The concept

There is growing recognition among consumers, that what you choose to buy, and where from, can have different types of impact in relation to different dimensions and scales .

The concept of ‘local food chains’ has generated a myriad of business, civil society and policy initiatives, which have given a strong impulse to open new research and policy fields.

In spite of this social pressure asking for a more complex definition of the quality of food products there are very few attempts to integrate the variety of impacts associated with the production and consumption of food in comprehensive decision making tools, able to highlight the tradeoffs and dilemmas.

We have to ask ourselves:

  • how can we define, and distinguish ‘local’ from ‘global’?
  • How is the quality of local/global food chain related to other qualities such as “method of production”, “scale of operations”, “number of actors involved”, “equity/inequity in the distribution of costs and benefits?
  • How to link ‘localness’ or ‘globalness’ to an analysis based on a clear set of sustainability performance criteria?
  • How can policies encourage processes of relocalization without falling in the ‘red tape’ trap?>

To address these questions, this project is built around the following principles:

  • Costs and benefits analysis needs methodological update

The traditional perception of “costs and benefits” used in defining the performance of the food system in the 50s-70s requires an updating. There are new perceptions of “costs and benefits” that the consumers would like to see reflected in the institutions regulating the functioning of the food systems, and in new pattern of production and consumption of food.

If we want to do a comparative analysis of different typologies of food systems (local versus global) it is essential, first of all, to build a robust methodological approach capable of individuating and characterizing those attributes of performance which are relevant to make informed decisions.

  • The performance of food chains has multiple dimensions

Food chains can have an impact that requires the consideration of a multiple dimensions. In this project we identify five narratives about the performance of food system requiring the use of five non-equivalent dimensions of analysis to characterize non-reducible types of “costs and benefits”: (i) the impact on the economy; (ii) the impact on the society; (iii) the impact on the environment; (iv) the impact on human health; (v) ethical dimension. An important number of impacts referring to these five dimensions are largely unknown or poorly quantified. The project will start with a systematic review of how performance of the food chains is communicated in the media, in the markets and how such a performance is quantified in the scientific literature with the aim of producing a ‘performance criteria matrix’ that will be the basis for further investigation, assessment and comparison.

  • To turn knowledge into practice a demand-driven approach is necessary

Public policies and business strategies can contribute to the fulfilment of sustainability goals by acting upon the context in which food choice are made. In particular the project will focus on consumers and on their willingness to balance economic determinants of choice with other attributes of performance they consider relevant in relation to health, environment, social, and ethical ones. Following the SCAR 3rd foresight exercise (EU Commission, 2011), we adopt a ‘sufficiency’ narrative, that looks to solutions to the problem of scarcity not only in the ‘efficiency’ realm (reduction of inputs per units of output), but also in a behavioral change that addresses consumption. Applying such a demand-driven approach, policy measures addressing consumers, public food systems and citizens such as food education, information and labeling, public procurement should be explored as effective complementary tools to ‘supply driven’ instruments such as regulation, taxation, incentives to producers and distributors.

  • The complexity of impacts of food chains requires plurality of methods and transdisciplinarity

So far, comparison between food chains has been done by reducing the complexity entailed by the coexistence of several relevant dimensions and scales and taking into consideration only a limited number of parameters at the time, estimating the effect of possible changes under the assumption everything remains the same, the ‘ceteris paribus’. This project addresses this methodological problem as its starting point, and proposes a solution to deal with it. The project adopts a multi-criteria perspective that takes ‘measurement’ and ‘evaluation’ in ways that combine qualitative and quantitative impacts.

5 dimension of food chains

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