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Learning from Freiburg's Food Initiatives

What we eat and how our food is produced are urgent questions for our future. Economic geographer Prof. Dr. Marit Rosol analyses why the existing structures of the agricultural and food industry remain gridlocked and explores promising alternatives. In the interview, she explains why Freiburg - the university, the city and the region - have piqued her interest.

You research alternative food systems. Why should we rethink the production and distribution of our food?

Our current agricultural and food system, which has been dominant since about the 1970s, has devastating ecological and health consequences. It is not socially just and is also working less and less economically, for neither farmers nor for the food trade. Although production has increased massively in recent decades, people still have to go hungry. The World Agricultural Report stated 15 years ago: "Business as usual is not an option.” Since then, the problems have unfortunately worsened. So, alternatives are urgently needed.

How could alternatives to the existing food system look like?

In research, three types of 'alternatives' can be distinguished. First, there are alternative foods, such as organic and regional products. Secondly, there are alternatives to the conventional supply chains in the food sector. These include direct marketing in particular, but also fair trade, for example. In my research, I have shown that in addition to these two forms, we also need to look at the economic practices themselves. I am therefore interested in farms and initiatives that operate in a fundamentally different way, be it in terms of ownership, financing, labour relations or transactions. I am interested in the extent to which enterprises and initiatives can make themselves independent of the instruments and structures of the usual capital and commodity markets. I ask accordingly: What alternative forms of financing, business management or distribution already exist? How well do they work? What are their limits? Which general conditions would have to change for the businesses to be able to operate successfully?

What examples can already be found in practice?

Recently, solidarity farming has received more attention. Here, consumers cooperate directly and in solidarity with one or more farms. The participants make decisions together and share costs, risks and profits. But cooperatively organised farms and restaurants as well as foundations can also be found. Many of these approaches and initiatives can be summarised under the keyword "Alternative Food Networks". Exploring them could show us potential paths towards more sustainable and equitable food systems.

Why did Freiburg's search for alternative nutrition initiatives pique your interest?

There are several reasons: Firstly, as a self-proclaimed "Green City", Freiburg is very present in the scientific literature on the topic of sustainability – and viewed from a quite critical perspective, too. The university itself is well regarded in terms of sustainability research. Secondly, the region offers many points of contact for my field research. For historical reasons, there are still many small farms. Combined with the high importance of nature conservation and environmental protection in the region, various alternative forms of organisation of production and distribution could emerge.

I was particularly interested in the Regionalwert AG founded in Eichstetten near Freiburg. This company collects money from private individuals like you and me in order to finance a sustainable food economy - from farms, processing and trade to gastronomy. In the meantime, there are also such regional value stock corporations in many other regions. The origins, however, lie in the Freiburg area.

The farmers' market "Wiehremer Bauernmarkt" is one of many lively weekly markets in Freiburg that have become very popular in the city. Photo: Emily Schlegel.

Could you give us some impressions gained during your research stay?

On the one hand, I was impressed by how many producer markets there are in Freiburg and how well the direct sale of regional produce seems to work. The quite wealthy green-ecological milieu probably also contributes to this. In addition, the desire to preserve the Black Forest as a cultural landscape prevents more intensive land use. Therefore, traditional and sustainable agricultural techniques such as hillside grazing continue to be cultivated. In both, I believe, a strong connection between the city and region is also expressed. The close neighbourhood to Switzerland and France with its different culinary traditions is also interesting. However, these are all just initial observations that I would like to explore further systematically after my stay in Freiburg.

You were granted a Marie S. Curie FRIAS COFUND Fellowship for your stay at FRIAS. What made you consider applying for it?

FRIAS has an excellent reputation and I was already familiar with it from several conferences. In addition, I already had very good contacts with Freiburg geographers. In addition, there are many points of contact in sustainability research, especially with the Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources. That's why I had been thinking about applying for a stay at FRIAS for a long time. The fact that it worked out with the Marie S. Curie Fellowship is a particular honour for me because of the highly competitive procedure. Incidentally, the University of Würzburg also saw it that way, and thankfully made it possible for me to take up my professorship, to which I was appointed on 1 July 2022, at a later date. In retrospect, I can say that I benefited greatly both from my field research in the Freiburg region and from the open exchange across disciplinary boundaries that took place at FRIAS.

About Marit Rosol

Marit Rosol studied urban and regional planning at the Technical University of Berlin from 1994. In 2006, she completed her doctorate at the Department of Geography at Humboldt University in Berlin with a thesis on community gardens in Berlin. She completed her habilitation in geography at Goethe University Frankfurt in 2012. In 2016, she received a call to a research professorship (Canada Research Chair) at the University of Calgary (Canada). Since 1 July 2022, she has held the Chair of Economic Geography at the Institute of Geography and Geology at the Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg. From September 2022 to December 2022, she conducted research as an External Senior Fellow at FRIAS within the framework of the Marie S. Curie FCFP funding programme.

This interview was conducted by Max Bolze, translation by Emily Schlegel, 13.03.2023.

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