Global interest and investment in food system transformation should be accompanied by a critical analysis of its justice implications. These represent complex subjects for research and challenging ethical responsibilities for researchers. Multiple forms of injustice, and the potential role that research might play in exacerbating these, are key considerations for those engaging with food system transformation and justice, as both subjects and ethics of research.
Transformation has become the rallying cry of global sustainability initiatives. Governments, NGOs, and private sector agendas have quickly institutionalized the, albeit inconsistent, language of transformation and roadmaps have been outlined in a wide variety of food system settings. Notably, the stated vision of the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit is to “awaken the world to the fact that we must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes, and thinks about food” (https://www.un.org/en/food-systems-mmit/vision-principles). Parallel to this, however, has emerged a critical response to transformation that warns of its latent risks. Blythe et al. argue among others, that transformation discourse pays insufficient attention to social differentiation, politics, and power. Experience suggests that, even with the best intentions, deliberate transformation may be brought about through exclusionary processes with inequitable outcomes. As such, there is an imperative, on the part of these institutions and the research community, to pay attention to the social justice implications, and emancipatory forms, of transformation.
Analysing food system justice means tracing the history, outcomes, and processes of transformation across diverse, but interconnected, sites and scales, and engaging with the multiple perspectives and priorities of diverse and dispersed stakeholders. In the context of food system transformation, researchers have significant agency. They actively interpret and tell the story of food system transformation and often enter this role intentionally, as activists, seeking to further a transformative agenda, expose and redress injustices, or both. A research agenda for food system transformation and justice requires both conceptual clarity about justice and food system transformation as subjects of study, and ethical praxis about how to be just and transformative in approach.