Sustainable food system transitions: European perspectives and research agenda  

soc ruralWith Damian Maye, University of Gloucestershire, I am currently guest editing a special issue of Sociologia Ruralis. 



There is growing recognition that conventional food system models, dominant since the late 1970s, are no longer ‘fit-for-purpose’. In this regard, ‘business as usual’ practices are increasingly seen as no longer able to deal with compounding interconnected sets of food system pressures (e.g., climate change, peak oil, food security, changing diets). A key mainstream response to increasing food system pressures is the notion of sustainable intensification. Although encompassing a range of ideas, it is not radical from a transition perspective, but rather involves incremental adjustments to existing neoliberal modes of provisioning. At the same time, innovative social practices, often framed as alternatives, have emerged as niches of activities with the aim to re-organise markets into wider social relation and with differing potential to influence neoliberal systems of rules and institutions. These practices recognise the need to enact more ‘radical’ changes across food systems. These practices span from agro-ecological approaches on the producer side to new dietary practices on the consumer side. To address these shifts there have been attempts to design improved understanding of socio-technical transition, alongside models of assessment to better capture changing values and objectives. This new paradigm increasingly recognises the values of post-normal science (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993), wherein complexity, uncertainty, incomplete data and multiple stakeholder perspectives are explicitly acknowledged.

This special issue will bring together a diverse but thematically coherent set of papers that critically engage with questions of sustainable transition for food systems and rural development. The special issue is timely, with several Framework 7 research projects currently engaging with questions of food systems transition across Europe, as well as an increasing number of conference sessions dedicated to the topic. It is thus a key moment to collect a state-of-the-art on the topic. Moreover, and linked to societal relevance, goal two of the newly adopted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. However, actions by the UN around food security have tended towards what Shaw (2007) has called a “graveyard of aspirations”. Achieving this goal at the European level thus requires innovative thinking around how to promote and action sustainable food system transition and, within that, how to improve measures of sustainability that avoid ‘hypocognition’ (Lakoff, 2004) and broaden ‘visibility fields’ (Spence and Rinaldi, 2014) to capture multiple dimensions of performance.

Added value

This special issue will provide theoretical insights and advancements into sustainability transitions through empirically grounded and informed investigations of food system and rural-based practices. The papers will facilitate the development of stronger links between rural development, food studies and transition theory, following Hinrichs (2014:143) claim that “numerous opportunities exist to forge more productive links between work on food systems change and the broad and growing sustainability transitions field.” Finally, the special issue will also present articles that advance discussion and thinking on sustainability, opening up the debate on sustainability assessment metrics and what counts as ‘sustainable’ in sustainability transitions, and outlining methodologies with the potential to democratise knowledge claims regarding food chain performance.


This special issue will bring together a selection of up to 8 papers, an editorial, and a concluding paper that synthesises the key lessons and trends from across the papers and proposed potential pathways forward in terms of a future research agenda. The papers have been selected from ESRS Working Group 2: What are the impacts and implications of alternative food practices in a post-neoliberal transition?, which attracted over 20 papers across four sessions. The selected papers are all theoretically strong and empirically grounded and are well developed, having already received feedback as an outcome of the ESRS.

The papers will be grouped into two themes, as follows:

  • Advancing transition theory: linking transition theory to rural development and agri-food studies;
  • Opening up measures and assessment practices for sustainability transitions.

The first theme will include papers that work to advance transition theory by way of empirical research on agri-food and rural development in Europe. Papers are expected to focus on transition in the post-socialist sharing economy ; niche-innovations between breaks and continuities with the regime; bricolage as a framework for understanding transitions towards self-; and understanding the role of organizational elements for transitional potential. Together, these papers will contribute new insights and critiques of the multi-level perspective on socio-technical innovation, especially within the context of sustainable development in Europe.

The second theme focuses on the elaboration of sustainability through inquiries into descriptions, proposals and evaluation frameworks that can be used to further support sustainable food transitions. Papers are expected to cover the sociology of sustainability assessments; the multidimensionality of food system performance; technopolitics, post-normal science, sustainability attributes, indicators and benchmarks; the ethics of transition, links to resilience theory and assessment strategies needed to capture food ethics; the role of cultural sustainability; and, the need to address social sustainability in food performance assessment frameworks.




The Guest Editors are:

  • Damian Maye, Countryside & Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire, UK

Dr Damian Maye has longstanding research interests in the geography and sociology of alternative and local food networks, food supply chains and food security. He has worked and is working on a number European Commission Framework-funded food chain sustainability projects. His edited book, Alternative Food Geographies (with Lewis Holloway and Moya Kneafsey 2007) examined alternative food network practices. In 2010 he guest edited (with Mike Goodman and Lewis Holloway) the ‘ethical foodscapes’ special issue for Environment and Planning A. He edited (with James Kirwan) a special issue of Journal of Rural Studies on food security in 2013. He currently serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Rural Studies and Moravian Geographical Reports.

  • Jessica Duncan, Department of Rural Sociology, Wageningen University, Netherlands

Dr. Jessica Duncan is a rural sociologist who researches the dynamics of food security governance with a focus on sustainability and civil society engagement. She is an Associate Editor of the journal Food Security, guest editor of a forthcoming special issue of the journal Solutions, and author of the book Global Food Security Governance: Civil Society Participation in the Committee on World Food Security (Routledge 2015). She co-chaired the ESRS 2015 WG2: What are the impacts and implications of alternative food practices in a post-neoliberal transition?