Theme 4

Food systems, networks and power structures


Louis Tessier (

Ann Waters-Bayer (

Marianne Hubeau (


Agri-food systems are among the most important human-environmental systems that shape our society. The sustainability of food systems is essential for food security and nutrition. Today, many of the current food systems have lost their connection with nature and/or with society and their sustainability is threatened by diverse challenges such as climate change, price volatility, food safety and consumer mistrust. To tackle these challenges, systemic changes in structure (e.g. networks and power structures), practices (e.g. rules and habits) and culture (e.g. norms and values) are required.

Creating spaces for collective action seems to be an effective strategy in reducing uncertainties and increasing transformative capacity. This requires collective action, which current governance structures and power are often restraining. Although agri-food networks are emerging and can be successful at a small scale, these networks often fall short of reaching their goal to bring about change at agri-food system level. Among the possible barriers is the fact that both practice and research remain focused on how innovations and sustainability practices are shaped at individual firm level, while agri-food systems and networks – as dynamic complex systems – are strongly interconnected. Furthermore, the urban-rural fringe is a still existing dichotomy in food systems studies. We need to find systemic approaches to look beyond these dichotomies and to realise new and re-connections. This is required not only in research but also in policy and practice. The challenge is also to learn how conventional food systems can (re)connect with nature and society in order to increase their transformative capacity.

Objectives and orientations for abstracts

We seek contributions that assess various governance and power structures and their diverse impacts on the sustainability of agri-food systems. We also seek contributions that look for innovative methods and tools with a systemic approach to look beyond the alternative food systems and rural–urban dichotomy. We are interested in the role and potential that networks may play in enabling diversity and place-based sustainable agri-food systems.

We thus seek abstracts addressing – but not limited to – the following questions:

  • Governance and power
    • What power issues are at play in sustainable agri-food systems and how can new governance structures (e.g. in agri-food networks) overcome current barriers?
    • How can family farms change their power position in the food system? What strategies contribute to successful initiatives through which family farmers seek to bypass established power structures, often in collaboration with citizen-consumers (e.g. community-supported agriculture, food co-ops, regional quality food associations)?
    • How do initiatives that focus on power and justice increase sustainable food production practices?
    • How can agri-food networks address power issues in the agri-food system?
    • How has the theme of food sovereignty and food justice – and more generally social justice in the food chain – been developing? (e.g. is there an emerging ‘domestic fair trade’ discourse?)
  • Systems and network management
    • What are systemic approaches that can look beyond the alternative food systems and urban–rural dichotomy to reconnect the current agri-food system to nature and society?
    • What is the role of agri-food networks in overcoming current barriers?
  • Rural–urban interactions and relations
    • What urban–rural interactions and relations support sustainable food systems, and how?
    • How can such food systems address food security and nutrition issues on the local level?