How to make 2021 the year of sustainable food systems

Matthias Mitterlehner via Unsplash


Twenty-twenty-one could be the year of sustainable food systems. Next week, hundreds of representatives of governments, indigenous communities, farmers’ organisations, multinational food retailers, fertiliser companies, researchers and experts, will come together for the 47th Committee on World Food Security (CFS) to discuss and decide on steps to future-proof our food systems. Food and agriculture were an important topic during last week’s Climate Adaptation Summit. In October there will be the UN Sustainable Food Systems Summit. If all these events want to be more than just a collection of empty catchphrases and theoretical commitments, their organisers and participants will need to take into account and address the power dynamics that slow down any attempt at making food systems more sustainable.

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      The global COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how systemic inequalities are reinforced by worldwide mobility restrictions. African leaders see the global shake-up caused by the pandemic and the economic recovery plans, as an opportunity to ‘build back better’ and transform African and global food systems to meet current and future demands for healthy, fair and environmentally friendly food.

      The food economy provides for the livelihoods of many people in the African continent. Globally, over- and undernutrition are major human health concerns, while scientists’ warnings on the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss are becoming increasingly alarming. Policymakers and practitioners agree that taking a food systems approach offers the best chance to unpack the challenges we face. As the most important connection between people and planet, sustainable food and agriculture contribute to most Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But convincing businesses, farmers, civil society and governments to help change the course food systems are taking, will take more than bold words at global events.

      Without understanding power dynamics, efforts will likely be fruitless


      The speeches at events such as the CFS or the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit will remain empty catchphrases if we fail to take into account the power dynamics that slow down any attempt at making food systems more sustainable. While the need for change is becoming more urgent, the changes that are needed will have winners and losers – or even cause unrest. For instance, the Dutch farmers’ protests in 2019 and 2020 illustrated how ignoring trade-offs between environmental protection and farmers’ business interests can backfire.

      Discussions around agricultural development have often been characterised by deep-rooted disagreements about the nature of the problems faced and the solutions to adopt. Opinions on the role of state and market in providing access to food, or assumptions on the role of technology in solving problems, can differ fundamentally. Diverging assumptions, narratives and perspectives unavoidably influence any transition or decision-making process.

      The recently launched European Farm to Fork strategy is an ambitious strategy to address some of the most pressing environmental and public health concerns related to food production and consumption. Some food governance experts, though, find that without clearly defining food systems sustainability and addressing fundamental differences in perceptions and underlying assumptions, the European food strategy risks policy incoherencies and a lack of legitimacy.

      Before looking for answers, we need to get the questions right


      The UN Food Systems Summit strives to be a ‘people’s summit’. Its Action Tracks, which gather different actors together around the Summit’s five objectives, and Food Systems Summit Dialogues, open to be convened and organised by anyone, offer platforms for all kinds of people to engage. These initiatives indicate that there is significant momentum around transforming food systems – at least in theory. But there are concerns around the lack of diversity in perspectives in the Summit’s leadership. The concerns around corporate influence and lack of transparency have even led to a call by the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) for relations with the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) to create an alternative space of action. To brush aside the critique of the CSM and others risks fragmenting efforts to construct inclusive food governance. Understanding the underlying power dynamics at local and global levels is paramount.

      In recent years, my colleagues and I have stepped up our work on sustainability in food systems, to understand what can help decision-makers be more grounded in political reality and more effective, despite the conflicting interests and short-term incentives that govern food systems. We are developing and testing a methodology to unpack the power dynamics that are inherent in change processes towards more sustainable, inclusive and resilient food systems. Also others have developed tools to help translate insights on food systems into policy solutions.

      At a session we organised at the Food and Business Research Final Conference on how to understand politics and power in food systems, one of the points that came out clearly was the realisation that power relations also play a role in relations between donors and grantees, between organisations based either in the North or the South of the globe, and even among those based in the Southern hemisphere (for instance, between more powerful players and marginalised groups). Without acknowledging these – often implicit – power dimensions, replicating or deepening existing power asymmetries is a real risk.

      A good example is a study on the role that power and politics play in the promotion of agricultural technology in Ethiopia, where agricultural research organisations have to move within the governments’ system that decides which farmers benefit from these interventions. While this proves to be effective for on-farm trials, it seems less effective for scaling agricultural technologies. In practice, already-privileged farmers are targeted for trialling new interventions. This may lead to greater success for the interventions but may also mislead in terms of how scalable these interventions are. Moreover, ignoring the needs and (lack of) capital assets of marginalised smallholders – producing more than 90% of the country’s agricultural output – runs the risk of unintentionally pushing them further into poverty.

      It’s important to take power seriously


      If we really want 2021 to be the year where we take significant steps to future proof our food systems, we need to not only invest in understanding the power dynamics in food systems but, most importantly, find ways to handle them adequately.

      Several Summit Dialogues are planned in the run-up to the summit. If these dialogues fail to feed into local and national decision-making processes that are transparent, inclusive and democratic, it will be difficult to create inclusive, resilient and sustainable food systems. The Summit Dialogues offer opportunities for governments and organisers to democratise the crucial discussions about the future of our food. Policymakers have the responsibility to take the inherent power dynamics in these debates into account, be aware of their own position, and critically assess their own assumptions. Eventually, it will help to be more coherent, adaptive, context-specific and effective in contributing to the much-needed transformation of our food systems.


      The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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