Geoff Tansey

Transforming our food systems -

sharing ideas and experience

A work in progress...Now on its own website:

These talks are to help you increase your understanding of our food systems – where they came from, how they change, what the challenges are and how to meet them. The contributors recognise that the need is to transform today’s systems, which leave huge numbers of people malnourished and whose sustainability is highly questionable, but that to do so requires thinking and action beyond food systems themselves. Each talk is in accessible language, is divided into sections and is accompanied by a short guide to further reading, listening and other resources relevant to that talk. This is a pilot for what is intended to become a much richer resource, with contributions from different cultures and language groups, to facilitate interchange of knowledge and experience to help in making the necessary transformation in food systems around the world to support the creation of a more equitable, sustainable and peaceful world in the future.

The food system: an overview provides a broad introduction to food system issues today, while Harriet Friedmann in Food regimes – an overview explains how the three major food regimes since the 19th century have developed and in From food regimes to food sheds - the case of Southern Ontario discusses and example of one area where some are seeking an agro-ecological transformation.

In the next batch of talks currently in production, Paul Rogers puts food in a wider human security context and argues that The crucial century for humanity's future is 1945-2045, in which food lies at the heart of a fair and sustsinable future. Malcolm Dando warns of the need to ensure current developments in the biological sciences are harnessed for peace not war. It is not just technology that affects how food systems change but also the law. Rules on 'intellectual property rights' in particular are becoming more important in shaping food systems and Peter Drahos in his two talks explains more about these and how they went global while Geoff Tansey focuses in particular on their impact on the future control of food in the context of changing global rules not just on intellectual property but also on biodiversity and plant genetics resources. In his final talk he looks at the paradigm shifts needed in the 21st century and the challenges in transforming our food sytems to achieve a well-fed world full of thriving people.

A full list of talks available now, in production or planned (subject to change) is:

The food system: An overview
Seeds of contention, control or diversity? Global rules, intellectual property and the future control of food
Food and thriving people in the 21st century

In these three talks, Geoff Tansey, writer and consultant, provides an overview of what has become the dominant food system, the actors in it, the basics they have to work with and the ways they seek control throughout it. His second talk looks at the increasing role of laws, rules and regulation in that. These rules are also increasingly global, and he focuses on the extension of rules on patents, plant variety protection and other forms of ‘intellectual property rights’ into food and farming and their impact on the future control of food.  Finally, in his third talk, he discusses the challenging context in which people around the world are attempting to transform food systems, the choices to be made and the areas, levels and timescales for action.

The right to food in 21st century
Olivier de Schutter, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, shows how the human rights framework – one of the great achievements of human aspiration – applies to food. He discusses what the right to food does and does not mean, the challenges and opportunities to realise that right, the choices that must be faced and which choices offer the most hope of realising that right.

Understanding intellectual property - 1. An overview

Understanding intellectual property - 2. How business lobbying changed the world
The rules on patents, copyright and other forms of so-called ‘intellectual property rights’, which are better thought of as monopoly privileges, have become one of the key factors in determining who has wealth and power in the 21st century. These legal fictions influence where money is funnelled into research and development, the type of innovations sought and are a key form of business regulation, which, in the case of patents, facilitate a form of private taxation. Peter Drahos, professor at the Regulatory Institutions Network at the Australian National University, unpacks the mystery around these and examines their roles in restructuring the food system and ways they need to change.

Food regimes – An overview
From food regimes to food sheds - the case of Southern Ontario

In her two talks, which are available as podcasts, Harriet Friedmann, Professor Emerita of Sociology, Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto, the Munk School of Global Studies, first discusses food regimes and their transformation from one to another, beginning with the food regime centred on North America that emerged in the 19th century. Secondly, she talks about how – drawing on the example of South Ontario – in today’s rapidly urbanising world food systems need to be reconfigured on agro-ecological grounds and draws an analogy with watersheds to describe what is happening there in terms of food sheds, but ones linked as part of a biospherical whole. It is possible to think about how the mixing of cultures through migration can include how to adapt agricultures to each region, and how food and farming can reconnect society with the ecosystem at every scale. Embracing diversity and interconnection at once suggests a biological model for how the human species inhabits the earth. Such a change in all ways of living and governing requires a change of thinking, one best captured by a sailing metaphor.

