Reflections on the Place-Based Food Systems Conference 2018: Making the Case, Making It Happen

by Ciska Ulug

Last week (August 9-10th, 2018), I attended the Place-Based Food Systems: Making the Case, Making It Happen conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. While revamping the food system tends to focus more on “local” and “sustainable”, the highlighting “place-based” acknowledges the importance of our food systems role in the broader movement in creating a more sustainable society.

Stressing the “place” the conference was based, was not lost on the conference organizers of Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU). More than highlighting the university’s own emerging agriculture program, the land’s indigenous roots were brought to the forefront. The strong representation of indigenous voices were evident in Friday morning’s keynotes, given by Dr. Charlotte Cote and Pauline Terbasket, who shared the importance of their communities’ food practices and the accompanying knowledge. The value of indigenous knowledge was perennially referenced throughout the remainder of the conference, reminding participants of their responsibility to humans and nonhumans, as embedded in indigenous ways of knowing.

Eric Holt Giménez, the executive director of Food First, was my personal highlight. Ending Thursday’s program with a presentation of the political economy of food and social movements, the speaker walked the audience through common fallacies of industrial agriculture, such as the narrative that big ag is “feeding the world”. Despite working towards common goals, Giménez explored potential discrepancies also existing within the food movement, namely between the food justice “progressives” seeking practical everyday solutions and the food sovereignty “radicals” attempting to dismantle the greater systems in power. Here, the speaker openly addressed the elephant in the room – the inherent privilege of (mostly) white participants with the monetary means to attend such a conference. The greater economic and social barriers should not cast aside in the discussions of building sustainable food systems, rather, must be addressed head-on. These two “strains” have much to learn from one another and tackling internal divisions, deconstructing privilege, and building alliances within the movement are the first steps in greater social and environmental change, argued Giménez. Projects such as food policy councils were referenced as potential avenues in celebrating diversity through their implementation of practical solutions.

Molly Anderson and Gail Feenstra, two long-time sustainable food advocates further articulated the process of strengthening this already vibrant movement, through the importance of a clear vision, as outlined by Anderson, but also the infrastructure needed to implement such projects. The diverse array of panelists illustrated examples of “on the ground” endeavors, from citizen-led initiatives and those at a city and regional-level. This included the usual suspects of food policies and farmers markets, as well as examples of “place-keeping” and food surplus projects, linking theory with practice.

The final speaker, John Ilker, concluded the event with reiterations of other speakers, and thoughts throughout the past few days. One of which was the necessity of challenging capitalist systems and the narrative of limitless growth. Instead, we must listen to the indigenous voices, like those vocalized in the conference, understanding a more holistic vision of sustainability – not one dictated by economics, but by environmental stewardship. Local food movements are about reconnecting with each other and the earth – more than just about the food systems – to which this conference was an appropriate reminder.

Ciska Ulug is a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Her PhD research focuses on community-based collectives engaged in topics of food, using theories of social innovation and community economy. In her free time she enjoys making collages, going to concerts, and riding her bike.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of FGWG or RGS-IBG. 
Conference proceedings will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development [JAFSCD] in early 2019.
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