The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
Food systems decision-making is currently more battlefield than balancing act. This must change. As another World Food Day passes, a new mindset for food systems transformation is needed
As the current spate of international summits and meetings is making clear, the food system is in a profound state of crisis. At the FAO Asia-Pacific Symposium on Agrifood Systems Transformation I attended two weeks ago, the talk was all of the “4Cs” of conflict, climate change, COVID-19 and cost of living, collectively creating chaos for the “5Fs” of food, feed, fuel, fertilizer and finance. Doubtless the tone was similar last week at the 50th plenary session of the Committee on World Food Security. Coordinating the global policy response to the global food crisis was top of their agenda.
In his address at another conference in early September, the African Food Systems Forum (AGRF), President Paul Kagame of Rwanda posed the critical question: “How did we get to this point?” Indeed, how did we get to the situation where the system most needed to sustain human life lacks adequate resilience to shocks? Where the billions of people who work in the food system – from farm to supermarket – are so vulnerable? Where despite their fundamental role keeping the food system going, women are marginalised? Where despite huge investment in productivity, millions of people remain undernourished (new estimates out last week showed even micronutrient deficiencies are far higher than previously thought). Where obesity and non-communicable diseases journey relentlessly upward? Where biodiversity, soil and water journey relentlessly down? And where it seems that every week there is a new flood, hurricane or drought related to climate change?
In my own presentation to the FAO conference, I tried to come up with some kind of answer. I boiled it down to four aspects of decision-making. First, over past decades, decisions have favoured productivity of low-cost calories over environment, livelihoods and nutrition - delivering calories and cash, not multiple food systems solutions. Second, decisions have favoured food systems globalization without the complementary policies needed to manage risks. Economic development is of course an important goal, but the downsides for livelihoods, land use, obesity and diet-related disease need attention too. Third, decisions were made in siloed spaces about single issues with little consideration for the risks and benefits for other food system objectives. Fourth, decisions were made without understanding the experiences of people affected by the problem, meaning policies and practices are less likely to work on the ground.
This unholy quaternity of decision-making has meant positive benefits for some dimensions of food systems, but undermined others. Let’s look at some evidence from specific policy decisions:.
There is a certain inevitability to this. The food system is inherently interconnected; there will always be reverberations from any decision elsewhere in the system. The evidence shows, for example, that much needed strategies to protect health and environment create risks too, such as measures to protect the sustainability of marine capture fisheries impact negatively on livelihoods in poor coastal communities, or sugary drinks taxes on the lowest-income families.
The challenge is how to balance these things out. At the moment, it seems like a game - often times more like a battlefield - of “who is most powerful wins.” What needs to be done if we really are to – as the FAO conference discussed - “transform” the food system to meet multiple goals? There is no easy answer, but rebalancing food systems decision-making is part of it.
First, decisions should aim to optimise not maximise. Attempting to balance out the different tradeoffs for economy, livelihoods, food security, environment, nutrition is a tough thing to do. But it is the only way to move towards systems efficiency, rather than maximizing benefits for one goal or stakeholder at the expense of others.
Second, decision-making should consciously and creatively aim to craft co-benefits, always taking context into account. This is the process of asking the question: how can the policies or actions support other goals as well as their primary intention? Who can benefit and how? What complementary actions are needed to make that happen? There may not be a clear answer but the process of asking the question itself, with the right people in the room, could lead to creative, innovative ideas and solutions and a sense of a shared agenda.
Third, decision-making needs to engage the sectors and institutions with a stake in the outcome, in whatever appropriate form that takes. This is needed not only to better understand how decisions might affect others and spark innovative solutions, but also to manage the inevitable conflict and ever present power relations.
Fourth, decision-making should always consider the experiences of those affected. That’s where the tradeoffs are experienced and, therefore, can be really understood. The voice of the people who have to live with the upsides and downsides of decisions on the ground must be heard if the system is to be more of a balancing act than the battlefield it is now.
Making decisions differently for food systems transformation will take a new mindset. It will mean embracing uncertainty and an ever-ongoing process of reflecting, learning and adapting. Balancing rather than battling may sound rather timid, compromising, even weak. Too much being nice. Yet if we are to learn the lessons from the past, we need to recognise that we got to this point by failing to balance. And it will take courage for the powers that be to see the whole system for what it is. It will take courage, not timidity, to skilfully manage the conflict, create a sense of collective problem-solving and make different decisions.
The thoughts aired in this blog benefited from three pieces of work conducted at the Centre for Food Policy: Taking a Food Systems Approach to Policymaking, in collaboration with R4D; Aligning Food System Activities with Healthier Diets for Low-Income Households: A Guidance Note, commissioned by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; and (as yet unpublished) a project funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to identify environmental actions in food systems, in support of the Food Systems Dashboard.
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