What are the “sticky” factors preventing systems transformation?

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The way humans produce, distribute and consume food is unsustainable: food systems drain resources, wreck the natural environment, fail to properly nourish billions of people, and leave hundreds of millions not knowing where their next meal will come from. Sustainable food system transformation is urgent but many “sticky” factors hinder progress. CGIAR experts discussed the challenges in a recent webinar.

By Hanna Ewell, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

Navigating the complex analytical and policy challenges of food system transformation demands not just good intentions, but unwavering commitment to integrated and holistic approaches that balance competing priorities. Transformation requires political will, leadership, and effective and inclusive governance at local, national, and international levels. However, entrenched interests, bureaucratic inertia, and institutional barriers can hinder progress and undermine cooperation.

The 2nd Food System Transformation Webinar in a series organized by the CGIAR Initiatives on Low-Emissions Food Systems (Mitigate+) and Nature-Positive Solutions (NATURE+) on May 9th, 2024, examined how food system transformation has been implemented and what “sticky” challenges remain to be solved.

Sustainability requires equity

In opening remarks, Cargele Masso, Director of the CGIAR Environmental Health and Biodiversity Impact Platform, highlighted the imperative to deliver on CGIAR’s five impact areas, maximize synergies, and minimize tradeoffs. We have to tread the path that minimizes degradation, combats climate change, and fosters sustainable farming and food systems, he argued. Agricultural and environmental sustainability must be intertwined with social equity for positive outcomes.

Transformation for whom?

The first panelist and Chief Growth Officer in the Excellence in Agronomy Initiative, Mandla Nkomo, underscored the importance of putting the “for whom” front and center to identify critical pathways to transformation. For whom do we stand? Who do we want to benefit? In the mosaic of complexities spanning national, regional, and local domains, a “cookie-cutter approach” is inadequate because food system transformation requires different outcomes for different people.

Technical problems do not always need technical solutions; rather we must understand what stands in the way for farmers to adopt tools (such as climatic advisory services) to ensure they benefit from system transformation. Nkomo’s example of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s funding of “nutrition roadmaps” underscored the need to tread thoughtfully, ensuring each step in food system transformation contributes positively to food products and food environments. Nkomo emphasized the importance of reliable availability of fertilizer and other nutrients, but not to the detriment of healthy soils.

Political obstacles

Chris Béné, a Principal Scientist and Senior Policy Advisor at the Alliance Bioversity International and CIAT, and currently seconded to Wageningen University and Research, argued that we need to focus much more on how to ensure food system transformation toward sustainable outcomes, with politics emerging as a primary challenge. Transformative change necessitates delving beyond surface-level interventions into the underlying values and mental models shaping our systems, he argues, drawing on 12 leverage points, published in Sustainability Science, and John Kania et al.’s framework for systems change.

Béné highlighted the huge subsidies in the meat industry, and large amount of money invested by ‘big food’ into blocking legislation that might help human activity stay within the planetary boundaries highlighted in by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health report. Without addressing these foundational elements, sustainable outcomes remain elusive amid entrenched interests of powerful actors.

Dig deeper first?

Arwen Bailey, a knowledge-sharing specialist with the Alliance, redirected our gaze internally, urging introspection within CGIAR. She probed the essence of our approaches through three questions—are we truly speaking the same language, or are we ensnared in “analysis paralysis?” Are we trying to tame “wicked problems” too early?

Bailey argued for a departure from predefined solutions and instead encouraged us to embrace holistic, multifaceted perspectives that accommodate diverse viewpoints. There is a need to reflect on what approaches we are using and what approaches others are using and try to bridge different perspectives. There is not enough consensus on what problems are, much less the solutions required for food systems transformation. Thus, rather than declaring beforehand that we know what we are looking at, we should see messy situations and explore what holds them in place.

Bailey said we should include more diverse perspectives in programming, seek improvement and provide options –  not just “solutions.” In her example of a surprising link between inorganic fertilizer and gender, eutrophication of Africa’s Lake Victoria due to runoff and soil erosion has led to lower catch rates and increased the “fish for sex” economy whereby many women traders who purchase, process and retail fish (and thus are critical actors in the sector) acquire favored access to fish through engaging in transactional sex. This has increased the prevalence of HIV/AID in the region. This example shows the complex dynamics and unintended outcomes of scaling inorganic fertilizer.

The discussion following the panel highlighted the need to understand perverse incentives: What can be promoted is not necessarily what the context demands; we need to foster better partnership and collaboration among diverse stakeholders and an awareness of multi-faceted systems approaches.

What’s next?

Wei Zhang’s closing remarks provided a roadmap for action within CGIAR. Embracing systems thinking is imperative, said the Senior Research Fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and co-lead of Mitigate+. Zhang argued for moving beyond technical analysis toward integrated approaches that formed a common ground for system changes. This will allow for co-developing and crafting a joint vision for the future, and identifying different ways of knowing and doing. Key to all is systems literacy.

If you were unable to attend the webinar check out the recording here!

We invite you to stay tuned and join in the journey to reflect on how to contribute to food systems transformation. The next webinar of the series will focus on showcasing examples of approaches and solutions from those working at the intersection of science and policy or action.

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