Knowledge for better food systems

Supporting more East-West knowledge exchange and partnership

DanaK's picture

This blog-post by Dana Kapitulčinová makes a plea for a greater focus on issues around food system sustainability in Central and Eastern European countries and aims to spark further discussions on how best to create meaningful links between researchers and practitioners in Western and Eastern Europe. 

In response to Dana’s blog and to aid this process, the FCRN has set up a new forum for discussions in food systems in Eastern Europe and the scope for East-West linkages. If you’re not already a member, do please join the FCRN  to contribute to the forum – and distribute this blog and the forum details via your networks.


Food and its sustainable provisioning is becoming of increasing interest to researchers as well as policy makers world-wide. In the European context, sustainable food production and consumption has deserved particular attention and the EU research agenda has been devoted to various aspects of sustainable food system research. The term “sustainable diets” was introduced a few years back as “those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations” (FAO, 2012). Numerous researchers and practitioners have since taken on the challenge of defining what sustainable diets might mean in their particular context as well as integrating sustainability aspects into national nutritional recommendations (Gonzales Fischer and Garnett, 2016).

Since food systems are very complex and involve many stakeholders, inter- and transdisciplinary research approaches in combination with good-quality knowledge exchange are needed to come up with new findings and solutions to current and future food system sustainability challenges. The Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) has been one of the early supporters of such approaches as well as promoters of professional networking. Established in 2005 in the UK, the network recently celebrated its 11th anniversary (videos from the day here). With around 1400 members it is one of the largest professional research networks on food sustainability in the world (focusing not just on food and climate but the entire spectrum of food sustainability research).

Looking in more detail at the FCRN membership in Europe, however, brings one striking observation. There is a marked difference between the numbers of the Western and the Eastern European membership in FCRN (Figure 1). There still appears to be a divide between the two “blocks” – the Eastern European and the Western European – that formally disappeared more than 25 years ago in the late 80s and early 90s. The numbers show an intriguing picture: Out of the total of 875 registered members in European countries[1] there are only 5 registered members from Eastern Europe: 1 in Bulgaria, 1 in the Czech Republic (the shorter name “Czechia” used hereafter), 2 in Hungary, and 1 in Slovenia. The registered Eastern European members therefore represent only a little more than 0.5% of all European FCRN members. When UK membership is put aside – since it forms more than 70% of all European FCRN membership – Eastern European members come to around 2% of all European non-UK members.

A similar picture is drawn when looking into published research studies on “sustainable diets” by European authors and contained in research databases such as Scopus (Elsevier). The returned search results comprise studies predominantly by authors from countries such as the UK, Italy, France or Germany, while (co-)authored studies from institutions in Eastern Europe can be counted on the fingers of one hand (data not shown here).

These perceived differences between “the East” and “the West” in Europe are quite striking and spark questions on the reasons behind this rather large gap:

  1. Why there are such large differences in our analysis of Eastern vs. Western European research on food sustainability from the FCRN perspective and are the differences real in practice?
  2. What can “the East” and “the West” learn from each other? And together?
  3. What examples of good practice exist?

 

Figure 1. An overview map with the number of registered FCRN members in Europe (as of 1st August 2016; exact numbers provided in Appendix 1), there is a clear difference between “the East” and “the West” (Source: FCRN website; graphics by Dana Kapitulčinová)

Why there are such large differences in our analysis of Eastern vs. Western European research on food sustainability from the FCRN perspective and are the differences real in practice?

Even though the results of our analysis might indicate that there are few professionals at Eastern European institutions actively engaging in food sustainability research and networking at an international level, we must be careful not to draw quick conclusions about the relationship of Eastern Europeans to food sustainability.

Based on my experience and cultural background as a Czech, I believe that despite the low numbers in Eastern European FCRN membership and publications on sustainable diets in the academic literature, Eastern Europe is NOT devoid of practices, initiatives and research focusing on food sustainability. In fact, the results of my analysis most likely reflect the late adoption of the concept of “sustainability” in Eastern Europe due to the post-socialist developments in most of the Eastern European countries. Researchers and practitioners here simply might not use the terminology used in Western Europe and sustainability research does not have a long history (nor history of support) here[2].

