Imagining transformative food futures: starting with people on the front lines   

By: Joost Vervoort

When the future of food in Europe is discussed by policy makers, conversations traditionally focus on large-scale economics and on agricultural production. At the same time, however, people in initiatives and organizations all throughout Europe are actively experimenting with new ways to organize European food, often at local and national levels. The people involved in these initiatives have diverse and transformative ideas about what food in Europe’s future could be, and these ideas drive them to work hard to achieve their desired futures. But this lively and diverse world of food system experimentation fails to connect, for the most part, to national and European policy dialogues.

In the FP7 TRANSMANGO project, we aimed to explore the future hopes and worries of people working in such highly innovative and transformative projects and networks. This exploration of different futures was done in close collaboration with the people involved in such initiatives. TRANSMANGO researchers aimed to offer different futuring tools – visioning, back-casting (planning backward from the future) and the use of challenging scenarios – to transformative food initiatives. These approaches were offered in the first place to help such initiatives think more strategically about their own goals and how they could be reached in the face of the pressures that a changing future might offer. By focusing on using different approaches for engaging with the future on the specific plans and strategies of food initiatives, we aimed to make sure that future explorations were concretely useful to all involved.  


Throughout ten cases across Europe (D6.2 report), people involved in transformative food initiatives first created a vision of what they would like to achieve in the mid-term future. Based on this vision, they developed a plan toward achieving it using back-casting, by taking one step backward in time from the future and working out what was needed to achieve that step, until the present was reached. They then looked at eight different future scenarios developed for the future of food in Europe by a range of Euopean stakeholders and investigated (D6.3 report) what these futures might mean for their local or national initiative. These localized scenarios were then used to investigate critically what the stronger and weaker points of their backward-planned strategy could be, and how the strategy could be improved to deal with different uncertain futures. Often this process of visioning, back-casting and critical scenario-based plan evaluation included new combinations of local people and organizations who did not know each other yet, and who came to significant new opportunities for collaboration. TRANSMANGO researchers have since been tracking how the strategies developed through these futuring processes have been used and integrated into core initiative plans or led to the establishment of new networks of action.

After the success of these local processes, the research project investigated how all of these perspectives from transformative food initiatives relate to each other, and how they offer a more diverse set of perspectives on the future of food in Europe. These bottom-up perspectives were used in European-level dialogue about how European policies could support transformative food practices throughout the continent (D3.4 report). One challenge we encountered is that food related policies at the European level are still very fragmented, and that there are major policy gaps and opportunities to be tackled. TRANSMANGO’s bottom-up approach has made it very clear that Europe is bustling with energetic people and initiatives that could benefit greatly from a more integrated food systems approach to policy which actively supports local diversity and action across the European Union.

Joost Vervoort – Assistant Professor of Foresight for Environmental Governance, Utrecht University; Honourary Research Associate, University of Oxford


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