination of technological and socio-economic factors has the greatest influence on the current unsustainability of the system as it is. We would expect therefore that any policy in support of innovation would need to pay more attention to these 'pinch-points'. This might of course suggest that current policies could be focusing on parts of the system that, whilst bringing about some reductions in environmental impacts, do not bring the maximum benefit in terms of overall system sustainability. For example, the focus on changes in agricultural practice in the growing of peas for freezing must be complemented with attention to the structures that are in place (transport, centralised refrigeration) that are necessary prompt freezing of the pea. Similarly, the 'pinch-point' in the chicken system is the need for standardisation of chickens by size, driven by the demands of efficient processing.
  • Policy Implications: The food system approach we have adopted suggests that a) the promotion of organic food systems may not markedly increase the sustainability of the food system, b) that notions of choice and variety are shaped by the supermarkets and c) that system transition will require that actors co-operate along the supply chain.
Project number
Natural Toxins
Viruses and Prions
Bacterial Pathogens
Chemical Contaminants
Food Defense and Integrity
Policy and Planning
Meat, Poultry, Game
Grains, Beans, Legumes