When looking at some indicators of food sustainability that might be used – such as ecological farming practices, the number of people growing at least part of their own food (i.e. self-provisioning) or foraging for wild foods – and studies published on these topics, Eastern Europe comes out fairly well compared to Western Europe. For instance, somewhere between 30-60% of the population in Eastern European countries grows some of the food for their own consumption, while Western Europeans are much less active in growing their own food with typically somewhere between 5-20% of the population (average data from 2003, see Figure 2 for details).

The reasons and motivations for why Eastern Europeans score so high in food self-provisioning are currently underresearched and therefore subject to academic debate. While some authors have suggested that the high proportion of self-provisioning in Eastern Europe is predominantly ‘a coping strategy of the poor’ (Alber and Kohler, 2008), others have challenged the notion by suggesting that the reasons for growing one’s own food in Eastern Europe are multi-faceted (Jehlička et al., 2013). In a case study of Czechia (officially known as the Czech Republic) the authors showed that in 2010 food self-provisioning served as a hobby and as a way of accessing ‘fresh’ and ‘healthy’ food by most respondents, with financial savings being mentioned only after these three main points (Jehlička et al., 2013). Other studies from Czechia, Poland and Slovakia show similar results (Smith and Rochovská, 2007; Smith and Jehlička, 2013).

Another traditional practice that is common (not only) in Eastern Europe and that could be considered important in terms of food sustainability is foraging for wild food (see Figure 3 illustrating mushroom foraging). Similarly as for self-provisioning, studies and statistics on this activity are rather scarce and scattered (Schulp et al., 2014). An EU-wide estimate suggests that some 65 million people collect wild food occasionally, which is about 14% of all EU citizens (Schulp et al., 2014). The changes in contemporary uses of wild foods in Europe have been described and characterised by a marked decrease of many wild foods in people’s diets, especially in urban areas (Łuczaj et al., 2012).

In this context, existing statistics from Czechia on the picking of mushrooms and forest berries over more than the past 20 years (2004 -2014) present a promising picture: the total volumes have remained nearly the same for almost all the studied foods, i.e. mushrooms, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cowberries and elderberries, with only some minor yearly fluctuations (likely reflecting weather conditions, data not shown here). The average amount of forest fruits and mushrooms picked by forest visitors in the years 2004-2014 was around 10 kg per household per year (around 6 kg of mushrooms, 4 kg of berries) and about ¾ of the households in Czechia report foraging as one of their recreational activities (Ministry of Agriculture of the Czech Republic, 2014; Sisak et al., 2016).

The existence of the long-term Czech statistics presented above are however unique within Europe (Sisak et al., 2016) and therefore it is currently rather difficult to estimate the volumes and diversity of wild foods collected and used in Eastern and Western Europe. With food security and nutrition diversity in mind, this is one area of food system research that remains to be further explored for its potential nutritional, environmental, cultural and economic benefits to the European society.  It might also be interesting to make comparisons with developing countries, where foraged food can make an important contribution to food security.

Figure 2. Average proportions of people involved in food self-provisioning (i.e. meeting at least some of their food demands via self-grown food) in European countries in 2003 (excluding farmers), green = Eastern European countries, blue = Western European countries (Source: according to Table 1 in Jehlička et al., 2013, original data from the European Quality Life Survey 2003, see also Alber and Kohler, 2008; graphics by Dana Kapitulčinová)

With the concept of sustainability in mind, the above-mentioned self-sufficiency practices could arguably align with the principles of food system sustainability in terms of environmental and socio-economic benefits, but they appear not to be widely acknowledged in academic and policy circles. This is illustrated by a recent commentary by Bacchetta et al. (2016) pointing out that “despite the widespread use of wild foods, and their cultural importance, they lack recognition as significant contributors to the human diet.“ Similarly, food self-provisioning is considered to be “surprisingly neglected” by other authors as “longstanding sustainable practices that the practitioners themselves, and the research and policy community, have not recognised or valorised in those terms“ (e.g. Smith and Jehlička, 2013).

