My visit to Australia coincided with the 20th Agri-food Conference at the University of Melbourne. Over four days, professors and graduates introduced their papers and recently published books and discussed their finding and conclusions.
I’m in awe of anyone who can make sense of the complexity and mess that is the global food scape so many of the presentations were fascinating and it was great to see diagrams and powerpoints collating and simplifying every aspect of food: from food speculation and corporate domination to the gender politics of fair-trade and the role of farmers markets in engaging people of low socio-economic backgrounds.
But what really struck me was the lag between academia and practitioners. I and many of my colleagues were going (perhaps with the simplistic view) that the research and their conclusions would inform our work. But it became clear that most of the papers on general themes and the discussions they generated were perhaps five years behind our drunken chats and the 'progress' being made on the ground.
One clear exception was a session run by VEIL looking at a number of future food scenarios. We were invited to explore three possible futures: Adjustment with markets determining progress and leading to gradual C02 emissions; Taking Control with Governments providing leadership for rapid CO2 reductions and DIY where communities lead the changes needed. Within each scenario we considered the implications for our food security. It was both fun and sobering. But it wasn't well attended by the academics - but with so much going on, that maybe was simply because something more attractive was going on. But it did make me wonder.
This isn’t meant as a criticism, but a realisation that much of the research was looking at what had gone on in the past and its important conclusions were not getting to a broader audience. This year's organisers had gone out of their way to invite practitioners and many of the sessions focused on Food Hubs –distributing food sustainably, connecting communities, redistributing power to local and regional economies, with practitioners from across the world.
The conference had gone out of its way to invite, welcome and engage community food groups, farmers and entrepreneurs. And to our excitement and to the organisers credit they have taken on a suggestion from one of the Food Hub sessions that perhaps we can develop an ongoing discussion between academia and practitioners, so we can suggest research areas to help with our work on the ground.