Workshop on the political ecology of food systems

By Amerissa Giannouli (

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of facilitating a participatory workshop on the political ecology of food systems (mainly, focusing on crops) during the Re:think GAIA Festival 2023 in Kalamata.

A food system is the outcome of a complex network of relationships. In this context, the sustainability of a food system cannot be separated from socio-economic relations and governance issues.

To gain a deeper understanding of these interconnections, we invited participants to think about the socio-economic and ecological effects of the food system’s supply chain. This approach helped us stimulate a discussion and revealed concerns about exploitation, economic dependencies, structural and political inequalities, as well as gendered and racial discrimination, all of which have been reflected in the mainstream, growth-dependent economic and political system.

  • Who is affected, who is involved, and who influences these processes?
  • How are the socio-economic and ecological benefits and costs distributed between those linked to these processes?
  • Who decides on how this should be done? Which institutions are involved, and how are these institutions organized to make decisions?

Here are some of the issues raised during the workshop:

  • Healthy and “sustainable” food is often considered as a matter of individual choice. This hides the fact that unhealthy foods are significantly cheaper, more accessible, and widely advertised. The sustainable diet promoted by the media is targeted towards more socio-economically privileged social groups in society.
  • Agricultural incomes are usually too low to ensure a decent living. Small-scale agri-food producers, especially those using sustainable, chemical-free production methods, are marginalized. Ongoing processes of land enclosures exacerbate this situation.
  • Industrial food system activities linked to monoculture are linked to deforestation, eutrophication, and pollution, contributing to the greenhouse effect. Large-scale industrial food production, in order to meet increasing food demands and profits, overlooks the multiple benefits of more complex, diverse food landscapes (e.g., permaculture).
  • A significant portion of crop production is directed towards food for animals and industrial meat production, as well as biofuels.
  • Hunger is increasing, while food-related diseases are spreading.
  • Even organic farming could be questioned. We have seen a lot of organic vegetables and fruits in supermarkets in plastic packaging, using imported products instead of locally produced ones. Distance between production and consumption hides the interlinked social and ecological cost-shifting to other places.
  • There are places that produce food and it is too expensive to be consumed by the locals and there are places where there is food waste.
  • What kind of land use is desirable and what is not, as well as how food should look and taste, are socially constructed.
  • Existing innovative and profitable “green” solutions are promoted more through particular dominant narratives. For example, focusing on technological solutions carries risks and obscures the complex dimensions of the socio-ecological food system. Planting high-yielding varieties that require more machinery and access to water or irrigation technology can lead to greater debt, dependence on external supplies, loss of traditional knowledge and crops, and higher food insecurity.
  • There is an interesting distinction between food security and food sovereignty. Food sovereignty brings up discussions and considerations of governance and self-determination of the local communities affected by the food system supply chains and practices. 

Overall, our food systems are shaped by multidimensional and increasingly asymmetric power relations, leading to an unequal distribution of benefits and costs. These asymmetric power relations reinforce the modern industrial economic system, which exerts pressure on agriculture to become large and focus on export production.

It is crucial to comprehend the controversy between global markets and local needs, especially as rural areas are not limited to agriculture but also targeted for mining, tourism, and infrastructure development. Developmentalism often overlooks the local needs of the people. In some places, which might not be geographically close to us, large exporting companies operate using ecologically harmful and socially controversial practices, even resorting to police force against displaced farmers and indigenous communities. These issues of environmental justice have deep historical roots and must be actively challenged and addressed if we are to discuss any form of sustainable food system or a just transition to sustainability.