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This is the website and blog of Dr John Lever.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Project Information: A safe and just local food system

As it unfolded, the #Covid-19 crisis drew attention to the task of moving the food system into a “safe” (within planetary boundaries) and (socially) “just” operating space that can provide sufficient resources to meet humanity’s needs without outstripping the planet’s environmental capacity to provide for these needs (Rockstrom et al., 2009; Raworth, 2017; Velenturf and Jopson 2019). 

As the recent bush fires in Australia – which killed tens of thousands of farm animals and burnt innumerable crops – demonstrated, there are other dangerous ecological crises on the horizon. The UK food system is not immune from such crises and the countries we depend upon for food will be negatively affected in by these trends in the coming decades. We thus need to plan and develop local, circular and regenerative methods for growing and producing food if we are to make our food system more resilient to future shocks (Lang 2020; Steel 2020; Firbank et al. 2018; Lever et. al 2019).

Funded by the University of Huddersfield (alongside work conducted by academic partners from University of Leeds), this project aims to enhance the resilience of the local food system in West Yorkshire by bringing together a network of key stakeholders in and around Kirklees to; 1) understand the pressure points in food supply and demand during the #Covid19 crisis; 2) the solutions that emerged, and; 3) and the innovations required to enhance the resilience of the local food economy going forward. Please get in touch if you can contribute!

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Unsafe and unjust: food system dynamics in a time of crisis

Before the Covid-19 crisis, many of us took the food on our plates for granted. But as we quickly found out, the UK’s food system is ‘stretched, open to disruption and far from resilient’.

As the crisis unfolded, the UK media highlighted the impact of panic buying in supermarkets on key workers and on society’s most vulnerable. It is easy to blame consumers. Yet their reaction was largely a consequence of ‘just in time’ strategies and the embodied belief that we should be able to buy whatever we want whenever we want it. With children home from school, and eating out all but prohibited, this is understandable. But it also illustrates how ‘just-in-time’ supply chains come under strain with even the smallest shift in demand, and how the most vulnerable suffer most from the inequities of the system.

Since the latter half of the 20th century, the rich world has become accustomed to an abundance of food choice. Local food systems around the world have been swept away by the industrialisation of agriculture, and the UK now imports almost 50% of its food. While food has been traded internationally for millennia, the scale and geographical complexity of primary food production is now vast. Buttressed by rapidly evolving technologies that indicate where and when crops are ready to harvest around the globe, ‘just-in-time’ production is brilliantly efficient and profitable, yet it is also incredibly fragile and dependent on logistics.

Coovid-19 is shaking these foundations. While countries in Asia have discussed whether produce should be held back for domestic markets, in the UK supplies of fruit and vegetables are threatened by lockdown and border closures that may restrict the recruitment of migrant workers.

The need to move food production and consumption into a safe and just operating space within planetary boundaries is widely recognised as one of the grand challenges of the 21 century. In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report 'Food in the Anthropocene' concluded that the way the food system operates poses an existential threat. 

Covid-19 has brought this threat into clear focus. Monocultural production and genetic homogeneity in agriculture has long been identified as a problem. But with investment practices eating steadily into the remaining primary forests and smallholder farms worldwide, Covid-19 has drawn attention to global agriculture's role advancing global health pandemics.

There are other dangerous ecological crises on the horizon, as the recent bush fires in Australia (which killed tens of thousands of farm animals and burnt innumerable crops) demonstrate. We are not immune from ecosystems stress, and the countries we depend on upon for food will be negatively affected by such crises in the coming decades. As Tim Lang suggests, we need to plan and develop strategies to protect and regenerate land for growing food quickly if we are to make our food system more resilient to these shocks.

By 2050, the vast majority of the world’s population will reside in cities, and city governments around the world are already leading the way developing circular, regenerative food systems that can work within planetary boundaries. While there is no one size fits all, policy and theory are increasingly focussed on the development of networked urban-rural interdependencies as a means of developing innovative place-based food systems.

Five hundred years ago in Utopia (1512), Thomas More anticipated a network of self-sufficient cities surrounded by suburban food growing sites. Covid-19 is pushing cities in new directions. Milan has a post pandemic ‘plan zero’ involving new ways of planting trees to enhance future social distancing measures, while Amsterdam has announced it will be the first city to fully adopt Raworth’s economic model to enable a just and safe future. Staying “Safe” (within planetary boundaries) and “Just” (to address a range of inequities) requires that we produce food in new, innovate and more resilient ways. As Covid-19 has shown, this is no longer a utopian vision.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

A Better Future – Understanding Refugee Entrepreneurship (BFURE)

BFURE Project, funded by BA/Leverhulme

In recent years, the ‘migration crisis’ in Europe has raised concerns about addressing the social and economic needs of the growing numbers of refugees arriving in the UK from countries such as Syria. The BFURE project is interested not in the costs incurred by supporting refugees, but in the skills and knowledge refugees have when they arrive in the UK, and how these skills can be harnessed to support and enable refugees to contribute to the UK economy and further social integration.

The project will explore refugees' knowledge and skills through a series of ‘Pop-up Skills Shops/Clinics’ and ‘Skill-Gap Workshops’ with local authorities, non-government agencies and refugees across West Yorkshire during 2019-2020.

Get in touch for more information.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Reconfiguring local food governance?

Lever, J., Sonnino, R. and Cheetham, F. (2019) Reconfiguring local food governance in an age of austerity: towards a place-based approach? Journal of Rural Studies

Abstract: In this paper we examine the dynamic nature of local food governance by considering the potential for (and barriers to) developing a more robust approach that can enhance the socio-ecological resilience of the food system. Fusing insights from Eliasian sociology with the literature on local food governance, we focus on a region of northern England to explore understandings of “local food” and the problems local food actors encounter while working within and across the territorial boundaries of “the local’. This is underpinned by an examination of the pressures local governments face as a result of financial austerity and competing neoliberal policy priorities that, we argue, undermine attempts to create synergies between diverse food system actors. We conclude by outlining the potential for developing a more relational approach to (and understanding of) place-based food governance.

Keywords: Figurations; governance; local food; place; relational; territorial.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Breaching the boundaries of the permissible?

Lever, J. (2018) Halal meat and religious slaughter: From spatial concealment to social controversy – Breaching the boundaries of the permissible? Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space


Abstract: Across the secular West, the slaughter of animals for food has become an almost clandestine activity. Very occasionally however, when slaughter comes into view, social and political controversy emerges. In this paper, I examine two such episodes in England and the controversies subsequently engendered: the controversy over kosher meat and the Jewish method of slaughter (shechita) in the 19th century, and the contemporary controversy over halal meat and the Muslim method of slaughter (dhabiha). These controversies are complex and double-edged in that, not only do they involve food, which often invokes anxieties about what is being ingested and what moral boundaries are being crossed, they also involve religion. Both episodes are also linked to periods of rapid migration into the UK, and to concerns about integration and the threats posed to British values and national identity by the food practices of outsiders. However, while concern over kosher meat production and Jewish migrants in the 19th century was largely concealed within the spatial boundaries of Jewish communities, from the late 20th century onwards halal meat has become increasingly visible in line with the demographic expansion of the Muslim population out of racialized community spaces. It is in this context, I contend, in line with a new and emerging geography of religious food practice, that halal meat has breached the boundaries of the permissible to challenge the ‘civilized’ values underpinning the hegemonic food discourse. 

Keywords: Animal welfare, animal slaughter, civilizing process, halal and kosher meat, hegemonic food discourse, migration, outsiders, stunning