The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
It’s the UN Food Systems Summit on September 23, 2021 and the preparation process has certainly proved an interesting one. Innumerable conversations. Many, many, meetings. Scores of dialogues. Protests. Thousands of ideas for what needs to change. People from different spaces and sectors gathering in Zoom rooms.
Will the Summit fulfil its vision of driving action to transform food systems towards the achievement of the SDGs? That, I think, will depend on what happens afterwards. As a recent paper put it, transforming food systems is essentially a process of governing change - a “governance effort to alter undesired emergent properties of the system into desired properties” (such as from unhealthy diets to healthy diets, from negative impacts on nature to positive ones). While the pre-summit process has not guaranteed this change will happen, it has provided some important clues about what governance needs to look like to ensure that it does. Here are three lessons I took away from the pre-summit process about what the governance of change needs to do.
Invite and encourage diversity of action
The first clue comes from the attempt to bring together the diversity of action across the food system. There are hundreds of possibilities for change across food systems; indeed, the challenge is knowing where to stop. The pre-summit process invited people to submit the actions they think really mattered - which they did in spades. 1,200 ideas were received by the five Action Tracks alone, most of them building on experience of actions already being taken. It was a way of meeting people where they are across the broad scope of food systems, accepting they all have a place. Actions were also discussed at the 850 independent food system dialogues (involving 41,000 people) – which concluded that this diversity needs to be valued (read more in this excellent report). The “global conversation” envisioned by Summit Envoy Dr Agnes Kalibata had clearly been well and truly sparked among people taking action in different parts of the system.
Things got a lot more difficult, though, when trying to narrow down the hundreds of ideas into a smaller number of “game changing” actions for impact at scale. Coming to agreement about a short list of the most important actions proved tough. The lesson I take from this, rightly or wrongly, is that accelerating action into the future means actively encouraging diversity as the way forward, not trying to narrow it down. It means governance needs to provide a home for them all. At the country and sub-country level, that means capturing and building on the diversity of all the things that are already going on, identifying the “leverage points” and new innovations needed to maximise impact, and “conducting” them all to play to the same tune.
What we have now is kind of like a large orchestra tuning up. Amazing players testing out their tunes to themselves using a diversity of instruments. The big governance challenge thrown up by the Summit process is how to ensure the diversity of action begins playing to the same tune. That surely would be the real gamechanger. Innovation in governance will need gifted conductors.
Develop a shared understanding of the problem and a common language to talk about it
Conducting the orchestra won’t be possible unless there is a shared score. This soon became apparent (in the best possible way) when working with colleagues to develop an Action Coalition (one of the expectations of the Summit) on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. While kindred spirits with a shared agenda, we were coming to the problem from different entry points - from obesity/non-communicable diseases, from undernutrition, sustainability, food safety and local food cultures (to name but a few) - and we talked in different ways about what is essentially the same problem. Each of these representations of the problem are important and valid. The challenge is that the solutions they imply are not yet in tune.
For example, those entering the problem from a sustainability angle understandably talk about consumers transitioning to more sustainable consumption patterns as core to the solution. The implication here is that people need nudging to reduce excessively high levels of meat intake or to choose products with lower carbon footprints. Rightly so in some contexts. But it does not really apply to (and does not intend to) desperately poor people eating largely starch-based diets with a bit of meat gravy and milk thrown in if they are lucky. The solutions talked about here are more about supporting populations to consume a greater diversity of nutritious foods, through, amongst other things, stronger social protection programmes like cash-based transfers and school food programmes (both featured in the pre-summit process). In other spaces, meanwhile, it's all about government regulation to keep unhealthy foods out of schools, more about reining in the vested interests of large businesses producing ultraprocessed foods. In others, it’s about solutions to unsafe food (which include food processing and packaging), about managing food safety in the informal sector, about the safety of food traded across borders. Yet in still others, the language focuses on keeping food local, recognising there are local cultures that already support healthy diets, produced from systems that might not need the kind of food safety regulation necessary for larger global food chains.
All of these diverse solutions are needed to achieve the shared vision of healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Yet the way we talk about solutions (which we typically do in separate spaces) shows that without a common language about the nature of the problem, our solutions will remain out of tune, a cacophony played by disparate communities seeking to change different things in different ways, not even realising they are working towards a shared goal. We will continue talk at cross purposes, advocate for our “own” solutions over others, quietly (sometimes loudly) seeing each other as a threat - rather than working together to reach a crescendo finally loud enough to generate real impact. The governance of change should thus not simply push forward a diversity of action, but also enable us to play from a common score so we all understand our roles and responsibilities in the orchestra.
Manage the politics and power of pluralism
Valuing diversity implies pluralism - and pluralism inevitably involves entities with different levels of power. The reality of imbalanced power relations was at the core of the various protests against the Summit by its many detractors. Let’s take this as a cue that part of the job of governance is to balance these differing levels of power and interests. Without it, the diversity of action becomes warped, subverted, bent out of shape. Experimental innovations with promise remain just that while well-resourced technical solutions win-out and actions that undermine shared goals continue. It’s a familiar story. If we want diversity to fit together, we have to ensure that some instruments aren’t drowning others out, making noise not music. It’s not about exclusion but managing inclusiveness, harnessing rather than dampening the passion so many have shown in the pre-summit process.
I expect Summit day will be full of calls for “urgent action” and the need to “act now.” That’s good. But if the Summit’s promise of accelerating bold action for transformative change is to be realised, let’s learn the lessons from the pre-summit process: these calls will not lead to much without the governance needed to align and integrate the diversity of action the Summit has done so well to bring together. My own experience has highlighted a few things about what this governance needs to do to achieve that. There are doubtless many more. Whatever they are, the success of the Summit arguably depends on it.
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