Webinar recap: What is a food system — and can we actually transform it?

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By Hanna Ewell

Everyone wants “food system transformation” and getting there in a sustainable and equitable way gets you the golden ticket – at least to donor support. The term “food system” has become a catchphrase in the development context, but do we truly understand what this and its “transformation” entail?

In a recent webinar co-organized by the CGIAR Initiatives on Low-Emission Food Systems (Mitigate+) and Nature Positive Solutions (Nature+), together with the Scaling Community of Practice, on January 16th, 2023, experts delved into the complexities of defining food systems, transforming them (or not), and of collaborative research. This is the first of a series of webinars on “Taking transformation seriously: Implications for CGIAR.” 

Complexities within and competing views on food systems

Louis Verchot, research leader at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and lead of Mitigate+, started off the discussion with reflections on global development shaped by volatility and complexity. He also emphasized the need to address issues seriously and identify solutions through creative, interdisciplinary approaches.

The complexity of interactions in food systems was emphasized by Cees Leeuwis, professor at Wageningen University and Research, who also highlighted challenges in taking a systems approach. First, systems involve multiple actors, organizations, processes and environments. Second, system transformation faces challenges due to competing views, diverse goals and unequal power distribution. Existing systems are resilient and “sticky,” or resistant to change, and food systems are combined social and biomaterial systems that require nuanced approaches. A further problem with trying to change systems is each actor sees things differently scientists and different stakeholders have different understandings of what constitutes a food system and what its boundaries are. Furthermore, there are informal and formal rules that govern these systems that first need to be understood in order to transform them through changed incentives.

What are Food Systems and how do they change or not? What does this mean for the CGIAR?

Leeuwis stressed that it is important to remember that in food systems, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, just as cars are made up of individually useless parts. Systems lead to emergent properties that can be both desirable and undesirable. Thus, transforming food systems requires understanding unintended consequences and navigating diverse stakeholder perspectives. The X Curve framework presented suggests the need for breaking down existing systems and experimenting with new ways of institutionalization. This was used to highlight the need for changing the rules of the game, introducing a variation in interventions and a suite of options, and to incentivize political and discursive coalition formation as essential components for successful transformation in his presentation.

Political economy and governance in food systems

Danielle Resnick, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, discussed different approaches to defining food systems and the political economy of implementation. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s “food system wheel,” the World Bank’s approach and that of the Food System Economic Commission, along with other frameworks, contribute to a broader understanding of food systems. All three frameworks see food systems as complex and dynamic. The food system approach “gets us off the farm” and “traverses the rural to urban continuum,” as well as offering multiple entry points for collaboration – such as with advocacy groups that have a wider repertoire than science, to appeal to policymakers, she stressed.

However, challenges such as obscured winners and losers, territorial externalities, and the lack of a clear policy home pose hurdles with the food system approach becoming institutionalized more broadly. Its use is still dominated by agricultural ministries and departments. She thus emphasized the need for a shared vision, public sector capacity, and stronger accountability mechanisms.

Advantages, challenges, and implications of a food systems approach

Resnick discussed the role yet challenges of repurposing agricultural subsidies – in current news of European farmers protesting ‘green policies’ – and emphasized the need for responsible finance and citizen buy-in. Food system policy changes may also have unintended negative outcomes such as more stringent value chain regulations that only large commercial farmers can comply with disadvantaging smaller scale, poorer farmers. A tax on sugary beverages may particularly affect women, and low-income groups dependent on sugar jobs. She highlighted a further trade-off between speed and a consultative, participatory approach, with the Ireland Consultative Assembly serving as an example of a deliberate, time-consuming approach to system reform.

Collaborative research: A catalyst for change

 The discussion following the panel emphasized the role of collaborative research and coalition building in supporting food system transformation. CGIAR’s mission is transforming agri-food systems, including non-food crops and land and water systems. There is a need to recognize and capitalize on that. The lack of a unified theory of change and the still siloed nature of initiatives were recognized, emphasizing the need for improved coherence and a systemic approach to scaling. The need to think about scaling in multiple configurations, rather than singular approaches, was also discussed. Researchers were encouraged to engage with policy actors beyond their perspectives, considering alternative policy actors and entry points.

The participants challenged transformation to more clearly and highlight benefits for different actors. The importance of working with various actors during research to address contextual uncertainties and entry points, support negotiation processes and provide guidance to governments was emphasized.

As the discussion concluded, the call to contextualize food systems locally and make them relevant to diverse perspectives echoed. The transformative potential lies not only in addressing challenges but also in collaborative research that validates viewpoints, trade-offs, and incentives, ultimately paving the way for a more resilient, inclusive, and sustainable food system.

Call for redefining the CGIAR narrative

The system can only be changed by those in it! This was the first of three webinars that aim to create awareness of what food systems transformation means and reflect upon its implications for our own and collective thinking about how we can contribute to it. It also provides an opportunity to assess the interest and scope for more attention to food systems transformation in terms of learning platforms, tools and operational guidance. If you have further ideas, or would like to contribute please contact l.woltering@cgiar.org

Watch the recording of the webinar below:

See more information on the CGIAR Initiatives on Low-Emission Food Systems here and on Nature Positive Solutions (Nature+) here.

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