In fact, the term ‘quiet sustainability’ has been introduced by a group of academics to describe “practices that result in beneficial environmental or social outcomes, that do not relate directly or indirectly to market transactions, and that are not represented by the practitioners as relating directly to environmental or sustainability goals” (Smith and Jehlička, 2013). The authors suggest that “cultures of sharing, repairing, gifting and bartering characterise quiet sustainability. Everyday practices that have low environmental impacts, but that have not been pursued for that reason, are also features of the concept.” The concept of ‘quiet sustainability’ therefore seems particularly relevant for describing the current situation in Eastern Europe where food self-sufficiency practices are fairly widespread, but not proclaimed as part of the countries’ sustainability efforts. This could be one of the reasons for why information in the English peer-reviewed literature is relatively scarce. This ‘quiet sustainability’ aspect (not only) in Eastern Europe certainly deserves further research attention.

What can “the East” and “the West” learn from each other? And together?

What constitutes sustainable food systems and sustainable diets in various geographical and biophysical contexts in Europe is of course still an open question that is subject to further scientific debate. Intuitively, one might feel that food grown in gardens and allotments or gathered in the wild will have less environmental impact, and this food would be considered by many food advocates as ‘more sustainable’ than food grown in conventional large-scale agriculture.

But how would these systems score if actual numbers were put behind them, based for instance on quantitative methods such as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)? In other words, how much better (or maybe worse in some aspects!) are traditional practices, such as self-provisioning and foraging, in the various parts of Europe compared to the same or similar industrially produced food? Might there be downsides to foraging – for example when certain species are over-exploited?  Few studies attempting to answer these questions exist and the majority comes from Western Europe. We are for instance not aware of any studies employing LCA approaches in studies to assess environmental sustainability in Eastern European food systems. There is therefore a huge potential for exploring these questions in the context of European food system sustainability further using both qualitative and quantitative scientific approaches by bringing the knowledge and expertise from the East and the West together.

Reflecting on the literature published in the area of sustainable food systems and some of the statistics presented above, the following topics for potential collaboration and knowledge exchange arise:

“THE EAST”

  • Traditional knowledge on food provisioning that may (but perhaps not exclusively) be ‘better’ in terms of resource use, environmental impact and social dimensions compared to large-scale industrial food production such as:
    • growing fruits and vegetables for own consumption;
    • foraging for wild foods, including mushrooms, berries, nuts and herbs;
    • preserving seasonal produce into jams and pickles;
    • making herbal teas (also with medicinal effects); etc.
  • Ecological gardening and farming practices – relatively large areas with certified organic production in some countries (differs in different countries) and most likely also many uncertified production systems (e.g. home gardens and orchards); from  my experience, organic farming is seen as advantageous in terms of environmental impact from the public policy perspective (at least in Czechia at the moment).

“THE WEST”   

  • Environmental / sustainability assessment – relatively long tradition of methods such as Life Cycle Assessment, environmental footprinting methods (carbon footprint, water footprint, material footprint, ecological footprint), etc.  Active engagement in the debate around land sparing versus land sharing (i.e. more intensive agriculture occupying less land but with potentially greater on farm impacts, versus more extensive agriculture that uses more land and harbours greater on farm biodiversity, but potentially at cost to wild habitats)
  • Animal welfare –welfare considerations in large-scale industrial meat and egg production systems (e.g. almost no eggs from caged hens sold in Scandinavia as opposed to large-scale egg production in caged systems in Poland or Czechia, etc.)
  • Meat consumption moderation – an increasingly important topic in the West, but largely unnoticed in the East (at least from my perspective in Czechia) even though Eastern Europeans are amongst the top meat consumers in the EU
  • New holistic concepts (such as sustainable diets, links between food and climate etc.) with accompanying inter- and transdisciplinary research

 

Figure 3. An example of traditional foraging in Eastern Europe – wild mushroom picking in the woods in Czechia in August 2016 (top two images), part of the (free and low-impact) forage ended up in a “mushroom goulash” (bottom left), another part was dried in slices to be used in meals throughout the rest of the year (bottom right); Czechs pick around 6 kg of mushrooms per household annually, and the vast majority is for home consumption (Photos by Dana Kapitulčinová)

What examples of good practice exist?

