How can the co-production of knowledge contribute to food system transformation?
By Ryan Nehring, Fernando Galeana Rodriguez, and Hilary Faxon
“Co-production,” “co-creation,” “co-development,” “co-design,” and similar terms have become common in research-for-development projects. These terms also appear in approaches taken by the European Union and the U.S. Agency for International Development, among others. In food systems and environmental sustainability, academics and policymakers are applying knowledge co-production as a method of participatory research. Evidence shows co-creation and trust matter for policymaking, yet implementing such approaches is not easy, demanding resources, expertise, and care. More fundamentally, co-production is often used to indicate people coming together – to learn, exchange experiences, and generate new ways of knowing and doing – without adequate consideration of the power relations in these knowledge systems.
Knowledge does not exist on neutral ground: it is embedded within social orders and shaped by cultural norms, material conditions, and access to information. While the language of co-production signifies a positive shift toward collaboration, power must be considered to better understand how knowledge can or cannot be integrated. A more intentional approach could help identify whose knowledge is important for change and why. We propose gaining insights from the field of political ecology to facilitate a more inclusive approach to the co-production of knowledge.
Toward a Political Ecology of Co-Production
Political ecology provides a transdisciplinary toolbox to help understand and employ co-production for improved development outcomes in food systems. It is concerned with how political and economic structures drive environmental change. Under such an approach, environmental issues such as soil depletion and biodiversity loss can be explained, in part, by understanding who has power over processes and who is ultimately benefiting from them.
Until recently, political ecology has been relatively absent from food systems research, but a critical analysis of power relations is essential given the rise and unequal distribution of global hunger, as well as issues such as land concentration and cultural narratives of desirable food and land use. As Jacobi et al. (2021) write, “food system sustainability cannot be separated from socio-economic considerations and questions of governance.” When applied to the co-production of knowledge for transforming food systems, political ecology helps identify whose knowledge is important for change and why.
We propose a simplified approach to the co-production of knowledge that centers all participants’ power in the process. Rather than asserting local knowledges can contribute, we also reflect on how those with relatively more power, including scientists who bring financial and institutional resources as well as assumptions about process and outcomes, can help avoid closing off possibilities to imagine and enact more inclusive food system transformation. Our approach is informed by the transdisciplinary nature and critical lens of political ecology, employing analytical perspectives and participatory methodologies.
Our conceptual framework brings together the analytical tools of political economy, which help to situate specific environmental problems within global structures, and embodied practices of reflexivity, which call on researchers to acknowledge their positionality and be accountable to their research relationships. At a method level, political economy and reflexivity are brought together by practicing participatory methodologies, such as autoethnography. In doing so, we propose a process of co-production that accounts for the forces of privilege and marginality that structure both knowledge-making and the prospects for food system transformation.
Understanding political and economic forces behind environmental change is central to political ecology’s attentiveness to scale. Local practices must be understood in the context of what drives those practices, such as policies incentivizing behaviors, structural inequalities that shape access to and control over productive resources, and collective action for political and economic purposes. According to some early thinking in political ecology, political economy helps explain broader effects “on people, as well as on their productive activities, of ongoing changes within society at local and global levels” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987: 21). Political economy methods are manifold but may be narrowed when considering how structural forms of power shape marginalization. For food systems, marginalization can be shaped by inequality in productive resources, such as land, water, and technology, or more intangible resources that are political, social, or financial. A situational analysis can outline the forms of marginalization to be more strategic about who are the actors best situated to be partners in a co-production process. Such analysis considers the primary structural drivers of change, such as governmental and nongovernmental organizations, social movements, and other institutional factors. It also considers forms of natural resource governance, such as land and water tenure, and the relations of production.
Research is shaped by a series of decisions, ranging from the concepts we choose to the settings where discussions occur. These choices, often perceived as minor, embody what feminist scholar Donna Haraway (1988) terms “situated knowledge.” Situatedness reflects positionality – the aspects of our identity like race, class, gender, nationality, academic discipline, and institutional affiliation (among others) that influence how we interact in the world. Recognizing our positionality is key to fostering a more objective and responsible research approach. Accounting for positionality in research is known as “reflexivity.” It involves acknowledging our positionality and considering the accountability it entails. In this way, we recognize the relationships that hold knowledge together. From this perspective, co-production can be reframed as the act of acknowledging the inherent social inequalities and differences that constitute our field of research and the ethics of care that should be present to make room for collective imagination.
Existing research on co-production already explores numerous participatory methods. Therefore, our focus is on the importance of maintaining reflexivity regardless of the chosen method. This can be accomplished through autoethnography, which Butz and Besio (2009) define as a self-conscious “presentation of self to others and to oneself.” This method can include narrative forms of representation, which might not always align with certain institutional settings due to perceptions of solipsism. Acknowledging this disciplinary divide, we suggest that autoethnography is a valuable tool for being self-aware about one’s research standpoint. It involves acknowledging those often-overlooked details that shape the context from which knowledge emerges. Practically, incorporating autoethnography in co-production entails systematically documenting the values, beliefs, norms, emotions, and social dynamics present in the daily aspects of planning, executing, and disseminating research. While researchers may choose not to share this detailed description with external parties, they can exercise discretion in their sharing decisions, practicing a form of selective refusal in the co-production process.
We believe that co-production can and does help improve research for development outcomes. However, critical reflection on who is involved in the process, and why, is needed for changes to move from rhetoric to practice.
Going forward, we will elaborate this conceptual framework in a discussion paper, focusing on how participatory methodologies informed by political ecology can draw on analytical tools from political economy, and reflexivity for more equitable and effective co-production. Then, we will put these ideas into action as part of the CGIAR Research Initiative on Low-Emission Food Systems, which is developing Living Labs for People, inclusive and diverse spaces to design, test, demonstrate, and advance socio-technical innovations and associate modes of governance. Working with teams in Colombia and Kenya, we will employ the political ecology framework for the co-production of knowledge to analyze knowledge systems and improve collaborative, community-based research for food systems transformation.
Amwata, Dorothy A. 2020. Situational Analysis Study for the Agriculture Sector in Kenya. Report. CGIAR Reseach Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.
Blaikie, Piers, and Harold Brookfield, eds. 1987. Land Degradation and Society. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Butz, David, and Kathryn Besio. 2009. “Autoethnography,” Geography Compass 3(5): 1660-1674
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 13(3): 575-599.
 For example, see the study on the agricultural sector in Kenya by Amwata (2020)
Photo credit: Gwendolyn Stansbury / International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Flickr