John Thackara: Using Social Connections for Food for Change

John Thackara will join us at Terra Madre Salone del Gusto to present the Conference Serving the Local: From Transactions to Connections. Before his trip to Turin just a few weeks away, he talked with us about his latest projects and the connections through communities he sees as excellent examples for change.

john thackaraIn his conference he will discuss so-called “new connections”, here he elaborates:

A cultural disconnection between the man-made world and the biosphere lies behind the grave challenges we face today. Our lack of connection with food, and the people who grow it is the extreme case of this ‘metabolic rift’.

In healing this divide, culture has a key role to play as a reminder that food is about relationships, not just sustenance – care, not just consumption. Food, in this sense, is a powerful driver of reconnection between people, and between generations; with the land, and with each other.

For example, I’m involved with a project called Mammamiaaa; it’s part of Matera 2019 next year. Mammamiaaa celebrates the role of women in creating meals. Meals will be shared across Europe, and stories about these meals will be shared in an online archive. We will create an edible garden in Matera as a long-term legacy of the project.


We are also creating a platform for people we call social food curators – people who co-create food projects with local citizens. Right now, social food producers are scattered and unconnected. The platform will help its members do more of this work, in new places, and with new partners.

john thackara

What is the current most common design for bioregional food system design and what would be ideal?

For biologists, the health of an ecosystem lies in the vitality of interactions between its component species. This same lesson applies to food systems. We need better connections between places, communities, and nature – and at a bioregional scale: A bioregion acknowledges that we live among watersheds, foodsheds, fibersheds, and food systems – not just in cities, towns, or ‘the countryside’.

There are no there is no universal best-practices for bioregions. Each one is unique to its social and ecological context. That said, many tasks can be shared between bioregions: the development of new forms of land tenure; peer-to-peer distribution models; regional food processing hubs; fibershed and grain chains; biorefining; forest and watershed recovery; civic ecology, and land-based learning.

 What are some of the best practices in communities you have seen?

The assumption that the future is only about cities is being challenged with great energy in China. Designers, there are rediscovering the qualities and value of rural life. Design Harvests, for example, led by Professor Lou Lou Yongqi at Tongji University, is creating new links – both cultural and economic – between city and rural.

Here in Europe, bread is a good example of the words ‘system design’ being translated into practical steps. The Community Grains Association in the UK, and co-ops such as #OurField, are designing grain chains as whole systems. This cooperative approach supports more skilled jobs per loaf for local people and keeps more money circulating in the local economy.
As with bread, so, too, with fiber. In Northern California, Fibershed is reconnecting the components of a bioregional system vertically – ‘from soil to skin’.  Shepherds and graziers are re-cast as “ecological doctors of the land”. Fibershed brings together producers, shearers, artisans, designers, knitters, fiber entrepreneurs, and clothes-wearing citizens. When discussions identify gaps in the system, steps are taken to fill them.

These grain and fiber experiments turn the commodity agriculture system on its head. Decisions are made by the people who work the land and know it best. The language used is one of system stewardship rather than ‘productivity’.

 Do you believe the future relies more on city-planners and government, or in the hands of individuals when it comes to a sustainable local food system?


The food movement is mostly bottom-up, small-scale, and low-budget. But Change bubbling up from the bottom is how complex systems change. Nurturing these green shoots is new work for city managers and policymakers: removing obstacles, linking them together.

Government can also create the conditions for new sorts of enterprise to flourish: food co-ops, community kitchens, neighborhood dining, edible gardens, and food distribution platforms.
Planners and governments do not have to make things happen on their own. Rather, they can partner with new kinds of social infrastructure that are now beginning to appear: Sharing and Peer-to-Peer; Mobility as a Service; Civic Ecology; Food and Fibersheds; Transition Towns; Bioregions; Housing as a Service; The Care Economy. Platform Co-operatives. As we transition towards food as a commons, or public good – governments have a huge role to play as guarantors of food system governance.


Food For Change

A question faces us all: Are small local initiatives an adequate response to the global challenges we all face?

The sheer number and variety of food initiatives now emerging is my first answer to that question. No single project is the magic acorn that will grow into a mighty tree. But healthy food systems – like healthy forests – are extremely diverse, and we’re seeing a healthy level of diversity in social innovation for food all over the world.

My second answer concerns scale. Many people – for example in government, or in large foundations – believe that large-scale solutions are needed for large-scale challenges. But that’s not how healthy nature works. Healthy solutions will be based on an infinity of local needs. There is no such thing as a correct approach for the whole planet.

 What do you hope visitors will take away from your conference?


My first takeaway is that food is a more joyful focus for good work than abstract words like “climate change” or “sustainability”. A second takeaway: Change is already happening, but we need better connections between places, communities, and nature. Creating these connections is a design opportunity. And a final takeaway: let us focus on the social. People have shared resources to take care of the land, and support each other in times of difficulty, Throughout history, We can do so again.


By Evelyn Hill


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