Peter Oosterveer and David A. Sonnenfeld

© 2012

Food is vital for human life. Since we all must eat, food should be foremost on everyone’s agenda. This is not the case for many, however, who take the availability of sufficient quantities of healthy food for granted. Yet one in seven individuals worldwide – nearly 1 billion people – go hungry, and concerns are growing about whether the world will produce enough food for the future.

Even at the time of this writing, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is warning about rapid rises in global food prices. The trends of steadily increasing food production and long-term declining prices seem to be reversing. After the price hike in 2008, figures point to new record prices in 2011, which may exacerbate food security problems for hundreds of millions of poor people. Future food supply cannot be taken for granted; many governments have ignored food policy for too long. They have shown much complacency about food provision and are increasingly reluctant to engage the problem seriously. In February 2011, The Economist included a special report on the future of food, arguing that the world is facing a food system in crisis. In addition to temporary problems, the report’s authors also observe structural problems (Economist, 2011). Food production will have to rise by 70 per cent by 2050 to keep up with a global population growing to 9 billion, with the explosion of megacities in developing countries and with changing diets in such countries as China and India. The necessary increases in food production will have to be realized in more challenging conditions than in the past, as there is little unfarmed land remaining, and less water available, while proven recipes of the past (using high-yielding crop varieties in combination with more intensive use of fertilizer and pesticides) are no longer applicable in many parts of the world. These problems are exacerbated by climate change and the global reduction of biodiversity. These observations clearly support putting food at the centre of public interest. We need to better understand global food provision, its sustainability and its future. This book is intended to contribute to achieving this aim. In the next 11 chapters, we explain how contemporary food provision is changing in the context of globalization, illustrate especially serious sustainability problems and possible responses and discuss future perspectives towards greater sustainability.

The book examines these fundamental changes in contemporary food provision and the new challenges resulting from them, taking an environmental social science perspective. In this chapter, we give a brief overview of the book, explain the perspective from which we approach the world of food and introduce the different chapters.


The world of food is changing radically. Very visible is the enormous technological capacity for producing and processing food that is available today as compared with the past. But we also know much more about the possible adverse consequences of using these modern technological options. Next, although national food policies remain to be developed and implemented, they are increasingly coordinated with other national governments. We can see the growing influence of multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), on national policies, and sometimes even private industries have a large influence on food policies. Globalization has had a big impact on these fundamental changes taking place in contemporary food provision. In our globalizing world, people’s lives are determined not only by their particular local conditions but also increasingly by distant developments. Someone’s actions can have consequences at large distances in time and space. Through globalization, food today is increasingly traded internationally, transforming its production and consumption patterns worldwide and influencing many food-related practices. The world of food that used to be dominated by farming and rural dynamics has become more influenced by consumption and dynamics in retail. These changes generate new challenges, such as how to increase sustainability in food provision, reduce the negative social impacts of international trade and govern food from a global perspective. Or, as the United Nations’ (UN) special rapporteur Olivier De Schutter mentions in his report to the UN Human Rights Council (De Schutter, 2010, p1), reinvesting in agriculture is essential to the concrete realization of the right to food, but in the context of ecological, food and energy crises, the most pressing issue ‘is not how much, but how’.

These fundamental transformations and emerging challenges call for more attention to food in general and more research in particular, but they also require reconsidering the concepts that we conventionally use to analyse them. Many concepts that were probably adequate in the past are no longer appropriate to analyse current dynamics. To understand contemporary food provision, we therefore need different conceptual frameworks because otherwise we may not be able to respond to the emerging problems. This book therefore builds on a tradition of analysing food provision from a social-science perspective but tries also to critically assess the applicability of conventional conceptual frameworks. In the (food) social-science tradition, farming has remained the focus of attention for a long time, but in recent decades this focus has been complemented with studies on processing, retailing and consumption. We intend to contribute to this movement towards a more integrated approach to analysing food provision in its entirety and therefore focus on analysing sustainable food provision under the conditions of global modernity. We pay particular attention to the changing relationships between food producers and consumers and the essential roles played by retailers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In doing so, we apply a broad social-science perspective on food provision and, where appropriate, use findings from the natural sciences to better understand relevant human behaviours.

