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Sam Beebe (left) and Bryant Olsen (right) via Flickr

Scaling the system:
Should the future of food be global or local?



The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the attention to the scale at which livestock and other agricultural products are produced and shipped around the world. Though the goals of reducing hunger, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and building a fair food system future for all are shared by most people, the appropriate scale at which the food system should function – for example whether nations should increase food self-sufficiency or increase international trade, or if small- or large-scale agriculture is to be preferred, remains deeply contested.

The debate on scale in the food system extends beyond spatial considerations. “Scale” can also be applied to temporal, moral and cultural issues. For example, what are the benefits and drawbacks of making food policy over different timeframes – weeks, years, centuries? Do – and should – people care as much about their local communities, economies and ecosystems compared with distant ones that they are not directly embedded in? What does “local” economy even mean in the age of globalised supply chains? How do people decide how far to extend their “moral circle” – should they care about the wellbeing of individual cattle, chickens, fish, shellfish, insects or plants? How closely do people identify with the “traditional” diets of their local areas?

While there are certainly strong differences in opinion, attention is often focused on the most extreme arguments within the debate, glossing over a broad and rich spectrum of moderate, nuanced and regional views that do not always fall into simplistic “localist” vs. “globalist” positions. 

This project aims to take a closer look at the arguments, values and assumptions that underpin debates around globalisation and localisation in the food system, doing so through the involvement of a wide range of food systems stakeholders in a process of interviews, dialogue and discussion.


Project methodology

We begin by “setting the table” with a series of semi-structured interviews and invited blogposts from a broad range of perspectives (diverse geographies, sectoral backgrounds and academic disciplines) focused on ideas about spatial, temporal, moral and cultural scale. Table will inquire in both background and point of view interviews how each participant understands foundational concepts as well as their perceived research gaps and desired visions.

Interviews, blogposts, visualisations of scale in the food system, and explainers will be published here on this page, adding a historical, cultural and political context to how we interpret and debate scale. Building on the positions explained in the first round of semi-structured interviews and the background information presented on the website, Table will host a series of panel discussions and workshops between those with different visions for the future of the food system. These dialogues will also involve “audience” participation and lively online discussions through our website and on social media.

We will produce an analytical report that summarises the arguments and assumptions that underlie disagreements, identifies research gaps, and suggests pathways forward based on areas of convergence. We envision this report not to end the project, but to continue the conversation.


Listen to TABLE's podcast discussing scale

Learn more about TABLE's project approach

Contact us if you'd like to be interviewed or contribute a blog related to this project

Background explainers