The crucial century, 1945 - 2045 - Transforming food systems in a global context
Paul Rogers, professor of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, places food and farming in a broader context of power relations in the world, and how food is central to achieving fairer, more sustainable approaches to human security in the 21st century in ways that avoid the conflicts and wars that have been endemic in human history so far. He argues that 1945-2045 is the crucial century in human history and what we do now will determine whether or not humanity reaches 2045 in a way that builds on our capacity for human improvement or takes us into cycles of destruction.

Biology and chemistry for peace not war
Many have called this the century of biology, as that is where the major breakthroughs in science will occur which will have major impacts on food systems and human activity. Malcolm Dando also from the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, briefly outlines in a short podcast the responsibilities of scientists and others, to ensure such work is for peaceful ends, under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).

Food, nutrition and poverty - An overview
Elizabeth Dowler
, Professor of Food and Social Policy at the University of Warwick, examines the reality and consequences of eating patterns, the creation and continuation of food poverty, itself a manifestation of poverty and the role of food in it, and at the changes needed to eat well, sustainably and pleasurably for a world of 9 billion or more people.

Gender issues in food and farming - An overview
Janice Jiggins, from the Knowledge, Technology & Innovation group at the Wageningen University, The Netherlands, looks at both the gender dimension to agricultural systems change and the need to build upon and develop further agro-ecological principles and practices in transforming food systems. She links this to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report, Agriculture at the Crossroads, and give some practical examples of how such changes can happen.

Contributions provisonally agreed:

Cities and food – from hungry cities to sitopia
One of the key areas to understand, picked up on by Harriet in her second talk is how this rapidly urbanising planet feeds it population. Carolyn Steel, author and architect, draws on her work in the book Hungry City to look at how cities have structured the farming around them and the challenges to turn the future to what she call sitopia, rather than some form of dystopia or unreachable utopia.

Rethinking the corporation through the law
A key challenge is to create the right kind of institutions and incentives to achieve this goal. Janet Dine, Professor of International Economic Development Law, Queen Mary, University of London, takes us to the heart of today’s dominant institution – the corporation – and explains why and how it came to be, why it does things that we humans would not do to each other face to face, and what is needed to change what it is and how business operates. 

Food policy and ecological public health
One of these key choices is about the basis of the food and farming systems with which people seek to meet their food needs. Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City University London, explains why he believes that requires choosing an ecological understanding of the meaning of public health and food systems and having that play a central role in shaping the future of food.

You eat what? – an anthropology of food
Understanding food as an inherent part of the cultural life of societies is needed to appreciate both its symbolic meaning and transformation, as Harry West, Professor of Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, explains in his talk. He illustrates how such understanding can help us see beyond our own cultural boundaries and help us envision new horizons – to pick up on Harriet’s language.

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Background, terms of use

Filming 1

Many courses across various disciplines deal with the food system and its various aspects, all around the world. I have been fortunate to be asked to give lectures or seminars for people running some of these as have others I know. But there are limits to what you can do in person.

So, in this internet connected age, I thought it would be useful to create an unaffiliated 'virtual academy' as a public good, open education resource. Here will reside a set of talks that can be used by those running courses, studying or just interested in understanding more about our food systems and how to make them fairer, sustainable and healthy.



This first pilot talk was filmed against a green screen and other images subsequently dropped in. This has now been re-edited to fit into the series format

Terms of use

The videos are unrestricted in non-commercial use. It may also be possible to arrange for follow-up discussions with me or other contributors via the internet – over Skype or some other service - see details on each talk. Please let me know if you use this material, especially educational users, and in what ways. This feedback will help in taking this further - as would offers of or suggestions for funding to help further development of this work.