Civil Society in Sustainability Transitions of Food Systems

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

* PhD: Civil Society in Sustainability Transitions of Food Systems (Rachael Durrant) SPRU, University of Sussex



"Debates and discussions about moves towards deeply more sustainable food systems in the UK invoke and imply both technological and social changes, some of them quite radical. Whilst it is increasingly recognised that civil society actors have an important part to play in the transition to more sustainable food systems, in a variety of different ways and at different levels, these processes have not been subject to systematic investigation (Smith, 2010). This project is analysing the contribution of organised civil society in the UK towards sustainability transitions in the socio- technical trajectories of food production and consumption. Specifically, the study aims to describe and explain the different innovative strategies adopted by civil society actors wishing to influence the direction of those trajectories. Key research questions relate to the processes by which civil society actors envision the future of food systems and their relationships to them, how this affects the ways in which they put their goals into practice, and the conditions under which they are successful in their activities (including relationships with other actors in food systems, such as producers, processors, and retailers).

Theory: Recent work on sustainability transitions has identified at least two key strategies adopted by civil society actors: ‘grassroots innovation’ and ‘normative contestation’ (Seyfang and Smith, 2007; Elzen et al. 2010). These strategies aim to drive systemic change at different levels of organisation. The former strategy involves the development and dissemination of practical solutions from the bottom up, whereas the latter aims to influence powerful actors in the incumbent food system, such as through civic regulation initiatives, whether the ultimate goal is reform or destabilisation/displacement. These strategies are motivated by different visions, aimed at different target groups, engage different types of actors and result in different patterns of activity. Thus, on the one hand, they are successful at driving change under divergent sets of conditions. However, on the other hand, they can also help each other by linking up the change processes that they are driving at the different levels of the food system. For instance, grassroots innovations can inspire radical reform of unsustainable food practices in incumbent systems, whereas destabilisation of these practices through normative contestation can open up market space for grassroots innovations to flourish. It is this theory of transition that is being adapted, tested and developed in the project.

Method and contribution: This project has begun by reviewing the literatures on civil society strategies, sustainability transitions, alternative food networks (AFNs) and social movements. In the next phase, key actors from across the food subsector of civil society in the UK were interviewed. It is now proceeding through in-depth study of a small number of cases. The project will contribute to theory by testing and elaborating on the theoretical insights from the sustainability transitions literature, and it will improve our understanding of the contribution that civil society is making to a more sustainable food future through innovative strategies. Significantly, it will generate policy insights and engage practitioners around how best to support and enhance this contribution."

About the Author

"Before starting on this project, Rachael spent the previous two years working freelance within the UK food and agriculture sector as a consultant researcher and project manager. Her clientele included Unilever plc’s Sustainable Agriculture team, as well as Heineken NV, the Guardian Hay Festival, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Food Ethics Council, among others. Rachael is a Cambridge University graduate (Geography) with a master’s in Sustainable Development Advocacy. In addition to her recent work in the area of food and sustainability, she has a portfolio of cross-sector sustainability-related project work." (

Contact via [email protected]


Elzen, Boelie, Frank W. Geels, Cees Leeuwis, and Barbara van Mierlo. 2011. “Normative contestation in transitions ‘in the making’: Animal welfare concerns and system innovation in pig husbandry.” Research Policy.

Seyfang, Gill, and Smith, A. 2007. “Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: Towards a new research and policy agenda.” Environmental Politics 16:584-603.

Smith, A. 2010. Civil Society in Sustainable Energy Transitions. Draft chapter for the book: Verbong, G. and D. Loorbach (eds) Governing the Energy Transition: reality, illusion, or necessity. Routledge.