One can certainly see a potential for enhanced collaboration between Western and Eastern European researchers and practitioners within the FCRN community building on the Western European experience in sustainability science on the one hand and Eastern European traditional knowledge on the other.  I am fully aware that this is a relatively simplistic view and there certainly exist other opportunities for knowledge exchange and partnerships both ways. Some of the good practice examples that I know of – but which are certainly not exhaustive – include:

  • European Network of Organic Agriculture University Teachers – professional network linking researchers and university teachers from across Europe, with strong presence in Eastern European countries (Rembiałkowska et al., 2015)
  • Project on the nutritional content of wild foods in the Black Sea countries with leaders from Portugal and several partners based in Eastern Europe (Costa et al., 2013)
  •  Trandisciplinary research project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation” at University of Lüneburg, Germany, including field research in Romania, see https://leveragepoints.org/

Conclusion

In the quest for sustainable food systems and sustainable diets in Europe, a wide range of perspectives and practices need to be considered. We believe that both Eastern and Western European researchers and practitioners can learn much from each other... and perhaps even more together. The discussion in this blog-post is intended as a conversation starter and the first step in our effort to gather more information on what’s already happening regarding East-West partnerships within the FCRN network as well as beyond.  I’m delighted that the FCRN has agreed to set up a new Forum to stimulate further East-West discussions, and you can see some of the suggestions on questions to discuss below, but note that we would welcome your suggestions on topics/questions as well.

So if you are working and/or living in Eastern Europe and follow the FCRN please let us know what projects/activities you work on in the food system via the new FCRN Forum.  If you are working and/or living in Western Europe (or anywhere else) and collaborate with Eastern European institutions, please do let us know too!

The ultimate aim is to increase interest among Eastern European researchers and practitioners to share their views and experiences on the various aspects of sustainable food systems with the wider FCRN community as a basis for potential future collaborations. So please tell your colleagues about this new Forum initiative [TG4] regardless of where you are based and then tell us whatever you’d like to share. Thank you in advance!


Forum discussion questions:

  • What are the reasons for the much lower numbers of FCRN members from Eastern Europe and what can be done to increase membership (if desirable)?
  • Do you agree with the concept of ‘quiet sustainability’ being common in Eastern Europe and, if so, do you have any examples?
  • What aspects do you find as key for defining sustainable diets in the respective Eastern European countries/regions? What practices should be preserved and what do you think needs to be changed?
  • Are there any key studies/statistics on self-provisioning and foraging in both Eastern and Western Europe that you’d like to point out? How much gets picked where? What are the motivations and barriers? What are the trends?
  • Are there any other important food-related practices in Central and Eastern Europe that could be considered sustainable that we have not covered?
  • Do you know of any studies on food systems (e.g. conventional, organic, self-provisioning, foraging, etc.) from Eastern Europe employing Life Cycle Assessment or other environmental/sustainability assessment methods?
  • Are there any discussions on reducing meat consumption to (at least) the recommended levels in any of the Eastern European countries? Any discussions on where your meat comes from and how it’s been produced?
  • Is there any discussion on how ‘sustainable’ (or ‘good’ or ‘bad’) organic production is –compared to conventional in any of the Eastern European countries?
  • What policies advance/hinder progress towards sustainable food systems and sustainable diets in Eastern and Western Europe in your opinion? What should be kept and what should be changed?
  • What topic(s) for potential collaboration in the area of sustainable food system research throughout Europe come to your mind?
  • What examples of East-West partnerships on food system sustainability do you know of?
  • Any other key questions?

Appendix 1.

