Session Report: Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research, and the bio-economy

Food Security, Sustainable Agriculture, and Forestry, Marine and Maritime and Inland Water Research and the Bioeconomy

Parallel sessions: SSH in the Pillar “Societal Challenges” of Horizon 2020
Tuesday, 24th September 2013, 09:30-12:30

The objective of this research challenge is to make the best of our biological resources in a sustainable way. The aim is to help secure sufficient supplies of safe and high quality food and other bio-based products, by developing productive and resource-efficient primary production systems and fostering related ecosystem services alongside competitive and low carbon supply chains. This will accelerate the transition to a sustainable European bioeconomy.

Chair: Poul Holm, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
Rapporteur: Lotte Holm, Copenhagen University, Denmark
Statement: Robert Emmett, University of Munich, Germany
Statement: Mauro Agnoletti, University of Florence, Italy
Statement: Antonio Di Gulio, European Commission, Belgium (PDF)

The session discussed the possible role of SSH in relation to this challenge. Two presentations of SSH perspectives on the challenge offered starting points for discussion; one focused on the interdependence of food culture and consumption and the other on landscapes that are formed by food systems.

Dr Robert Emmett in a short presentation argued that the complexity of negotiating cultural differences is a vital dimension of addressing food security. Food is also an area of social conflict and controversy related to new technologies, new production systems, and new regulatory systems. Social science research on values and food consumption decisions as well as historical and cultural analysis of food systems from a global perspective shows divergence in what different actors find to be necessary, rational, desirable, or problematic in the food sector. Food marketing boards, national governments, large‐scale versus small‐scale producers, and consumers in different regions may not want the same things from a food system. A dramatic illustration of such contrasts is, on the one side the newly launched test-tube hamburger, representing techno‐scientific utopianism, and on the other, the Slow Food and local food movements, representing  cultural nostalgia. SSH researchers from various disciplines show that these contrasting views are not so starkly divided, but emerge from shared historical conditions of vulnerability. SSH can contribute with understanding of consumers’ and other actors’ views and practices related to food, and act as public scholarship: by intervening through social media, innovative social movements, and education systems, they can help translate findings into stories we live by.

Prof Mauro Agnoletti, argued that cultural values are a crucial component of the capital on which sustainable development is founded. They produce an added value incorporating diversity and historical identity as a competitiveness factor and for the quality of life. Therefore, the construction of “competitive identities” in rural areas by making the most of the relationship between traditional farming, typical products and tourism, are challenges we need to take up. The management of the natural resources in the rural territory, need to consider the historical interaction between human beings and nature.  How will renewable energies impact the landscapes? There is a need for a bio‐cultural diversity approach considering the landscape level, compared to nature conservation strategies based only species and their natural habitats. This calls on research to consider the integration of nature and culture in the assessment of biodiversity and the active role of farmers.

Antonio Di Giulio (Acting Director, Biotechnologies, EU Commission) updated session participants about the status of the Horizon 2020 framework and underlined that the research is expected to contribute to solutions needed to societal challenges. Interdisciplinary research is needed, from supplier to consumer – from farm to fork. Wider areas must be included as well: how does the financial crisis influence our eating habits? SSH has already provided important research insights across different domains, and the need to continue this will be acknowledged.

The Commission is dedicated to finding new ways of stimulating change through technologies: how can we decarbonize our economies? Which changes in the ways we produce and consume are necessary? Which new business models and regulatory frameworks are necessary? It is an aim to gain a better understanding of the complexities of how food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bio-economy are interconnected. It is also an aim to create the basis for social understanding and acceptance of new solutions, and to create a mature, well informed and participative citizen that becomes a social innovation actor.

In the discussion, the following issues were highlighted:

Regarding the societal challenges related to the food area, SSH can contribute with research addressing the following issues:

  • Who are the important actors when initiating change in order to tackle societal challenges? What are their current practices, and why do specific actors do as they do? Which innovative processes are already taking place in agriculture, fisheries, food distribution etc., and in which directions do they point? It is important to base new policies on firm knowledge of understandings, perspectives and practices of different kinds of actors, consumers, citizens, producers, retailers, administrators and policy makers alike – not only with respect to agriculture and food products, but also with respect to forestry and the marine resources.
  • How can changes necessary for tackling societal challenges come about?  How is social and cultural change or change in regulatory systems and institutions initiated? How might technological solutions be embedded effectively in social frameworks?
  • Which kind of changes and new aims are legitimate and acceptable to the wider population and to specific actors? How can citizens and actors take part in the development of such aims? How can contrasting views and perspectives be negotiated and communicated in a fruitful manner?

With regard to the Horizon 2020 framework, the following were underlined:

  • SSH researchers are eager to contribute to the formulation of calls and research topics, and to participate in evaluation processes, program committees, expert advisory panels, etc.
  • SSH researchers highlight the importance of working with other disciplines in order to tackle societal challenges. Challenges are not uni-dimensional and will be addressed more adequately when social and cultural dimensions of technological and regulatory solutions are engaged from the outset.
  • SSH researchers urge that actors in the food sector are not only seen as independent individuals, be it as homo economicus or individuals driven only by cognition. Cognition and economic rationality – or irrationality – is linked to the social and cultural world.
  • SSH researchers therefore underline the importance of opening up for the whole spectrum of SSH methods, qualitative as well as quantitative, and warn against tempting ideas that new methods and progress within specific sub-disciplines will ‘solve everything’.  Rather, there is a need to develop innovative ways to combine different methods and perspectives.
  • Spaces—synthesis centers, interdisciplinary institutes—are needed for researchers from different disciplines to go through collective learning processes where ways of synthesizing different approaches can be developed.
  • SSH researchers encourage that calls for research are made in an open manner, without ex- or implicitly requiring specific research models.

Relevant documents and links:

Holm et al. (2013) Collaboration between Natural and Social-Sciences

Horizon 2020 work programme and call details