Who has the solutions? Sustainable development of food supply chains.

Paper for the INES 2000 conference, June 14-18 2000, Stockholm, Sweden

Sara Alander, PhD student

Division of Gender and Technology Luleå University of Technology

SE-971 87 Luleå, SWEDEN


Through world-wide top level diplomatic agreements there are now commonly agreed upon aims and goals that seek to shape sustainable societies. A sustainable society does not exist as a number of threshold values rather, it builds upon and is maintained by sustainable development. Sustainable development is thus a fundamental element of any sustainable society and therefore must be implemented before any other action or activity. It is important to stress and make clear the relationships between these two concepts. When they are not considered there is a tendency to accept unsustainable methods and technologies in our efforts to reach a sustainable society. It is also essential to consider sustainability as being fourfold: containing ecological, sociological, cultural and economic elements of sustainability . When we accept the sustainable development approach that incorporates these four elements the concept of sustainability being interpreted in valuations follows. Sustainability that may vary according to time, place and situation. Sustainability that acknowledges individual and cultural differences. These considerations stress the ambitions described in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development's Agenda 21 that calls for participative democracy and partaking opportunities so as to ensure that people at all levels are truly involved in the planning and implementation of sustainable development.

Food is a critical part in the issue for sustainability as it is also for development. Even in the so called "rich", industrialised parts of the world the issue of food safety has become a headline topic. While food safety is often mentioned in negative contexts there are, on the other hand, tempting promises of functional food that offers to (se)cure us from different kinds of nuisance. In this instance, rich and well-informed people might be able to choose, avoid or refrain from food-related opportunities and risks. Conversely there are less fortunate people, living in vulnerable circumstances, who are not able to make use of these opportunities. This reality may lead to thoughts of the Third World and of poverty, oppression and starvation. These problems are, to a great extent, related directly or indirectly to questions about sustainable development and deserve deep engagement at all levels. The primary point though, is that we in the rich part of the world become easily involved in problems far away while at the same time ignoring more manageable issues directly connected to our selves and our own communities. Neither do we often enough realise that we ourselves are part of the problems, thus a potential part of any solutions . Overlooked is that it is essential to draw attention to the reality that we in the industrialised world, in these questions, have good reason to consider how well we handle our own situations and also what strategies we as engineers and scientists use when trying to develop sustainable technologies. Advice coming from the 20% of the world population that consumes more than 80% of the available resources does not give much credibility when attempting to advise the other 80% on how to manage their lives. Until we who belong to the 20% care to change our own ways of living our credibility is deficit.

So what can we do to reduce our resource-consumption? Great hope is put into technology development as a way to make it possible to maintain growth and prosperity while using on average only a fourth or even a tenth of the resources needed today . These expectations are indeed technology-optimistic and concern resource reduction in the "rich" part of the world. While it is important to be optimistic about the future and to take advantage of technology development, it is also wise to discuss and develop the human relations, conditions and contexts in which new technologies and strategies are to work. It is also realistic to recognise that technology development has not always been successful, and not only from the efficiency point of view. To continue developing technology in the same manner as usual, even with the prospect of resource efficiency, may well mean a continuation of withholding from some groups of people and some parts of society participation in technology development. Development through continued uncritical pursuit of technological improvement also represents missing out on points of view, competence, knowledge and ideas that potentially would be of great value to the development of well functioning, truly sustainable technologies. The aim of this author is thus to increase discussions on how we can create a greater amount of co-operation with direct and indirect users of the technology being developed. My conviction is that we as researchers need to improve our sense of responsibility with respect to the applications our work makes possible. Practising the notion of accountability seems necessary in the development of true sustainability.

To expound upon and explore the concept of sustainability I am planning a first hand examination of systems for food supply in a northern region. The point of departure is the county of Norrbotten, covering the northernmost 1/4 of Sweden and home to 3% of Sweden's population. The administrative borders of Norrbotten are, of course, not the limit of the region's the food supply chains. These are presently connected in both south-north and east-west directions. It can be assumed that the recent changes in Russia as well as Sweden's and Finland's membership in the European Union makes the east-west direction become even more interesting. In returning to my earlier-stated ambition to engage even those who do not have direct access to technology development, my intention is to study how the food supply chains of institutional kitchens and restaurants in the public sector can develop in sustainable ways. In the county of Norrbotten 150.000 meals are served on a daily basis by public sector providers. Most of the consumers of these meals, schools and day-care centres, hospitals and homes for elderly, have minimal or no possibility to influence what foodstuffs are used. Restaurant managers thus have great responsibility when seeking to provide tasty and healthy meals within a tight budget and a limited availability of goods selection.

Around Sweden, restaurant managers as well as Agenda 21 co-ordinators and other interested parties have initiated a number of projects aiming at increasing the quantities of vegetables and ecological foodstuffs used in public sector restaurants. A clearly expressed political support for many of these projects is not obvious. This is a fact that very well might have negative effects on the potential for having successful projects as these kinds of changes could bring both producers and purchasers out on untried grounds. It is a local responsibility to carry through the practical changes but to make this local responsibility possible there is a need for strategy consensus throughout the food supply chain. All those who are served meals by the public sector (could) have great but indirect influence on how the notion of sustainability is fulfilled throughout the food supply chain. Now, their influence is channelled through restaurant managers and staff. What choices are available to them? How can they influence the systems? What technology development would facilitate the co-operation needed to create such a concordance? What technologies are demanded? How can those technologies promote possibilities for involvement and participation? According to Keller , scientific knowledge is a force and as such contains not only magnitude but also direction as well. Producing scientific knowledge about sustainable development involves great opportunities to consider possible directions.

Along with these questions, discussions on sustainability related to genetically manipulated organisms (GMO), food safety and functional food become topical. Some visions point to GMOs as a way to establish food safety, for example by high-yield crops. Others show that GMOs might ruin food safety as they threaten the biodiversity . The meaning and function of functional food could be discussed and questioned in the same way. "Health" is not the only consequence of functional food, its effects could be discussed from socio-economic, ethnic and ethical viewpoints as well. Leaving such discussions to genetic engineers and scientists (or other, more or less homogeneous groups for that matter) might undermine the ability to achieve sustainability as eventual implementation involves both people and interests along the whole food supply chain. Widening the debate also means becoming open to potentially important different and unconsidered alternatives.

As mentioned before, the sustainability challenge of Agenda 21 calls not only for sustainable technologies to be developed but also for development to be sustainable, bringing in methods that make room for broader aspects of applications and technology use. There is a call for new ways of thinking - new ways of managing technologies - to solve the problems caused by the old ways of thinking - old technology. There is a need for new, or perhaps old, tools for engineers and scientists to use to broaden aspects of technology development. To put these tools to work may very well be a critical task in the new century.

I wish this conference to start and further fuel lively discussions on these issues, citing Sandra Harding: "Understanding ourselves and the world around us requires understanding what others think of us and our beliefs and actions, not just what we think of ourselves and them" .


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