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Learning from Freiburg's Food Initiatives

What we eat and how our food is produced are pressing issues 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 this interview, she explains why Freiburg - the university, the city and the region - has raised her interest.

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

Our current agricultural and food system, which has dominated since approximately the 1970s, has devastating ecological and health-related consequences. It is socially unjust and it is not working economically, not for farmers nor for food artisans and small processors. And although food production has increased massively in recent decades, people are still starving. The World Agricultural Report already pointed out 15 years ago: "Business as usual is not an option.” Unfortunately, the problems have worsened since then. Thus, alternatives are urgently needed.

What could alternatives to the existing food system look like?

We can distinguish between three types of "alternatives". 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 refer mostly to direct marketing, but also fair trade, for example. In my research, I have shown that in addition to these two types, we also need to look at the economic practices themselves. That is why I am interested in farms and initiatives that operate in a fundamentally different way, be it in terms of ownership, financing, labour or transactions. I am interested in the extent to which they can  avoid the instruments and structures inherent in the conventional capital and commodity markets. And so, I ask: What alternative ways of financing, business management or distribution already exist? How well do they work? What are their limits? Which parameters would need to change for the businesses to be able to operate successfully?

What examples can already be found in practice?

Recently, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has received a lot of attention. Here, consumers cooperate directly and in solidarity with one or more farms. They make decisions together and share costs, risks, and rewards. We can also find farms or restaurants that are organized as a registered co-operative. And some work with the support of a foundation. 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.

When searching for alternative food initiatives, why did Freiburg pique your interest?

There are several reasons: Firstly, as a self-proclaimed "Green City", Freiburg is very present in the academic literature on the topic of sustainability, which includes also critical discussions. The university itself is well regarded in terms of sustainability research. Secondly, the region offers many points of interest for my field research. For historical reasons, many small farms remain until today. This, combined with the high value given to environmental protection in the region, meant that various alternative ways of organising production and distribution could emerge.

I was particularly interested in the Regionalwert AG founded in Eichstetten near Freiburg. This public company collects money from private individuals like you and me in order to finance a sustainable food economy – including farms, the processing and trade as well as the gastronomy sector. 

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.

What are some impressions that stayed with you from your research stay?

On the one hand, I was impressed by how many famers' markets there are in Freiburg and how well the direct sale of regional produce seems to work. The well-offgreen-ecological milieu probably 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 used. Both of these observations demonstrate a strong connection between the city and region, I believe. This region's geographical location is also interesting as Switzerland, France, and Germany all have different culinary traditions. However, these are all just initial observations that I would like to systematically explore further 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 I had participated in before. In addition, I already had very good connections to my geography colleagues  in Freiburg. Furthermore, 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 while now. 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 kindly allowed 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 as well as from the open exchange across disciplines that took place at FRIAS.

About Marit Rosol

Marit Rosol began her studies of urban and regional planning at the Technical University of Berlin in 1994. In 2006, she completed her doctorate at the Department of Geography at Humboldt University in Berlin with a thesis on Berlin's community gardens. She completed her habilitation in geography at Goethe University Frankfurt in 2012. In 2016, she was appointed as Canada Research Chair at the University of Calgary (Canada). Since 1 July 2022, she also holds 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.

Meet the people behind the research projects! In our Faces of FRIAS series we introduce you to current and former Fellows of our institute.