Wayne Roberts reports from Montpelier, France (also posted on Wayne’s Medium blog)

Part 1 (read Part 2 here)



Some 250 food and agriculture researchers, teachers, community and business leaders from 40 countries met in Montpelier, France, this December to discuss how food system reforms can contribute to meeting 17 bracing Sustainable Development Goals — perhaps the most ambitious, compelling and engaging global project yet adopted by the United Nations.

The conference on Agri-Chains and Sustainable Development took place in the last weeks of 2016, but the quality of presentations rang in the new year with some exciting prospects for research and action projects.

I attended and presented at the conference as a representative of FLEdGe, based at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, which supports Canadian scholarly work and practice to promote Food that is Locally Embedded and Globally Engaged.

I returned home with a strong sense of four fledgling themes that the conference etched on my mind, and perhaps on the agenda of local and sustainable food advocacy in the coming year.


Needless to say, it’s a dream assignment to experience a conference amidst the joie de vivre of Montpelier, France, with its delicious meals, warm people, and a charming town with deep roots in medieval and Roman times. But the French approach to food conferences also teaches us about savoir faire.

In France, food is not just a matter of passion and enjoyment, but science and rigor. All sorts of food projects these days are taking on the name of “lab,” which expresses a commitment among a new generation of food practitioners to integrate practical research and thoughtful action.

The French got there long before the rest of us.

The scientific approach to food is perhaps best embodied in the French admiration for 19th century laboratory hero Louis Pasteur, analyzed in the brilliant study by Bruno Latour. That approach to science and food became part of the French national character — which produces a food research and food policy culture quite different from, say, countries where technology, as distinct from science, defines the national character.

A tradition deeply steeped in scientific method approaches food in a special way. It starts with open questions rather than answers, for example. It does not shy away from conflicting or different opinions, but sets out to find ways of addressing conflict with relevant information.

I was very impressed with how this unspoken tradition translated into how the conference was conducted.

First, prominent and impassioned representatives of global businesses, academic researchers, civil society activists and government departments shared every keynote platform. This bespeaks a culture of dialogue that many people around the world, living within bubbles of conferences where everyone is in agreement, could benefit from.

The conference brochure welcomed people to an event that would “widen the debate about the role of agricultural value chains toward sustainable development,” while “strengthening of both a scientific community and a community of practice to implement.”

I think people find it more comfortable to engage in wide-open debate when scientifically-minded researchers can serve as honest brokers who define all positions as open to debate. The principal organizing host of this conference was an organization called CIRAD (the French acronym for Agronomic Research for Development).

I believe every country needs some version of CIRAD. It is well-funded (with a staff of about 1600, and budget of about 200 million Euro a year). In the tradition of Pasteur, it does research that can lead to practical social and technical innovation without sacrificing deep scientific inquiry or pure scientific method. Its mandate is to promote a public purpose — sustainable development, not private purposes of the agri-food sector — the common mandate of many agricultural ministries and departments elsewhere in the world. People who want to know more about CIRAD can start here .

Although funded largely by government, CIRAD researchers follow their research, rather than the political flavor of the day, and don’t mince words about key issues.

Estelle Bienabe: Think life cycle not supply chain!

Estelle Bienabe, a major conference organizer, devoted her keynote address to parsing the tensions between sustainable development and agri-chains. Agri-chains are about the efficiency of a “sequence of technical processes and transformations of a product in a supply chain,” she said. But sustainability is about the resource efficiency of food links, and has to be evaluated against the entire lifecycle that food goes through, including phases of life before the farmer and after the consumer have had their way.

Other CIRAD speakers emphasized adding up the distinct stages of the agri-chain came nowhere close to the full circle of the life cycle of food — which is, after all, a cycle, and not a chain with a beginning and end. “The food chain doesn’t end with consumption. The future is getting nitrogen from human excrement,” one speaker said. “The [full] chain is about before the farm and after the consumer.”

In many parts of the world, Bienabe’s remarks might be heard as fighting words. Here, such statements are simply baldly-stated facts which help define the discussion that needs to get underway.


“Congratulations! You have opened Pandora’s box,” Alexander Mueller of the German Council for Sustainable Development taunted the conference organizers in his keynote, delivered early on in the conference.

Alexander Mueller: Go ahead: open Pandora’s Box!!

The conference theme of agri-chains and sustainable development opens what Anglophones unversed in ancient Greek mythology call “a can of worms.” A can of worms is good for the soil and for fishing, but all their wiggling and gooey feel is not good for a person handling a discussion and trying to give it a fixed direction.

