Meet our Members: Harriet Friedmann

Harriet FriedmannHarriet Friedmann is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Fellow of the Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, and Visiting Professor at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (Netherlands). She has completed extensive research in several aspects of food and agriculture, and her work has been published in American, European and Canadian journals — and a book she can’t read in Japanese! A current TFPC member, Dr. Friedmann has been involved in the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) in various capacities, including Chair in the 1990s, and was even a part of the study group, Food Chain, which preceded the TFPC.

When asked why the topic of food interests her so much, Dr. Friedmann responded with a laugh “It is intrinsically important!” She added, more seriously “It is. It is a connection of humans to the earth. We have to manage the earth and we will do it well or poorly. And a crucial, absolutely central aspect of how we manage the earth is in getting our food; the whole range of it from water and soil, atmosphere and sunlight to on the table. And who has it, and who is sitting at the table and who is not.”

I met with Dr. Friedmann to discuss her work in food studies and how her research has been influenced by her involvement in the Toronto Food Policy Council.

1. Why did you join the TFPC?

Well, I was actually a part of the group that sort of preceded the TFPC, Food Chain. It was a study group, stewarded by Jennifer Welsh, Dean of the Faculty of Community Services at Ryerson University (1988-1993). Food Chain was a group of researchers, activists and policy people from across the city who wanted to discuss papers or present ideas, very informally. Some members became really active and supported City Councillors, Dan Leckie and Jack Layton to create a citizen’s council as part of public health. The Toronto Food Policy Council was created in 1991, but I wasn’t a member for a few years, then became Chair in the 1990s under (Dr.) Rod MacRae, the first TFPC Coordinator. I filled the food analyst slot on the council and stayed past my term because during amalgamation, when the TFPC was in real danger, there was no way to appoint a new chair. I re-joined the council about five years ago… now my term is just about over again!

2. What do you do and how does it involve food?

I was interested in food long before there was a TFPC. I’ve studied it, both internationally and locally at every scale. And I’ve been trying to change the food system. I figured that if you want to get past some of the existing theories locked into separate disciplines, I would do well to start with something that we know is intrinsically important, like food. That doesn’t usually fly in academic circles but somehow I managed to carry it off. So I started looking at social movements, especially among farmers. During my undergraduate degree, my supervisor, Eric Wolf, was a wonderful analyst of peasants; peasant societies and peasant movements going into the world system, and I have carried that thread through my work.

My doctoral degree is in sociology and I wanted to study markets, not as economists do, but starting historically; who is producing, who is consuming, who is trading, who is financing, who is transporting, and how does that all work? There was a new area of sociology called world systems that was starting in the 70’s at the time I was writing my PhD. I was working with Harrison White who was a famous sociologist in organizational theories. So, I studied the world food market in the late 19th century, or rather the creation of a world food market. It was very interesting to track how the market was created. At the time, the British government was the only state confident enough to have all of their food come from far away so I tracked how they got the land, how the main producing areas were created back then; through expelling indigenous people, settling European colonists with European grains and animals, and replacing the whole indigenous system with a new one that looked really good at the time but actually wasn’t sustainable in long historical time. We are only 150 years at the most into that system, which seems like a long time to our mammalian brains, but actually is quite short. Now we are seeing the limits of this system because the world has become so dependent on it even though it is not sustainable. My work looks at world markets and power; economic power, political power, the military, and how that was shaped by food systems. I developed with a colleague in Cornell named Philip McMicheal, the idea of food regimes. So he and I are the food regimes people…the founders. It’s been helpful, this way of looking at food and the globe and what is important:  which places, which people, which way of doing things, and how do you find stable periods? That’s kind of what food regimes are, and it’s a very useful analysis!

3. Can you describe how involvement in a group like TFPC has helped to shape your research and your writing?

Yes, it has helped me to write about abstract problems with a much more concrete way of looking at them. When I was writing my PhD in the 1970s, I was living in Saskatchewan and was able to talk to some of the first settlers. They had settled in 1910 or so, and many were still alive, and they would show up to NDP conventions and that is how the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) was formed. These settlers and farmers were always on my mind when I was conducting research. I think it is important to be in touch with these people who are really on the ground, who are engaged with changing the food system or dealing with food problems in various ways. I like to be in touch with the real problems, the real issues and the real social movements, and in Toronto, through the TFPC, the Stop, FoodShare, a lot of our institutions here have become recognized as real leaders in the world (“partly because I have written about them and others have written about them” she laughs). They are wonderful places to try and understand how a new policy area can be created, and recognizing that part of it comes from below and part of it comes from across the levels of government, including elected officials, as well as civil servants. Being able to be a part of that process and to see how food has become an issue in all areas (social justice, sustainability and health) within Toronto has been absolutely crucial to my work.

4. As a leader in global food systems research, can you describe the significance of the TFPC in the global food movement?

It is really important. The work of the TFPC is starting to be recognized and I would say that the most important place to work on food systems change is within regions. The people who created the TFPC and led it in the beginning were really very much ahead of their time. The Toronto area has been a real leader and it is not insular at all. The TFPC is very open to different ideas, and that is part of their success. They are also very involved in global initiatives. Lauren Baker (TFPC Coordinator) has attended International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) meetings, TFPC is a member and I am on the advisory board of the International Urban Food Network (IUFN), Caroline Steel (author of Hungry City) was invited from London, England as a keynote speaker for the (TFPC) 20th anniversary celebrations, and Cecilia Rocha (TFPC from 2006-2011) has kept a link from the beginning to the innovative urban food policies of Belo Horizonte in Brazil. Food has been an area where activists and policy people, theoreticians and scholars have worked together way more than most areas because we have been defining a new area of study and practice. Food studies is only 20 years old, food policy is new, food policy councils are new, and now there is a new journal of food studies. Lauren uses the idea of “translocal” in her own scholarly writing. This direct connection has been going on for a very long time across the world.

5. What do you see as emerging issues in food policy work within Toronto and Ontario as a province?

I would say that one of Toronto’s emerging issues in food policy work is in solidifying the link between urban agriculture and other types of agriculture. Getting urban agriculture accepted by the city and also by the farmers. There has been a recent shift towards this but it wasn’t easy and it is not over. There is still a lot of resistance and complications. But I think trying to move forward with that agenda, the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Action Plan, and trying to break that urban-rural divide is where we need to head. This shift in thinking is important for preserving farmland and for helping to renew the whole farming system. Instead of an urban region expanding onto farmland and destroying it, and having farmers being further away, we need to reconstruct the urban food region so that new-comers and young people can take up farming and so those who eat here can get their food from the region. It has to be an urban recognition that farmland is crucial and that farmers are crucial; a revaluing of farmers and farming. A lot of the pieces of the puzzle are already in place but in ways that don’t fit together. It is about piecing it together, what Wayne Roberts calls “a joined up food system.” That is what we need to work towards and is what I see as an emerging food policy issue.

6. What else would you like to see from the TFPC in the coming years?

The TFPC has increased its diversity in all senses; diversity of people on the council, diversity of issues, and diversity of the communities it is connected to. So I would like to see them build on that, and to build on this link between social justice and sustainability. I am actually amazed at the openness of the TFPC; I have watched all three coordinators of the council and although they are all different from each other, they have all carried this openness to the world, of new issues, of organizations and projects. They are very early to bring people in. They have welcomed farmers and urban planners, social justice activists and entrepreneurs and chefs. People from all parts of the City and Region know they can bring their problem or issue for an open, intelligent, practical discussion, and support. The TFPC is very good at initiating contact and creating action. So I would say, “Keep doing it!” Keep defining those issues, keep on building an economically embedded and socially just food system.