In this book, we aim to contribute to essential debates about the future of food from a global perspective. It is not easy to do justice to all the different views and experiences around the world, biased as we are by our own backgrounds and experiences. Nevertheless, we bring in many examples from Africa and Asia, as well as others from Western Europe and the United States (US). Through these contributions, we make an effort to present a balanced overview of the developments and related debates currently taking place on globalizing food provision.


The book is organized in three main sections, supplemented by this introduction and a concluding chapter. The first section presents several key conceptual tools for analysing globalization and its relationship to the sustainability of contemporary food provision. The second section offers several empirical cases illustrating efforts to address sustainability in the global food supply. The third main section discusses the roles that growers, consumers, food retailers and others can play in contributing to greater sustainability in global food provisioning.

Section I: Conceptual background

Globalization, sustainability and changing notions of the need to regulate food are the focuses, respectively, of the three chapters making up Section I of this volume.

Globalization of food production and consumption is the subject of Chapter 2. This chapter starts with several empirical observations, such as the substantial increase of international food trade and the high impacts that the process of globalization has on the organization of food production and consumption, including on the roles of national governments in its regulation. We subsequently review several conceptual frameworks that have been developed to better understand these changes. Theories on global commodity chains, global production networks, convention theory and global networks and flows are presented and discussed. The chapter concludes by underlining the importance of bringing together the global and the local dynamics within the framework of networks and flows. This conceptual framework highlights the growing tensions between global and local dynamics of food and the reasons why innovative governance arrangements are needed for more sustainability in globalizing food provision.

The concept of sustainability is the subject of Chapter 3, in which we show the ways in which many view modern agriculture as an important cause of environmental problems. Modern, intensive farming methods have direct impacts on natural ecosystems and human health, and this had already been discovered by the 1960s. Since then, various other food-related environmental concerns, such as worries about animal welfare, food safety, energy use, landscape, climate change and biodiversity, have surfaced in public debates. Nowadays, sustainability concerns related to food production and consumption entail, among others, the use of non-renewable (fossil fuels, phosphate) and renewable (solar and wind energy, water) natural resources, the impacts on atmosphere and climate (greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions), soil fertility and land and water management, (agro)biodiversity, pesticides use, animal welfare, waste disposal, economic practices and environmental policies. These concerns are framed within a wider understanding of sustainability, where the existence of multiple definitions leads to much confusion on possible strategies. The context of globalization again changes our understanding of sustainability and opens up new debates on potential tools that could be applied to increase the sustainability of contemporary food provisioning.

This conclusion provides the starting point for Chapter 4, which is devoted to the regulation of food in the global network society. Conventionally, regulating food was based on decisions by autonomous sovereign national governments to develop their economies and to feed their populations by securing access to sufficient and safe food. Nowadays, these authorities are still sovereign, but their autonomy in making policy decisions has drastically declined. Their capacities to effectively control food have diminished because international trade is rapidly expanding. Governments are faced with increasing volumes of imported food, whereby private actors are occupying key controlling positions. At the same time, the demand for regulating food provision is growing, as the sustainability of food is raising public concern, and such concern is particularly invigorated by the introduction of innovative technologies with unknown consequences for human and environmental health.(1) Today consumers are concerned not only about the quality, safety and price of their food but also about the health, social, ecological and animal welfare impacts occurring at all different stages of the supply chain. Therefore, food regulation must be organized differently in the context of global modernity. In reaction, innovative arrangements have been developed, including multilateral agreements and institutions, private standards and private labelling and certification schemes. This chapter presents key examples of these different arrangements, including their background and impacts.

Section II: Case studies

Building on the conceptual perspectives introduced in the first section, Section II of this volume presents four case studies on important dimensions and dynamics of globalization, food and sustainability.

Chapter 5 presents the case of climate change, as this is one of the most urgent global environmental problems the world faces today, with high relevance for global food provision. Rising temperatures and sea levels and increasingly volatile weather conditions may harm the livelihoods of many people and threaten future food provision. At the same time, food production, processing, transport and consumption are also important contributors to the problem of global warming. This chapter presents the background of the relationships between global warming and food provision and presents some key indicators and measurement tools. A global consensus on the causes of climate change seems to be growing, but much controversy remains on what actions need to be taken to prevent further degradation. In this chapter, we discuss several competing views on the relation between global warming and the globalization of food provision and the different strategies that emerge from them. This results in an overview of the different strategies, management tools and governance arrangements that are available to mitigate the impact of food provisioning on climate change.

