‘In a nutshell, Modernist thinking on food exalts agricultural productionism, which frequently uses toxic technologies to overwhelm natural systems and limits, artisanal work methods and traditional home-based skills and habits. Modernism also puts mass productionist methodologies in the drivers’ seat of the entire food system. ‘—Wayne Roberts

China boasts one of the oldest and most influential agricultural traditions in the world, and some of the most popular and varied cuisines as well.

When Steffanie Scott asked me to help her spread the word about her new book on organic food and farming in China – it’s a potential blockbuster, partly because of the sheer weight of any trend in the world’s most populous country, and partly because Chinese-inspired meals and exports of Chinese food products are known around the world — I had to hang my head in embarrassment.

I have talked the talk about global food systems since 2002, when I was chosen to be a Canadian delegate to the World Food Summit in Rome. But I’ve remained ill-informed about food systems in China, arguably one of the fastest-changing and most impactful food systems in the world. I’m nowhere near ready to comment on or promote a book about China, I thought.

Steffanie offered to be my guide, and introduced me to the overall work of the team of food scholars and practitioners ( see also here) she’s shepherded at the University of Waterloo. Since much of their work is about Chinese cities, I felt more comfortable. So I took the plunge.

Readers of this newsletter can plunge along with me as I look at a few examples of writings she showed me about city food policy in China. I think it will really open your eyes, as much as it did mine.

I started with an open-access paper, which uses a food system lens to look at sustainable urban development in Nanjing, China. It’s by Steffanie and Zhengzhong Si, her former Ph D student and a bright light in the Canadian post-doctoral firmament, as well as a friend of my family.

After reading the article, the first thing I realized was that the breakneck speed of outsourced industrial development in China since 1970 is not the only case of breakneck speed in China. Megacities, green infrastructure, and renewable energy have come on equally fast and hard. (And on the negative side, so have pollution, obesity, chronic disease and social inequality.)

Food system analysis and change don’t yet enjoy the same level of regime support as green infrastructure. But the depth of understanding about city food systems in this academic study creates recognition for yet another area where incredible progress is being made in China. It’s also worth noting that several major cities in China, including Beijing and Shanghai, have signed onto the Milan Urban Food Pact.

China is joining the worldwide conversation about food systems. A food system reputation shapes what we expect to learn about food and food policy from China. China already has an impact on the global food scene by the sheer amount of food it imports and exports. But, even leaving volume aside, the standing, quality, and healthfulness of food from China has an impact on the way China is able to influence the world through the power of example and the power of ideas. Welcome to the world of culinary diplomacy, the tastiest form of soft diplomacy!

Scott and Si’s study of Nanjing’s food policies startled me by revealing how many food trends in a city are shared by cities around the world. I now think that many urban food trends should not be understood in terms of the country the city is located in. The Nanjing article revealed to me that international trends account for many food practices in cities, whatever country the city is in.

As I have argued elsewhere, Modernism has been the most powerful ideological force affecting food and many other dominant elements of life since World War 11. Modernism is also infused with such lynchpin notions as  “development,” high technology, urbanization and planning.

Modernism is called an ism for a very good reason. It is a totalizing ideology. It is so dominant, however, that few people recognize that it is a questionable and contestable ideology, not just a set of “natural” and “logical” and “inevitable” matter-of-fact statements. Modernism very much needs to be “problematized,” as some academics like to say.

One reason why Modernism is rarely problematized is that it flies below the radar of divisive political ideologies. Modernism is at the heart of capitalist ideologies of growth and planning, but it is equally at the heart of notions of development and planning in Communist and formerly Communist regimes. Many outstanding Communist leaders were educated in Europe and North America when Modernism was at full throttle.  So there’s been no cold war division of ideas on the question of Modernism. Modernist ideals are also shared by most of today’s social conservatives and conservative populists. Modernism rules without being identified – just like food is essential but an afterthought, taken for granted by leftists, rightists, climate activists and climate change deniers alike.

In a nutshell, Modernist thinking on food exalts agricultural productionism, which frequently uses toxic technologies to overwhelm natural systems and limits, artisanal work methods and traditional home-based skills and habits. Modernism also puts mass productionist methodologies in the drivers’ seat of food policy. That’s why food policy is almost always done inside government departments of agriculture, often subordinating physical and mental health impacts of food and the social experiencing of food.

Hundreds of everyday practices flow from the Modernist juggernaut of productionism, including the dominant role of monopoly chains in distribution, often at the expense of more dispersed and personable forms of food distribution, such as street food and farmers markets.

Consequently, street food and even farmers markets have often been deemed as equally unsafe and subversive in Communist, as well as advanced capitalist regimes. They reek too much of peasants and informal workforces, the backward villains of Modernist ideology. (For the depth of anti-peasant stigma in China, see here.)

Such thinking about food does not derive from national characteristics and themes, but from global Modernist characteristics and themes, which flourish among professionals and promoters most influential in defining urban agendas. (Please forgive the nutshell nature of this summary of my Modernist analysis.)


