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Home > Focus > Prof. Colin Sage on Food and McMeekin

Prof. Colin Sage on Food and McMeekin

by Redazione FGB [1], 26 May 2011

The following comment was written and sent to the Bassetti Foundation by Prof. Colin Sage [2], senior lecturer within the Geography Department at University College Cork, and refers to the interview with Prof. Andrew McMeekin [3] posted on this site on 20th april 2011.

Sage describes himself as being located "within a theoretically informed, socially engaged and policy relevant interpretation of environmental geography. That is, within the long-standing tradition of the discipline concerned with human-nature interactions but now informed by an explicit commitment to sustainability and global social justice". He is currently working on the geographies of food.


The interview with Andrew McMeekin raises many interesting questions around issues of innovation, public knowledge and governance. I was especially struck by his illustration regarding the prospects for collaborative relationships between erstwhile competitors where the development of technological innovations may result in shared common property benefits. Clearly there are many interesting social changes occurring in the way innovation unfolds.

However, it is with regard to his comments around food that compelled me to submit some of my own thoughts. As a senior academic in a country which has experienced some drastic reductions in university funding with particular consequences for research not regarded as central to economic recovery, I keep an eye on how corporate funding is shaping the research agenda in higher education. Perhaps one of the most high-profile examples here is the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, which has benefitted from the very significant financial support of Tesco plc. So it is within this context that I was especially interested in Prof McMeekin's comments about innovation from within the system as compared to sources from without.

He is, of course, right to argue that we should not assume innovation can only arise from outside; the success of the large corporate players within the food system is because they are continuously innovating new products and refashioning consumer demand.

Yet, I was struck by the rather patronizing tone that he adopted in relation to alternative food networks, characterizing them as niche phenomena entirely confined to a particular type of person (clearly referring to 'the middle class'). It is interesting that he should argue that supermarkets such as Tesco would have no problem offering short circuit delivery of organic produce if there was sufficient demand. One of the interesting developments over the past decade in the UK has been the phenomenal growth of box schemes. These may largely end up on the doorsteps of houses in Chorlton (wealthy university area) rather than Ardwick (inner city). Yet that people choose to source their fresh organic produce from an enterprise that grows it directly (and ideally is relatively local) may partly be a deliberate rejection of corporate power.

McMeekin also reveals significant misunderstanding about the issues of food poverty. The question is not whether people living in Ardwick can afford a roast chicken every week but whether individuals are eating chicken nuggets two or three times each day because they are cheap, ubiquitous and the family don't have the wherewithal to cook a meal. One of the really pervasive and corrosive aspects of the transformation of the food system led by corporate retailers is that food is valued only by what it costs irrespective of its nutritional or health consequences. And as profit-seeking actors, retailers consequently allocate the greater part of the floor-space of their stores to energy-dense snack and convenience foods requiring little preparation before consumption.

Consequently, more than an 'enchanting' idea, alternative approaches to food provisioning are vital in critically evaluating the shortcomings of a contemporary food system dominated by large corporate players. They are also vital in finding solutions to feeding the more than one billion that are currently hungry - never mind a global population of 9 billion by 2050 which is often trotted out by those who seek to defend the status quo. There is also the global epidemic of dietary dysfunctionality where an estimated 1.5 billion people in the world are regarded as overweight and obese. Recent nutritional research (eg Hawkes 2008) [4] would suggest that the spread of the major corporate retailers to new markets are a driver of dietary change resulting in the spread of overweight and health consequences (CVD, diabetes).

With Prof McMeekin defending the 'efficiencies' that a highly centralized and globalised food system can achieve, this part of the interview did serve to strengthen my suspicion that corporate funding of university research centres does have a major influence over the views of its staff and the nature of the work that can be done.

Colin Sage [5]


(photo: stuffed japanese shop in Nagasaki chinese quarter [6] by Colodio from Flickr)

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.ucc.ie/en/geography/staff/cs/
  3. 3] /en/focus/2011/04/responsibility_and_innovation.html
  4. 4] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7679.2008.00428.x/abstract
  5. 5] http://www.ucc.ie/en/geography/staff/cs/
  6. 6] http://www.flickr.com/photos/colodio/179405803
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cc - photo by Colodio from Flickr
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