Chapter 6 illustrates how an alternative movement is promoting local agri-food networks as a response to contemporary industrialized food provision. A variety of local food initiatives is rapidly acquiring shape where different social actors concerned about contemporary food find each other. Small farmers, (urban) consumers, local (food) retailers, local governments and business associations, and social activists seeking to boost local economies and to improve the quality and sustainability of their food find common interests in these initiatives. Different social actors work together to support local agricultural production and consumption and create alternative, short food-supply chains. Through these efforts, they try to provide a counterpoint to the overall trend towards increasingly globalized food provision. They argue that the awareness and social bonds necessary to strengthen sustainability in its social, economic and environmental aspects can be recreated through directly connecting food producers, consumers, retailers and relevant institutions. This chapter presents the background of these initiatives and illustrates their diversity in aims, organizational set-ups and impacts. Some alternative, local food networks try to optimize the environmental impacts of food by demanding minimal energy for transport, processing and packaging, and maximizing freshness and quality. Others aim primarily to support local communities by forming knowledgeable relationships between food producers and consumers, supporting local farmers and supplying more unprocessed and seasonal foods. Improving school meals is an example of this strategy. Yet other local networks try to improve local food security for the urban poor. This chapter also examines critiques of such alternative food-supply strategies, including whether the latter effectively address problems of sustainability and if they can provide a viable alternative to steadily globalizing agri-food production and consumption.

Next, Chapter 7 uses fair trade to illustrate the innovative networks that emerge between food producers and consumers in global modernity. Fair trade already has a history of some 70 years, but in the last 25 years, it has grown into an exemplary alternative standard for trade arrangements in international markets involving developing countries. Fair trade intends to support smallholder producers in developing countries by increasing their share of the commodity price and to secure their position on the global market. In this chapter, we introduce fair trade and its formal aspects, such as the labelling arrangements and the relevant institutions involved. International coffee trade was the first case where fair trade’s aims were realized, so this example is used to show how fair trade operates in practice and its impacts on both producers and consumers. In this chapter, we also discuss the main criticisms of the principles and the impact of fair trade to assess its future perspectives as an innovative relationship between producers and consumers and whether fair trade can contribute to more sustainable global food provision.

Chapter 8 uses fish provision as a case to illustrate the global character of present problems associated with sustainability. Contemporary fisheries are faced with depleting (or even collapsing) fish stocks, threatening their future as a source of food. The case of global fish clearly illustrates the dynamics involved in contemporary food provision, whereby sustainability aspects cannot be ignored. Fish provision has become embedded in global networks and flows involving multiple actors, including private corporations, NGOs and retailers, often operating at large distances from each other. At the same time, the capture and farming of fish remain largely dependent on specific local ecological and climatic conditions. Thus global fish trade and local fisheries are inextricably and irreversibly bounded through dynamic relationships. In this chapter, we summarize the present state of global fish provision, paying attention to both capture fisheries and aquaculture. This description provides ample background for an analysis of the key sustainability challenges in fisheries management and fish farming (aquaculture). Under these conditions, imposing internationally coordinated mandatory regulations proves complicated, because it requires unanimous support from all governments involved, which is hard to achieve. At this moment, different private governance arrangements are being introduced, and we present the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as an innovative certification and labelling scheme, and consumer guides as a consumer-oriented environmental policy instrument. We then focus on how these initiatives understand sustainability, as well as the roles of different stakeholders in these arrangements.

Section III: Future perspectives

Section III examines the future of food, which we consider through chapters on the roles of producers, retailers and consumers in promoting the sustainability of food in the context of globalizing modernity. Chapter 9 deals with the changing roles of the primary food producers: farmers. Nowadays, farmers find themselves operating in a rapidly changing environment wherein they are faced with multiple challenges, including how to secure the future of their farm, their livelihood and their local community, but also how to contribute to more sustainable food provision. This encompassing challenge cannot be treated in its entirety in one chapter, so we focus on the different strategies that farmers develop in response to the demands they are facing. Some farmers focus on high-tech methods as a means to reduce environmental impacts, while others try to embed their production practices in local communities and local ecosystems with the same intention. Each of these strategies incites extensive scientific and public debates on its consequences for globalization and sustainability in farming and food for the future. After presenting the various farmer strategies, we review the debates on genetic modification, regional food labels and multi-functionality, and finally, organic agriculture. The perspectives of small farmers receive special attention, as they may face certain problems when determining their preferred strategy.