There’s a bit of a nudge-nudge-wink-wink joke in China about the turn to more capitalist methods since the 1970s, resulting in what is sometimes referred to as capitalism or socialism “with Chinese characteristics.”

There are indeed many aspects of food and food policy in Nanjing that are unique to Nanjing and to China. I am all in favor of these being emphasized. One of the jobs of city food policy is to promote what may be called foods of locality, expressing the city’s physical and cultural terroir.

In conversation, Scott told me of one uniqueness, certainly worth expanding our understanding of – the Chinese habit of giving gifts on many occasions, including gifts of food. They give as many as ten times more gifts than North Americans do, Scott estimated, and the gifts are frequently elaborately packaged organic foods – really something special. Wouldn’t North American and European organic producers welcome that tradition of the ancient gift economy!!

But it’s the similarity of all cities that most struck me as I began to see the city food world through Chinese-influenced eyes.

Cities are definitely a force in the world in their own right — socially, economically, environmentally, and increasingly politically. The quality of the study by Scott and Si confirms that academic studies of food and cities around the world are also fast becoming a force in their own right.

I came away from reading Scott and Si’s work thinking I was getting a glimpse of a new way of studying cities in different part of the world.

Perhaps the next phase in that development is that cities will be analyzed as cities of the world, not just sub-categories of the countries they are located in. Just like citizens of the world, cities of the world share qualities and characteristics and problems with other cities around the planet. They can learn from each other as much as they can learn from people in their own country. Increasingly, they will collaborate with each other on these problems as easily as they collaborate with governments in their own countries.

One important area where that is possible is city two-way cultural and economic relationships with nearby countrysides, an issue that is presented with great insight in an article about Suzhou, which anyone anywhere can benefit from reading.

Take the issue of street food, which takes quite a bit of space in Scott and Si’s work. An entire study devoted to it will soon be published in a forthcoming detailed study by one of their colleagues at Waterloo. Street food is a distinctive legal issue in different jurisdictions, because issues such as the regulation of food safety and food retail are usually under the control of senior levels of government.

That said, cities have their own jurisdictional interests in street food, because street food affects many aspects of city life – the quality of the pedestrian environment, the availability of work in the informal sector, the equitable access to food retail outlets in all neighborhoods across a city, and so on. Streets are a nitty-gritty level of informal life beyond the ideology and institutions of Modernism. That’s why street smarts are a special breed of smarts. Street food deserves the space to be understood by street smart people as a city issue. Scott and Si provide it with this space.

Farmers markets express a “pre -Modern” spontaneity, conviviality and informality similar to street food, although these work quite well in Nanjing, according to another publication by Scott and Si.

Likewise, schools are usually part of the jurisdiction of educational departments of senior levels of government. But there’s no denying that elementary, secondary and post-secondary institutions have a huge impact on city life. They often offer the most diverse and dispersed high-quality recreational spaces in any city — if such facilities were accessible to communities when students are not at school. Likewise, if schools required local and sustainable food in their cafeterias, that would certainly influence local work and farming opportunities, as well as the opportunities for people in the nearby countryside. The more schools become hubs of their community, the more school hubs become a factor in civic life, and the more schools are best appreciated at a city, not educational department, level.

To give a third example, successful cities – building on the shining example of ancient Athens – depend on a high level of informed, engaged and talented citizens, with full rights of free speech and association and full responsibilities to be part of self-government. The freedom of the city is a prerequisite of a city that is more than a grouping of buildings and functions in one dense space. All cities share this need in common, and share a common need to develop city capacities to meet such needs.

I believe the food-city democratic dynamic in cities deserves understanding on this common international level as well.

Finally, because food has a lot to do with the kind of people we become, and because cities are the ultimate when it comes to people places, food policy for cities needs to be people-centred. People-centred food policy is the science and art of food policy for cities, unlike agronomy, which is the science and art of food production, or dietetics, which is the science and art of food as one source of human nutrition and health.

We cannot develop relevant food policy for cities without building and building on the proactive role played by people in food policy. There can be no safe food if popular habits don’t support food safety. There can be no advances in health unless people choose nutritious foods, prepare nutritious foods and eat it within a daily culture that supports social, environmental and spiritual health and well-being. By definition, food policy cannot only be about government rules and institutional practices. It must also be about the people places and popular culture where people prepare, eat and celebrate food. (see, for example, here.) This is an aspect of food policy that all cities need to share an understanding of, wherever they be and whatever country they are in.

My thanks go to Scott, Si and their team for making this global perspective on city food issues part of my thinking. I look forward to experiencing the full course of what they offer in their study of organic trends in China.

Ed. note: This post originally appeared in Wayne’s newsletter of October 17, 2018.

Teaser photo credit: By FotoosVanRobin from Netherlands – La Zi Ji (Chicken with Chiles) Uploaded by Partyzan_XXI, CC BY-SA 2.0