The slithering starts with the title. Is the right title “agri-chains and sustainable development,” or “sustainable development and agri-chains?” It all comes down to this: do we assume agri-chains are a given and a must-have, and the main discussion is about how sustainable they can be made; or do we assume that sustainable development is a given and must-have, and the main discussion is whether agri-chains are up to the challenge, or need to be replaced.

Prominent global corporations were well-represented at the conference, usually by mid-level managers of sustainability. Their presentations fell in line with what US business theorist Michael Porter has called “shared value.” Corporations should stop giving random charitable donations to favorite causes, and look at charity strategically, argues Porter. They should add value by contributing to shared value, he says. For example, a supermarket has a keen interest in fishing practices that don’t lead to destruction of the fishery.

Conference panelist Clement Chenost, a director of the Moringa Fund, put it this way: “it is possible to combine profitability and sustainability to develop agri-chains.”

But the very structure of global corporations, and their business mission to transport bulky goods from afar to a customer nearby, of necessity imposes a triple load of non-renewable energy for transportation, and also for refrigeration and storage while en route, and also for replacing the nutrients that were taken from the soil and exported to some far-away destination. Almost by definition, the very process undermines the metabolism for environmental sustainability. Reducing the harm from such projects is certainly worthwhile and achievable, but whether the project can ever be made sustainable is another matter.

Nora McKeon: We need a web, not a chain!

Agri-chains are a form of food organization that needs to be “problematized,” not assumed, most of the research and civil society speakers seemed to agree.

Longtime Food and Agriculture Organization staffer, Nora McKeon, now an academic in Rome, gave a keynote stressing that small farmers, who produce about 80 per cent of the world’s food, need to be part of a web, not a chain, and the web needs to link them to territorial, not global, markets. The SDG goals are sorely lacking in any reference to human rights, McKeon argued, but that omission must not be allowed to define a sustainable food agenda.

Likewise, prominent Canadian academic Harriet Friedmann, used her keynote address to stress the need to move away from hierarchical agri-chains, and toward decentralized or distributed supply networks or “panarchy,” which offers the resilience today’s crisis-prone world needs.

Harriet Friedmann: Distributed networks and panarchy, not chains!

Lots of issues to discuss and research, and to try to address and resolve with hard research!!!!


Wherever the debate on agri-chains and sustainability lands, there is no debating the central importance of food for sustainable development. Food is at the center of 70 Sustainable Development projects, Mueller stated. Several speakers insisted virtually none of the 17 goals can be addressed without including a food element.

It’s a rosy view, where food is going to come into its own as a major issue.

Food is all but written into all SDG goals. SDG Goal #1 is no poverty; if we do something about the wages and income from farming and food production, we are more than half-way to solving that!

SDG Goal 2 is no hunger; food is the obvious solution to that!

SDG Goal 3 is good health; well then, let food be thy medicine!

With most of the 14 other SDG goals, food offers the opportunity of either a lever or angle. SDG Goal 10 is reduced inequalities, for example. Reducing the inequality between food-producing work and other work of equal difficulty or complexity goes a long way toward addressing that; moreover, food creates opportunities — school meals for children from low-income families are one example — to counter the impact of inequalities. It is the determinant of health that people have most control over.

Food, in short, is no longer the problem child that international agencies must solve. Food is the tool that international agencies need to work with to solve other problems.

Food has emerged as a solutionary force in the world, a major breakthrough and paradigm change!


I would normally use the French phrase in the sub-head above to express my commitment to continuous improvement, but in this case, I was also looking for something that hinted at my tweets.

Part of what I promised to do to thank FLEdGE for the support in getting to Montpelier, apart from giving a presentation at the conference and writing this blog about the conference, was to tweet out conference news. As it happens, I ended up being the conference’s official twitterer (twit??).

I can’t speak highly enough of such exchanges. To get good pictures to go along with my tweets, I always took front row/center, so got a close-up on everything. To make sure I had good tweets, I had to pay attention to every speaker’s every word. It was also a good way to meet and greet; many speakers appreciated my ability to give them a good picture of themselves presenting — something they could send home.

I posted 53 tweets in all. They earned 303 ReTweets and 361 likes. A conservative estimate is that about 1000 people saw something that was happening at the conference as a result of my tweets. I think that provides some measure of public education and transparency to taxpayers in France and Canada.

Non, je ne regrette rien.


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