Total numbers of FCRN members in European countries (as of 1st August 2016); E = Eastern Europe, here understood as countries that formerly formed the “Eastern Bloc” of countries with communist regimes in the 20thcentury; W = Western Europe (division made for the purposes of our analysis) (Source: member profiles - FCRN website)

Country

Number of member profiles

East/West

Albania

0

E

Andorra

0

W

Austria

4

W

Belarus

0

E

Belgium

10

W

Bosnia and Herzegovina

0

E

Bulgaria

1

E

Croatia

0

E

Cyprus

0

W

Czech Republic

1

E

Denmark

9

W

Estonia

0

E

Finland

5

W

France

31

W

Germany

37

W

Greece

1

W

Hungary

2

E

Iceland

0

W

Ireland

23

W

Italy

21

W

Latvia

0

E

Liechtenstein

0

W

Lithuania

0

E

Luxembourg

0

W

Macedonia

0

E

Malta

1

W

Moldova

0

E

Monaco

0

W

Montenegro

0

E

Netherlands

30

W

Norway

13

W

Poland

0

E

Portugal

2

W

Romania

0

E

Russian Federation

0

E

San Marino

0

W

Serbia

0

E

Slovakia

0

E

Slovenia

1

E

Spain

16

W

Sweden

36

W

Switzerland

9

W

Turkey

1

W

Ukraine

0

E

United Kingdom

621

W

References

Alber, J., Kohler, U. (2008) Informal Food Production in the Enlarged European Union. Social Indicators Research 89, 113-127.

Bacchetta, L., Visioli, F., Cappelli, G., Caruso, E., Martin, G., Nemeth, E., Bacchetta, G., Bedini, G., Wezel, A., van Asseldonk, T., van Raamsdonk, L., Mariani, F., on behalf of the Eatwild Consortium (2016) A manifesto for the valorization of wild edible plants. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 191, 180-187.

Costa, H. S., Albuquerque, T. G., Sanches-Silva, A., Vasilopoulou, E., Trichopoulou, A., D’Antuono, L. F., Alexieva, I., Boyko, N., Costea, C., Fedosova, K., Hayran, O., Karpenko, D., Kilasonia, Z., Finglas, P. (2013) New nutritional composition on selected traditional foods consumed in Black Sea Area countries. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 93, 3524-3534.

FAO (2012) Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity: Directions and solutions for policy, research and action. Proceedings of the International Scientific Symposium "Sustainable diets and biodiversity", 3-5 November 2010, Rome, 307 pp.

Gonzales Fischer, C., Garnett, T. (2016) Plates, Pyramids and Planets. Developments in national healthy and sustainable dietary guidelines: a state of play assessment. FAO and FCRN at The University of Oxford, 71 pp.

Jehlička, P., Kostelecký, T., Smith, J. (2013) Food Self-Provisioning in Czechia: Beyond Coping Strategy of the Poor: A Response to Alber and Kohler’s ʽInformal Food Production in the Enlarged European Unionʼ (2008). Social Indicators Research 111, 219-234.

Łuczaj, Ł., Pieroni, A., Tardío, J., Pardo-de-Santayana, M., Sõukand, R., Svanberg, I.,  Kalle, R. (2012) Wild food plant use in 21st century Europe: the disappearance of old traditions and the search for new cuisines involving wild edibles. Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae 81, 359-370.

Ministry of Agriculture of the Czech Republic (2014) Report on the State of Forests and Forestry in the Czech Republic by 2014, Ministry of Agriculture of the Czech Republic, Forestry Section.

Rembiałkowska, E., Moudrý, J., von Fragstein und Niemsdorff, P., Francis, C., Kapitulčinová, D., Dlouhá, J. (2015) ENOAT: Professional development workshops of the European Network of Organic Agriculture University Teachers. Pp. 49–55 in Leading Practice Publication: Professional development of university educators on Education for Sustainable Development in European countries. Editors: Kapitulčinová, D., Dlouhá, J., Ryan, A., Dlouhý, J., Barton, A., Mader, M., Tilbury, D., Mulà, I., Benayas, J., Alba, D., Mader, C., Michelsen, G., Vintar Mally, K. Charles University in Prague, Prague, 136 pp.

Schulp, C. J. E., Thuiller, W., Verburg, P. H. (2014) Wild food in Europe: A synthesis of knowledge and data of terrestrial wild food as an ecosystem service. Ecological Economics 105, 292-305.

Sisak, L., Riedl, M., Dudik, R. (2016) Non-market non-timber forest products in the Czech Republic – Their socio-economic effects and trends in forest land use 50, 390-398.

Smith, J., Jehlička, P. (2013) Quiet sustainability: Fertile lessons from Europe’s productive gardeners. Journal of Rural Studies 32, 148-157.

