Envisioning the Future of Food Across North-South Divides – Interview with Sarah Ruth Sippel
Sarah Ruth Sippel is a Senior Researcher at the University of Leipzig, Germany, and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. She studied Middle Eastern studies and philosophy in Leipzig and Aix-en-Provence and received her PhD in geography. She has intensively worked on the interlinkages between export agriculture, rural livelihood security, and labour migration in North Africa and the Western Mediterranean region. Her current research explores the nexus between global food security, financialization of natural resources, and emerging forms of solidarities within global agri-food systems. She is Principal Investigator of a four-year research project on imaginations of land (C04, SFB 1199) funded by the German Research Foundation.
Sarah Ruth Sippel developed the Explorative Workshop Envisioning the Future of Food Across North-South Divides which is part of the strategic cooperation between the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland. The workshop will take place in Berlin from 1 to 3 December 2016.
You studied Middle Eastern studies and philosophy and continued with a PhD in geography, how did you become interested in the topic of agri-food networks and movements?
My PhD research on agricultural export production in Morocco as well as my current research on foreign and financial investments in land in Australia are indeed part of what could be considered the ‘conventional’ – and often dominant – model of agriculture, a model based on intensive use of natural resources, high input of chemicals, and requiring vast amounts of capital. But this is just one way that agriculture and food can be organised in society. People aiming to find other ways of organising agri-food relationships make up agri-food networks and movements. A comprehensive understanding of our current food system thus needs to include this variety of ideas about and practices of agri-food relationships. In addition to that, the research conducted in this area by critical agri-food scholars around the world has been very inspiring to me. The original spark can clearly be traced back to my first meeting with Bill Friedland at a conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 2008 and who then came and joined us for a colloquium in Leipzig. He was very keen to learn what was going on in terms of ‘food networks’ in Leipzig, so it was my pleasure to introduce him to some people in the neighbourhood.
In Germany there is a lot of talk about strengthening regional food networks and rebuilding close connections to farmers, so why do you think is it important to research transregional food networks?
Placing the emphasis on transregional dynamics certainly does not mean excluding the other or implying that one is more important. However, there might be important linkages to transregional dynamics worth studying. To give you a concrete example, a regional food cooperative in Leipzig does not emerge out of nowhere. People have come together and set the cooperative up for many reasons, some of them having transregional dimensions. Through individual travel, people might have been inspired by something they’ve seen elsewhere and gained knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. Transregional dynamics also become relevant at the level of ideas and values about agriculture and food. The most prominent example here is the notion of food sovereignty, which emerged in a specific context in Latin America. Now food sovereignty has become a central pillar of food movements and networks around the world. These transregional dimensions have been less examined so far, especially when it comes to North-South linkages. The workshop aims to explore the potential of addressing and investigating these dynamics in future research.
Why is your topic relevant right now? Do you see a specific direction in which the future of food is headed?
There certainly was never a time where studying food was not important. With regard to our current situation, there are three key aspects why I think this is an urgent and much needed topic to be investigated. As a matter of fact, we have (1) never made up this many people on this planet, we all – still – need to eat and we are not becoming less but more. How we are going to feed the increasing number of people living on this plant is one of the most important questions we are facing. There are numerous suggestions on the best way to realise this, but they (2) all too often overemphasize the need to produce more and ignore the fact that even now, where there is enough food to feed everybody, several hundreds of thousands of people go hungry daily. So despite the fact that there has been a tremendous growth in food production over the last century, we still haven’t adequately dealt with the question of distribution, which would make sure that food is not only there but also goes (or sometimes remains) where it is needed. This key problematic has been identified a long time ago without any substantial improvement being achieved so far – that’s why scholars suggest that we are also faced with a failure of accountability in dealing with global food (in)security. Why does this mean it is important to study food movements and networks? There is (3) a growing number of people who have started to not only realise existing inequalities on our planet but are also working towards change. Food is one way or element in doing this because it’s such an essential and vital part of our lives – we all engage in food relationships every day in a very direct and immediate manner. I think the growing number of people who agree that the way in which our current food system is organised is problematic will continue to make a change in how we think about and organise food relationships in the future.
Questions: Alix Winter, Forum Transregionale Studien