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Sustainable Food Systems

Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City OPEN ACCESS

Robert Biel
Copyright Date: 2016
Published by: UCL Press
Pages: 150
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  • Book Info
    Sustainable Food Systems
    Book Description:

    Faced with a global threat to food security, it is perfectly possible that society will respond, not by a dystopian disintegration, but rather by reasserting co-operative traditions. This book, by a leading expert in urban agriculture, offers a genuine solution to today’s global food crisis. By contributing more to feeding themselves, cities can allow breathing space for the rural sector to convert to more organic sustainable approaches. Biel’s approach connects with current debates about agroecology and food sovereignty, asks key questions, and proposes lines of future research. He suggests that today’s food insecurity – manifested in a regime of wildly fluctuating prices – reflects not just temporary stresses in the existing mode of production, but more profoundly the troubled process of generating a new one. He argues that the solution cannot be implemented at a merely technical or political level: the force of change can only be driven by the kind of social movements which are now daring to challenge the existing unsustainable order. Drawing on both his academic research and teaching, and 15 years’ experience as a practicing urban farmer, Biel brings a unique interdisciplinary approach to this key global issue, creating a dialogue between the physical and social sciences

    eISBN: 978-1-911307-09-9
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History, gardland-discipline, Sociology
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  1. This book places itself within the traditions and the ongoing activity of UCL’s Bartlett Development Planning Unit, and within its research cluster, Environmental Justice, Urbanisation & Resilience.

    It draws heavily upon my teaching for the Environment and Sustainable Development Masters. I owe an immense debt to all my fellow Development Planning Unit (DPU) staff, as well as past and present students, from whom I have learned much. In particular I am happy to acknowledge the contribution of Yves Cabannes: together we created a Masters module on Urban Agriculture, and explored the framework for a radical re-definition of the topic. My colleagues...

  2. There is a sense that the world food system has reached an impasse. Hunger afflicts at least an eighth of the world population (FAO, 2012), mostly in the global South, but also in the North where austerity policies – which respond to crisis by prioritising the interests of the wealthy – leave working people hungry. What is even more serious is that even this damaged ‘food security’ cannot be guaranteed into the future. International institutions now recognise that something fundamental must change, a realisation embodied in the notion ofparadigm shift(Graziano da Silva, 2015; FAO, 2011) and further concretised...

  3. To resolve the problem, we first need some understanding of how (at the level of basic world-view) the current bad path-dependency became entrenched. We may speak of three closely-linked aspects:

    First, the notion of dominating or ‘mastering’ nature. The ‘mastery’ mindset arose in the phase of nascent capitalism, from the sixteenth century onwards. The conceptual images were violent and sexual, an issue highlighted in Carolyn Merchant’s major contribution to political ecology (Merchant, 1980).

    Second, the intrinsic link between ‘mastering’ nature andexpropriating people. This in turn had two aspects: within the core (Europe) it is expressed in dispossession of the...

  4. Demands for paradigm-shift reflect the fact that the reductionist approach we have just described has now reached an impasse. We begin to see a peculiar behaviour that is characteristic of systems which objectively need to change but cannot yet work out how. This is connected with the notion ofbifurcation:staring at a crossroads, wondering which path to take. Physical systems sometimes hesitate like this, oscillating between possible outcomes, and in one sense human systems do the same. But with human systems there is a crucial difference: the change to a new order won’t just ‘happen’, we must vision it...

  5. If the old system is in its death-throes, where will we find principles for a new one?

    What is positive is that systems have a certain capacity to selforganise. This does not of course mean we should sit back and abandon conscious action to create change. It does, however, mean that there is an objective organising force that we can workwithwhile exercising our conscious interventions.

    We have spoken of self-organisation, but how is this expressed in real terms? If we can answer this in relation to the land/soil, this would also be relevant in redesigning, through biomimicry, our...

  6. Dialectics refers to a philosophical tradition which can help us understand two key issues: [a] thesubstanceof the new paradigm, and [b] theprocessby which it can assert itself:

    (a) Substantively, dialectics shows how to transcend the narrow mind-set of linear and reductionist thought and embrace complexity. It shuns a rigid separation of categories and appreciates systems in flux, which is just what a new farming paradigm requires.

    (b) The coming-into-being is embodied firstly in the principle of the negation of the negation – the ‘new’ paradigm is also arediscovery of indigenous farming practices, reasserted in the...

  7. As a prelude for attempting (in Chapter 8) to sketch out some elements of a practical approach to farming, let us first define a political framework.

    We have just discussed determination-by-negation. How, then, does this apply to the relationship between farming and the ‘wild’, between our modifications of nature and the thing itself?

    In fact there is a good way and a bad way of exercising such determination. The good way (which we address in Chapter 8) is just to recognise that, by the fact of our very existence within nature, we are modifying it: it is not pristine but...

  8. To sum up our discussion so far, the ‘new’ paradigm involves bringing together today’s complexity-based (non-reductionist) science with a rediscovery of deep tradition. In this chapter we briefly discuss a few approaches which can concretise this.

    In Chapter 7 we described a wrong – i.e. colonial/supremacist – way to determine oneself in relation to ‘wild’ nature. So is there a good way?

    In fact, our demarcation from the ‘wild’ is not an abolition of it but a dialogue with how it spontaneously works. The farmed area posits itself as a negation of the wild but, unlike colonialism or modernisation, far...

  9. Any viable future paradigm must meet mitigation and adaptation criteria. In fact this requirement should be seen not as a constraint, but rather as a responsibility –and therefore freedom– to think radically, outside the box. Although issues addressed in this chapter may seem at times technical, there is always a political undercurrent: this has to do with the relationship betweendecouplingdevelopment from emissions anddelinkingfrom capital accumulation circuits (as notably expressed in food value chains), as well as with a whole range of issues around citizen science, open-source, and generally the fact that transition must be...

  10. As we have seen throughout this enquiry, many constructive elements for a sustainable paradigm already exist. Nonetheless, something prevents them cohering into an ensemble where they might determine a new mode of production. The obstacle is partly the difficult leap of consciousness to a true paradigm-shift, and partly repression by the ruling order … more specifically the structural forms this has acquired over the past century, which is the theme of the present chapter. By understanding what we are up against, we may better understand why the changeover – however technical it sometimes appears – inevitably involves political radicalism.


  11. We might sum up the future paradigm as ‘workingwithandlikenature’. We operate directly with nature, notably in farming and, at the same time, we apply similar principles to systems of our own making, tapping into the free energy of self-organising complex systems. Potentially,mixedbuilt-natural systems could therefore encapsulate dis-alienation in an interesting way.

    As we have seen, even agriculture at its most non-invasive (closest to deep tradition) is still modified, so in a sense ‘built’, by us. It could be argued, then, that a city is notintrinsicallyany more anti-nature than farming, and certainly not...

  12. There is always, in food movements, the potential or vocation to be radical and subversive, break through dead equilibria, and open the way to a social re-ordering.

    Today’s generation of social movements to which food is central (Holt-Giménez and Patel, 2009) can therefore be placed within a long tradition of counter-systemic struggle. Thus, in the works of early nineteenth-century utopian socialism (utopianism being of special interest, given our concern with visioning), we find articulated a symbolic meaning of food beyond its material significance. In the work of Weitling,humanity itself is ripening(towards a stage where it can finally realise...

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.