Power in the food system:
what’s powering the future of protein?
A quick skim through the NGO, policy, and academic literature - or even just a glance at marketing slogans in the supermarket - shows that protein is in vogue: at once an essential nutrient, a commercial opportunity, and a recurring theme that is seen as fundamental to the many environmental, health, and societal challenges we face. Discussions about protein and how it needs to ‘transition’ in order to be more sustainable abound, with questions such as these constantly debated:
Are current trends in protein production and consumption desirable or concerning, inevitable or malleable? Do we have enough protein or should we be producing and / or consuming more? And if so, protein of what kind, produced in what way, at what scale? Is plant protein better than animal protein or vice versa - and if so why? What about alternative proteins – what problems are they intended to solve, what new ones are they seen to raise, and what are they ‘alternatives’ to?
These are just some of many questions that we see articulated and debated today. In our view, one of the key concerns at the heart of many disagreements about protein and its environmental, health, and ethical implications is power - what it is, who has it, who ought to have more or less of it, and which forms of power are desirable or not.
In this work theme we will use protein as a case study for exploring some of the debates about power in the food system. We will be looking at some of power’s obvious manifestations - governmental, geopolitical, or corporate power, for example. But there are also other less tangible forms of power we want to explore, which still have a profound influence on how different stakeholders think about food and what they want for the food system – the power of the cultural, moral, or educational norms that subtly shape our thinking, our lives and our food provisioning systems.
Feed Season 2 kicks off introducing our theme for the season: power in the food system. Across the season we’ll speak with researchers, farmers, activists and others to dig into what kind of power shapes food systems, if this needs to change, and how. For full show notes and transcript, visit here.
Recognising that any discussion about power needs to be self-reflective – power dynamics are at work within TABLE’s team and institutional embeddings, in how we decide what to prioritise and what to pay less attention to, and in how we engage with you, the wider TABLE community - we have written a short think piece that summarises our thinking and our decision making processes. Please do have a read – we would welcome your comments:
We formally kicked off our work on power in the food system at a panel discussion event held on 8 December 2021: An open discussion on power in the food system. Watch the recording below and share your thoughts on our community platform.
We found this event fascinating and are very grateful to our four panellists for sharing their insightful contributions. We recognise that the discussion might well have flowed in other directions had we invited a different set of panellists. Therefore, we plan to repeat this event every few months to see how the discussion differs when we involve another group of contributors. If you have suggestions for guests to invite, whether from the Global South or North, or from small or large organisations, please do get in touch.
An open-ended discussion on 'Power in the food system'
Also on the theme of power – this time in relation to the politics of knowledge – we held an event on 11 January 2022 together with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food on the subject of Whose knowledge counts? Exploring evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches, and Indigenous Foodways. You can watch the recording here or below:
Whose knowledge counts? Exploring evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches, and Indigenous Foodways
Other power-protein related work we are planning will explore (among others) the following questions:
- What is power? How do different people define power? What forms does power take, and who do we think holds it?
- The power of the narrative: how did the concept of protein become so influential and how does this history affect present-day narratives and proposed food systems solutions? Who is involved in defining the future of protein? To what extent are protein’s links to the wider food system understood? How is protein marketed through its association with strength, vigour, slimness and so on?
- Actors in the food system: how - and how much - do various sectors and organisations exert different forms of power in the food system? We’ll talk to policymakers, industry, grassroots movements, farmers, funders, citizens, researchers and more.
- Whose numbers count? Which metrics used to measure the environmental or nutritional goodness or badness of protein rise to prominence and why? How are alternative metrics, such as GWP*, interpreted by different stakeholders in the protein debate? How do different systems of knowledge gain or lose legitimacy in influencing food systems transition?
- Power across the world. Here, we’ll explore how debates about power vary by geographic region.
- Human-non-human relations. What are the existing power relations between humans and non-human animals? Which actors in the food system think these power dynamics need to change (and how?), and who accepts the status quo? Keep an eye on our mailing list to be notified of new outputs on the theme of power and please do get in touch with your suggestions and any ideas you might have for collaboration.
- Podcast: Why isn't food on the COP agenda?
- Podcast: Food systems investors on COP-26
- Explainer: What is food sovereignty?
- Blog: Support Your Locals: on international solidarity in a resilient and sustainable urban food system
- Blog: Framing the future of food: The contested promises of alternative proteins
- Letterbox: Cultivating genetically modified organisms in Ethiopia