The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
Yesterday marked the release of a new report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Making Better Policies for Food Systems. Highlighting the “triple challenge” of food security/nutrition, livelihoods, and environmental sustainability, it raises a fundamental question for food policy in the 21st century: how to “simultaneously make progress on these three dimensions?” It’s not an easy question to answer. As the report is at pains to point out, policies designed to tackle these challenges are riven with incoherence and trade-offs. So how can policymakers navigate the complex terrain of food systems? How can policy actually be fit for purpose for the 21st Century? Here are a few take-aways I took from this report about what policymakers can do:
First, pay attention to policy coherence. Good policymaking cannot escape the interlinkages between food system challenges. Policies designed to address livelihoods (such as agricultural subsidies to support farmer incomes) interconnect with food security and environment. Thus, if policymakers are to address all three challenges they must - at the very least - be aware of “the possibility that a new policy initiative may have spillover effects, or that an existing set of policies may be incoherent.” If they fail to even consider this possibility, problems will, intentionally or not, get worse.
Second, focus on creating coherence where spillovers between policies are strong. Creating policy coherence is not easy. In fact, it’s really hard. Existing institutional arrangements mean spillovers are often hidden. There are no simple decision-rules available to manage trade-offs. And there are disagreements about the facts, diverging interests and different values among the people involved. Focusing efforts where it matters most – when a policy in one area is evidently undermining progress in another, or where there are strong opportunities for synergy, makes practical sense.
Third, prioritise managing the different interests involved. It’s evident that different, often competing, interests exist in the food system. The report makes the important point that if efforts to create coherence are serious, these interests must be explicitly recognised and managed. It’s not enough to engage all stakeholders in an inclusive way and pretend that divergent interests aren’t there: different interests will always “try to influence decision-makers to tip the scales in their favour,” leading to less effective policy. The report makes several practical suggestions about how to manage interests, including guidelines, independent accountability mechanisms, offsetting the cost of reform for interests that may lose out, and building broad countervailing coalitions.
Fourth, if you really want change, ignore differences in values at your peril. Values run deep in the food system. The report gives the example of ‘choice.’ “They take away choice” is an argument frequently used against regulations to restrict the marketing, sale or taxation of foods produced by large manufacturing companies. While it’s easy to blame special interests – indeed this is the source of the pushback – the notion of having the autonomy to make free choice is not just an argument, but a value that runs deep for many people. On the other hand, not wanting the consume the ‘ultraprocessed foods’ these companies produce is also an articulation of deeply held values, values that influence ideas and proposals about what food systems should look like. While generating facts and evidence on each side can help, science is never the ultimate arbiter: people are always more likely to believe the ‘facts’ that align with their beliefs. The report presents a very useful categorisation of the way differences in values are typically dealt with in policymaking, including ‘structural separation’ (when competing values are dealt with in different spaces) and ‘bias’ (when certain values are prioritised and dissenting values excluded because they are too awkward to deal with). But, it concludes, none of them are satisfactory. Instead, it highlights the potential of “deliberative approaches” to “help to build societal consensus” through which values can come to be shared. They propose something else, too (my favourite line in the report): “finding specific actions which can be supported by people with different values.” It may appear impossible, yet in my experience, intelligent navigation and moderation of deeper motivations can make that happen.
Five, carefully consider the policy instrument. A key decision for policymakers is whether to tackle the problem of incoherent policies through complementary policies, repurposing existing policy instruments, designing a bundle of mutually reinforcing actions, or replacing the policy with something completely different. While this needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, the opinion of Making Better Policies is that “one policy instrument will rarely be sufficient to meet all objectives; rather, a mix of instruments is usually needed.” Trying to find a single policy that can, for example, maximise farmer livelihoods and mitigate the food system impacts of climate change might just be too much to ask. In any instance, the design and implementation of the policy instrument requires careful consideration.
Making Better Policies sets out a laudable vision – but a tough ask. It’s also not an ask that’s new. Indeed, exactly forty years ago, the OECD produced another – alas forgotten - report on the topic. The report, titled simply Food Policy, set out an astonishingly prescient vision of a more integrated, holistic approach to food policy. “Concerning interrelationships among different sectors,” it states “policies introduced in the food economy can have effects on other sectors of the economy and, perhaps even more importantly, policies directed primarily at other sectors or the economy as a whole can have a very marked effect on the food economy. The food policy approach is intended to clarify this aspect of policy making by considering the overall effects of policies.” It’s vital, it said, to “recognise that there are competing pressures exerted on policymakers” and it is “particularly important to avoid the introduction of narrow measures catering to special groups (as all too often has occurred in the past).”
The author who drafted that report in the OECD Secretariat was Wilfrid Legg, now serving as the Honorary Secretary of the Agricultural Economics Society after a long career in the OECD. I spoke to him last week and asked him what he thought the most damaging outcome had been of governments and others not heeding his call. “If we had a more whole-of-government approach,” he replied, “we might have avoided many of the problems of the environmental impacts of farming.” That’s a pretty damning statement against incoherent food policy. “It’s dangerous to make food policy based on a single issue alone,” he said, giving the example of the risk of designing policies on cutting meat production and consumption driven by meeting the challenge of climate change, while not considering nutritional, socio-economic and natural resource impacts.
But given its importance, why is the goal so elusive? The architecture of policy coordination is crucial, he said, and current institutional arrangements based on the single-issue model may no longer be fit for purpose. Forty years on, Making Better Policies for Food Systems makes the same point: stronger institutions are necessary, including international ones. While major new institutional arrangements came into place after the food crises of 1974 (e.g. the Committee on World Food Security and the International Food Policy Research Institute), it’s evident we do not yet have a model conducive to building a food system that creates synergies and co-benefits.
One step forward, then, is to piece together the institutional jigsaw, adding capacity in the system to connect the pieces (rather than creating a separate body). Another approach, as I have argued before, is for every country – and city and region – to develop an integrated, overarching food policy that brings the issues together. Neither of these is enough, of course, but they are steps in the right direction. In the meantime, we must focus on identifying and pushing out the solutions supported by broad coalitions of people with different values - all of whom, wherever they may sit, care about a better food system.
With many thanks to Wilfrid Legg for taking the time for our conversation and to Ellie Avery and Koen Deconinck at the OECD for their support.