Blogs, Systems Thinking

Q&A with Tara Garnett, Director at TABLE

Ahead of a co-hosted roundtable event Whose knowledge counts? on 11 January 2022, Lauren Baker spoke to Dr. Tara Garnett, Director at TABLE, a global platform for knowledge synthesis, for reflective, critical thinking, and inclusive dialogue on debates about the future of food. Tara has worked on food for over 25 years within both the NGO and academic sectors. 

Lauren Baker: Tara, we’re looking forward to co-hosting this event together next week! Before we dive into that, can you tell us a little bit about TABLE, what you do, and who you work with? 

Dr. Tara Garnett: TABLE’s mission is to act as an honest broker in global food systems debates while acknowledging that the current food system requires major transitions. We aim to reduce polarised thinking and bridge unhelpful divides by providing a platform and a method for deliberative dialogue, together with an impartial analysis of key contestations.

Our goal is to set out not just the evidence, but also, crucially to explore the assumptions and values underpinning different viewpoints on food systems controversies. Through mapping debates, we highlight critical differences and areas of agreement, identify research questions to help resolve uncertainties, and suggest paths forward. We strive to be impartial while recognizing that everyone, including our staff members, has their own assumptions and values. A key part of our process is to facilitate dialogue between diverse voices in the food system, bringing together those with more power and voice, together with those who have less.  We aim to engage a wide variety of stakeholders including researchers, farmers, industry, civil society, and policymakers and bring together representatives of different regions, sectors, areas of expertise, and viewpoints.

LB: Late last year TABLE kicked off a new workstream about power in food systems. Tell us why you’re choosing to explore the theme of power in food systems? 

TG: The short answer is because debates about food are so often actually about power – what it is, who has it, who ought to have more or less of it, and which forms of power are desirable or not.  When we argue about, say, the merits of different systems of food production or of different dietary patterns, about how we should relate to animals and to the natural world, about the legitimacy of different kinds of technology or knowledge, or about how we do and should organize the food system, what we’re actually arguing about is power. In our work here we’ll be exploring obvious manifestations of power – governmental, geopolitical, or corporate power, for example.  But there are also other forms of power we want to explore too, that may be harder to examine because they are less tangible, but that can nevertheless have a profound influence on how different stakeholders think about food and what they want for the food system. I’m thinking here of the power of the cultural, moral, or educational norms that shape our thinking and our lives without us even recognizing that this is the case.  

LB: When it comes to research and decision-making about the future of food, what are the evidence gaps that must be addressed? 

TG: I think we now have plenty of evidence that demonstrates the scale of the problems we face. We need to focus now on change – on how we might move, as a global society, towards a more sustainable food system. The ‘how’ question will require a lot of experimentation – the only way to gather evidence is to try things out – and as part of this we need to encourage more exchange of ideas and experience between the global South and North.

 Of course, all this begs the question of what the ‘sustainable food system’ that we want actually looks like, and how and why (once you get past the motherhood and apple pie generalities) it looks different for different stakeholders who come at the question from very different geographies, disciplines, sectors and so forth. The challenge here is for us to explore in a considered, deliberative way, the different argued pathways, theories of change, and attitudes to managing trade-offs that people have. This, I feel, is where dialogue is so crucial, and this is why dialogue is so core to TABLE’s mission.

LB: As debates about the future of food are becoming more intense, divisive, and polarised, how can the pathways to sustainable food systems – like agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways – be more effectively communicated to a general audience?

TG: Our goal at TABLE is not to advance a particular solution but rather to engage stakeholders of all ideological persuasions in exploring the paradigms and assumptions that their argued solutions are founded on. Why for some people are agroecology and associated systems of provisioning seen to be better than alternative proffered solutions (such as sustainable intensification), while others strongly disagree? What evidence do stakeholders draw upon to argue their case, and what are the values that underpin their selection and use of these kinds of evidence?  Where – if anywhere – is there common ground? We feel that there is a need to get people thinking hard about their own as well as other people’s framing assumptions and to engage with their ideological opponents in a constructive and (self) reflective way. In short, there’s a need, I think, for more dialogue, and less debate. 

LB: Last year you developed a diagram that represents an initial attempt to understand how agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and the organic movement relate to each other. What surprised you about the creation of this piece? 

TG: I was actually surprised at how popular it was! We had some great feedback – both positive and very thoughtful – it seems that everyone loves a pretty picture. Perhaps what was most interesting to me during the course of its production was how challenging it is to try and categorize ideas and movements without oversimplifying them. We presented our diagram very much as a work in progress and we had some useful comments which we would love to incorporate into a revised version of the piece, as and when we have the time and resources to do so.

LB: It’s the GA’s 10 year anniversary this year and as part of the celebrations, we’ll be taking stock of what we’ve learned and all that has been accomplished. As an established commentator on food systems, what trends and issues do you see coming for the years ahead and what should an entity like the GA do in its next decade?

TG: There’s been a massive growth in awareness about food system issues and concerns, there are many excellent organizations doing fantastic work in this space, and there has also been positive action within the food industry. I do feel that there is a surge in energy devoted to food right now and I’m hoping that the next few years will see really substantial change.

I feel strongly that we should be paying as much attention to biodiversity as we are currently to climate change. Addressing climate change is clearly an existential threat to humanity – the arguments for halting biodiversity loss are somewhat subtler and less overtly or solely self-interested (although the argument from self-interest certainly exists), which makes it harder. We also need to focus more attention on engaging the public (or rather the many publics around the world, including, crucially in the Global South) in thoughtful, considered discussions about food, what our goals are for the food system, and how we might achieve change.

LB: Through your podcast, you speak with a lot of changemakers, what gives you hope about the future of food? 

TG: It might sound clichéd but, what gives me hope is that in my work I come across so many people who are working so hard, and are so committed, to addressing the problems we face. 

— Ends

Register today for Whose evidence counts? Exploring evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches, and Indigenous Foodways, co-hosted by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and TABLE, on Tuesday, 11 January 2022 at 9:00 EST, 14:00 GMT, 15:00 CET.