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Challenging orthodoxies: essays on agri-food system transformation

Conti, C. (2023) Challenging orthodoxies: essays on agri-food system transformation. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00115829


Today’s agri-food systems are at a watershed. A bundle of environmental, social, and economic threats currently looms over agri-food systems – ranging from climate change to inequality. Thus, in recent years, several research, policy and civil society actors have recognised the need to fundamentally shift production and consumption patterns towards more viable directions of development. This is why an agri-food system “transformation to sustainability” is increasingly central in the global agenda, as the only way forward to ensure agri-food systems of the future are environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially just. However, transformation will be a highly complex and uncertain process that is expected to fundamentally reshape the structure and functions of agri-food systems as we know them, demanding a shift from the established beliefs and practices, processes, actor relationships, and outcomes that have underpinned them. Recognising the need for challenging some of the accepted practices and “ways of doing things” that might have, until now, contributed to upholding unsustainability, this thesis i) discusses how new approaches are needed to tackle the inherent complexity of agri-food systems as a prerequisite to navigating transformation; ii) acknowledges that concealed system elements might have ingrained, and over time, reinforced, unsustainability in current agri-food systems, creating resistance towards novel (and sustainable) directions of change; iii) recognises that some key features and enablers might come into play for making transformative initiatives able to challenge the status quo; iv) considers how present challenges raise novel and largely unanswered questions on how agricultural and food research organisations can respond to the transformation agenda. Structured as a collection of papers and employing different qualitative research methods, the thesis explores and addresses the abovementioned points. In particular, the thesis i) provides, through a comparative case study analysis, a set of novel principles that might be helpful for navigating agri-food systems complexity; ii) identifies, through a systematic literature review, a set of interconnected elements that create resistance to new sustainable directions in current agri-food systems, presenting a framework that can help uncover them in different contexts; iii) reveals, through a case study in South India, some essential features and enablers of transformative processes; iv) discusses, through a critical literature review, the possible novel roles that agricultural research organisation of the future might assume to support transformations, and the consequent implications that different organisational visions might have. As a whole, this body of work identifies some of the most critical orthodoxies (a linearity orthodoxy, a simplicity orthodoxy, and an orthodoxy in the role of agricultural research organisations) that currently hinder a sustainability transformation, to then provide critical suggestions on how they could be overcome. The thesis also reflects on the implications of this for policy, highlighting how policies might need to be re- 7 envisioned in a way that can better respond and adapt to the complexity and uncertainty of agrifood systems contexts (and their transformation). Besides, considerations emerging from different chapters suggest that more attention should be devoted to supporting novel, wide-ranging and even unconventional forms of innovation, while also ensuring that the directionality of transformative processes across the globe is maintained towards sustainability. The thesis emphasises that policy-making processes should become much more inclusive, ensuring that all voices can participate in deciding desirable (if negotiated) transformation pathways. As a final point, the thesis proposes some venues for future research.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Zanello, G.
Thesis/Report Department:School of Agriculture, Policy & Development
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Life Sciences > School of Agriculture, Policy and Development
ID Code:115829


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