Smith, A., Rochovská, A. (2007) Domesticating neo-liberalism: Everyday lives and the geographies of post-socialist transformations. Geoforum 38, 1163-1178.

 

[1] The countries taken into account and their division between “the East” and “the West” for the purposes of the analysis here are listed in Appendix 1.

[2] This has been changing over the past years particularly with the accession of a number of Eastern European countries to the European Union and joining programmes such as the Horizon 2020 that specifically request information on sustainability aspects of the proposed research.

 

Comments

DanaK's picture
Submitted by DanaK on

Ever since we published the blog post at the end of August, I've learned or been reminded of a number of great examples of good practice in East-West collaboration in the area of sustainable food systems that I'd like to highlight by adding them to the (certainly unexhaustive!) list. These include:

  • The Organic Food System Programme (OFSP) which is looking at how the 'organic philosophy' can be applied to entire food systems (not just agricultural production) in the search for sustainable models of food production and consumption, more at the OFSP website: https://organicfoodsystem.net/programme/the-organic-food-system-programme-long-2/
  • The 'Sustainable Kitchen (SUKI) Project' and the 'UMBESA Project' were two projects realised in partnership between Czech and Austrian partners that focused on the climate impact of various meals produced in public catering facilities in the two respective countries and the potential for improvements, more information (in Czech and German only): http://umbesa.rma.at/?q=de/node/81

And there is certainly much more! If you know of any examples, please feel free to add them here and/or to the discussion forum.

Ewa Kopczynska's picture

Thank you for your important insight and systematic picture od Eastern-Western perspectives. I believe the questions you put clearly need further research, data, hypotheses, discussions, analyses. And the real challenge is to quit easy schemas of modernisation and development, (Eastern) aspiring vs. (Western) educating, (Eastern) practices vs. (Western) reflexivity. I would also ask how much sustainability is local category and how it can be translated into other languages/cultures/systems. Is there an Eastern version of sustainability? Like Petr Jehlicka's "quiet sustainability"? How this term refers to global then? I am looking forward for your futher findings and happy to discuss it :) Good luck!

DanaK's picture
Submitted by DanaK on

Dear Ewa,

thanks very much for adding to the discussion here. I absolutely agree with your point that "the real challenge is to quit easy schemas of modernisation and development", that's a very good point here.

Also, your questions really caught my attention - the idea that there might be an "Eastern version" of sustainability and how does it relate to "global sustainability"... One of the features that relates to sustainability and seems to be present in the CEE region is "resourcefulness" in people's attitudes to (not only) food that we started to discuss in our forum. I was curious whether "resourcefulness" is directly linked to how rich people are, or whether it is also affected by culture and tradition in CEE... are there any studies that would be looking into this? (I'm a natural scientist by training, but social science questions fascinate me more and more:))

In any case, I'd be interested in hearing what you and others think about the "Eastern version" of sustainability as well as other aspects so please feel free to add in your thoughts if you feel like it.

Thanks again for getting engaged.

Best, Dana

 

Mikelis's picture
Submitted by Mikelis on

Thank you Dana for this blog entry,

I would supplement your thought by suggesting that currently theoretical approaches used to interpret processes occurring in agro-food systems have been developed in western context (of course there are also some exceptions). My personal fear is that theories that reflect on a context that on general is characterised by specific food system arrangements might be damaging if used in other contexts. In other words – explanations overtaken from other contexts might be harmful if uncritically used elsewhere. Thus I think that more attempts should be made to theorize local practices present in CEE. Hopefully this could generate theories and conceptual toolbox emerging from CEE context. This step could be critical if we want to secure existence of region specific agro-food practices.

Mikelis's picture
Submitted by Mikelis on

The Baltic Studies Centre, in cooperation with the Latvian Academy of Culture is organising a scientific and practical conference Alternative food supply networks in Central and Eastern Europe: Towards new grounds for interpretation and collaboration. The conference will take place in Riga, Latvia on 13 and 14 October 2017.

More information regarding the conference can be found here: https://lka.edu.lv/en/featured/news/call-papers-and-practical-contributions/