In the next chapter, Chapter 10, we consider the (future) role of retailers in global food provision. Supermarkets have recently become central locations for selling and buying food, not only in richer countries, but increasingly in many other parts of the world as well. As the obligatory passage points for most food sales, supermarkets are essential to the understanding of contemporary global food provision. Supermarkets have a profound impact on all stages of the food supply chain, including farming, processing, transport, trade and consumption, and thus they have acquired a central coordinating position in food supply chains. This chapter briefly reviews the main societal trends that promote the spread of supermarkets, including rising incomes, urbanization, increasing female participation in the labour force and a desire to emulate Western culture. Then we analyse the different roles supermarkets can occupy in contemporary food provision. This analysis provides the starting point for a review of supermarket strategies in different countries and will enable us to identify their prime contributions to promoting sustainability in food provision, in comparison with other social actors, including governments.

Chapter 11 is the last chapter in this section and considers the involvement of consumers in sustainable food provision. For a long time, consumers were ignored as relevant stakeholders in promoting sustainable food provision, because they were mostly considered unreliable and unmanageable. This impression has changed in recent years, because the role of consumers has become quite influential in debates on the future of food. To assess consumers’ changing position, however, it is important to have a better understanding of their complicated behaviours. This chapter therefore reviews the relevant conceptual debates within the social sciences on how to analyse consumers and their behaviours. From these debates, we conclude that a social-practices perspective on consumer behaviour is most promising, because it allows for combining more structuralist perspectives with an understanding of people as food, globalization and sustainability

being actively involved in shaping their behaviours as consumers. When applying this social-practices perspective on consuming food, its routinized character clearly stands out. Food consumption is embedded in everyday life and represents a collection of daily routines, culturally embedded practices and economic calculations. It entails a broad array of activities, such as buying products and services, transporting, preparing and eating them, and finally disposing of or recycling the remaining waste. These food consumption practices are not very amenable to changes, such as buying more sustainable food, despite the positive attitudes that many consumers express towards this goal. With the help of the social-practices perspective, it becomes possible to reflect more meaningfully on the possible roles consumers can play in promoting sustainable food provision in the future. Changing consumer behaviours can be linked to cultural change, trust, provider strategies and changing biographies. The cases of organic food consumption and dietary change are used to illustrate these dynamics more concretely.

Concluding chapter

The final chapter of this book, Chapter 12, summarizes important changes taking place in global food production and consumption; considers some of the different public and scientific debates and agendas that are being advanced related to the future of food provision; and discusses how globalization and sustainability figure into these debates and agendas. Specific attention is given to how food policy and technologies are embedded in social and environmental dynamics. As with the entire volume, we try to explain important contributions that a broad (environmental) social-science perspective can offer to identifying pathways through which greater sustainability can be achieved in producing, trading, processing and consuming food within global modernity, with various social actors enacting distinct roles.


There are many reasons to closely consider the challenges of contemporary food provision, its relation to accelerated globalization and requirements for greater sustainability. Paramount among these is the serious possibility that food availability may worsen for many. Volatile prices, lagging production, population growth and strains from climate change all contribute to the immensity of these challenges. With the ultimate aim of helping find ways to secure sufficient quantities of nutritious food for all in coming decades, this book offers students and scholars a broad understanding of the main issues at stake and suggests ways to move forward towards a more sustainable and fair provision of food globally.


1) For instance, in December 2010, German authorities discovered that a feed fat-producing company had mixed fat intended for animal feed with a batch of fatty acids for technical purposes, contaminated with dioxins. In response, 1100 farms were shut down because eggs and meat containing dioxins had been discovered. For many weeks German consumers refused to buy eggs (EC, 2010, 2011).


De Schutter, O. (2010) Report Submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, United Nations General Assembly, Geneva

EC (European Commission) (2010) RASFF Alert, 2010.1771, European Commission, Brussels

EC (2011) Food Navigator, 6 January, European Commission, Brussels

Economist (2011) ‘The 9 billion-people question: A special report on feeding the world’, The Economist, February, vol 398, no 8722


* From Peter Oosterveer and David A. Sonnenfeld, Food, Globalization and Sustainability (London and New York: Earthscan/ Routledge, 2012), pp. 1-9.


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last updated November 30, 2011