Obstacles and opportunities in the democratic road to Local Food strategies: Ghent as a case


For years, support of food and agriculture issues by local governments has been increasing . A Local Food Strategy (LFS) is one way that local governments study the food system as a whole and promote sustainable food policy. In 2013, the city of Ghent (appr. 250.000 inhabitants) launched one of the first LFS in Belgium (“Ghent en garde”) as part of its commitment to becoming a Climate Neutral city by the year 2050. A Food Policy Council was established and attempts were made to set up a local food plan. At the same time the city of Ghent can be characterized by what Hajer has referred to as “the energetic society”,  a broad range of actors who are taking initiative in sustainable development by setting up Urban Agriculture (UA) activities, local food systems and first attempts to initiate a food commons.

The potentiality to bridge the activities in the public sphere with decision making in empowered space in order to co-establish a common Local Food Strategy for the City of Ghent, remains however largely unrealized. In part, this has to do with established political routines engrained in party politics and interest group representation. Although policy makers and politicians are slowly recognizing the  importance of increasing citizen voice, we claim that a lack ‘of political machinery’ to facilitate democratic participation, holds the risk that citizens, consumers and civil society are referenced in policy objectives as a symbolic gesture, rather than included and called upon to take action. On the other hand, research suggests that UA practitioners are often skeptical about or unfamiliar with official governance mechanisms.  Also here, the acquired political awareness is one of disbelief in democratic participation and political representation.

In this talk I use the ideas of John Dewey in order to make sense of how democratic participation in a Local Food system can be built on a more effective relationship between the state and the public. For Dewey, democratic participation cannot be reduced to its meaning acquired in liberal democracy, i.e. something that substitutes the people’s authority by the professional and secluded process of political interest articulation. Rather, democracy is primarily found in a ‘conjoint communicated experience’ in ‘a mode of associated living’. Only through contact with those engaged in different social practices and groups can new conditions to action become liberated. More particularly I would like to address his notion of the public. Dewey believes that each newly emerging issue – such as UA – requires a political process in which the self-awareness and deliberation of its various entangled ‘publics’  gives shape to the complexity and transformative potential of that very issue. Policy makers, politicians, experts, interest group representatives, grass roots organisations, companies, farmers, each of these actors hold different – yet often unfully articulated and communicated – interests in the establishment of a local food strategy.

To make this concrete we address the barriers and potentialities of organizing a political community to enhance a local food strategy in three instances:

  • The Ghent food policy council
  • The establishment of a Food-producing commons in Ghent
  • Scaling up Short Food Supply Chains

Scaling up Local Food systems: Assessing its challenges and implications.

This initiative brings together several recent and ongoing projects which focus on scaling up local food systems from a sustainability perspective.

A first project plays on the local municipal level of Ghent and focuses on developing new partnerships between farmers and larger distribution and sales channels linked to retailers, public organizations such as schools and hospitality services. Stakeholder alliances were facilitated in order to set up new short-supply chains, balancing between ethical principles and efficiency claims. At this moment, the transition from ideas to action is being established.

A second project is an exploratory study on agricultural parks in Europe, an assessment along the lines of different sustainability dimensions. Here, lessons are drawn on the relationship between the scaling up of local food systems and its implications for spatial planning and local policies and stakeholders.