Geography and Food

“Describing Earth” – that’s what Geography literally means. For centuries humans are trying to measure, map and describe the surface of the earth. Until now we have explored, conquered and mapped almost every corner of the planet. We have a vast amount of data and knowledge available of our planet earth. We know about landscape, climatic and cultural conditions. Yet, we are living in times of strong cultural power imbalances, the climate crisis is getting a bigger threat every year and wealth is distributed more and more unevenly. 
How is that fitting together? It seems like a paradox, the more we know about the earth the bigger the problems get. Shouldn’t the problems decrease with knowledge? We will elaborate how a geographical food imagination might be a solution.

Colonialism & Food Empires

You may have realised that the word “we” which was used several times in the paragraph above mainly describes the “western” perspective. To better understand this issue we need to go back in the history of geography. Modern geography is “essentially a European branch of knowledge, reflecting European ways of making sense of the world.”1 Boyle (2015), Human Geography: A Concise Introduction  It is strongly connected to Europe’s expanding colonization efforts starting in the 15th century. Without valuable geographical knowledge about natural conditions, resources and cultures the colonizing countries probably would not have been able to conquer, exploit and suppress the colonies. 
Food always played a major role for the northern empires. The trade of spices and “exotic” fruits made many merchants and trading companies immensely rich. It was the production of food which was the main reason for the slave trade, a system which created a massive wealth disproportion and crime against humanity. 

The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”

Jean-Jacque Rousseau

Since the rise of modern geography we can observe a strong correlation of knowledge and power imbalances. This hasn’t changed much until now. We now even speak of neo-colonialism and in the context of food of “food empires”. Instead of countries and governments in the colonial centuries we now have a few corporations dominating most of the world’s markets. This leads to a strong dependence of the millions of smallholder farmers on the few multinational corporations. Although the smallholder farmers are still the majority of all farmers. It furthermore excludes local and indigenous knowledge and imposes the “western” knowledge to the other parts of the world. That this is far from sustainable and fair is not a big surprise. “Studies show that the most effective approach to protecting biodiverse ecosystems is by securing the land tenure rights of indigenous peoples, who effectively use their traditional knowledge and cultural practices to protect the ecosystems on which they have depended for many generations.”2 ActionAid (2019): Principles for a Just Transition in Agriculture

So how do we get there?

Geographical Imagination

We can get there by applying geographical methodologies and principles. We need to fully scope and analyze the key geographical concepts such as location/space, place/region, scale, mobility/movement and human-environment interaction. By doing so we achieve a critical geographical literacy or to put it a bit more vivid – a geographical imagination, which is required to analytically come up with solutions to shape a just food system. The term geographical imagination was firs coined by the geographer Hugh Prince in 1962. Since then it gained popularity as a concept and evolved into a powerful tool. It serves as a concept “to describe and analyze the power within the literal and metaphorical ways people imagine and render space. The concept plays a central role in envisioning and enacting just possible futures”32017. Gieseking, J. Geographical Imagination. In International Encyclopedia of Geography (eds. D. Richardson, N.Castree, M. Goodchild, A. Jaffrey, W. Liu, A. Kobayashi, and R. Marston). New York: Wiley-Blackwell and the Association of American Geographers.
And related to food systems “a geographical imagination provides a powerful window, not just on who eats what, but also on how the world’s food systems are put together and why food production and consumption work – or don’t – for different people and places. “4 Kneafsey et al. (2021): Geographies of Food. An Introduction
This geographical imagination is vital for enhancing a just transition in food systems and achieving the SDGs. 

These are definitely not only recent insights, already 12 years back researchers concluded that a better geographical understanding of food systems needs to be promoted: “Overall, then, research must promote a geographic understanding of local food, which incorporates the social and ecological components of the system. This Food Geography will necessarily capture the concept of ‘place’ in terms of where the crop is produced and the relevant social relations in that community; what crop is appropriate for a given eco-region and consumer market; and how agro-ecological and community sustainability can best be achieved.”5 Duram, Oberholtzer (2010): A geographic approach to place and natural resource use in local food systems

“Modern” Food Systems 

But only very recently a systemic approach found its way into the sustainable food discussion. It is very understandable why this took so long and especially policy makers shied away from it. Food systems are probably one of the most complex human-environmental systems we have on earth. The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition6It is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to world food security and nutrition. It is the science-policy interface of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), an official UN body, defines a food system as “all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes.”mfn]HLPE (2014): Food losses and waste in the context of sustainable food systems.[/mfn]
The complexity of the systems gets evident by the following diagram provided by the UNEP7 United Nations Environment Programme (2016). Food Systems and Natural Resources.:

So let us use the geographical imagination and dive into this fascinating analysis of food systems. We at Geofoods take the geographical sciences, its principles and methods out of the academic world and turn knowledge into actions. Based on a critical analysis of food geographies we craft solutions together with stakeholders on the ground to create a just and sustainable food system which actually works for the environment, people and the animals. Find our services here