19 Dec 2020

Towards a more sustainable, resilient and equitable global food system: some reflections on the 4th International Conference on Global Food Security in 2020 |Marina Knickel & Daniel Alpízar

Written by Marina Knickel & Daniel Alpízar

Evidence from research and practice about the unprecedented challenges humanity is facing from rising carbon emissions, increasing biodiversity loss to unsustainable use of resources and global population growth is increasingly alarming. Further challenges include the accelerating urbanisation, significant social inequalities as well as paradoxically rising hunger and obesity problems at the same time. These challenges are complex and embedded in diverse socio-political contexts often also including inherent vested interests: (Alonso-Yanez et al., 2019; Bieluch et al., 2017; Carew & Wickson, 2010; Fam et al., 2017; Hirsch Hadorn et al., 2006; Lang et al., 2012; Lawrence, 2015; 5th SCAR Foresight Exercise Expert Group, 2020; van der Leeuw et al., 2012; Wiek et al., 2014).

Many of these challenges also affect the global food system. A need for a transition to a more sustainable, resilient and equitable food system is becoming increasingly clear (Knickel et al., 2018). At the same time, a shift from directly focusing on food security and nutrition towards a more integrated understanding of food systems should be recognised. This was also brought to the fore in the 4th International Conference on Global Food Security last week.

The related higher-level issues discussed at the conference include the interplay between economic actors, researchers and government (the latter as those creating an enabling environment for change). Other key issues the conference revolved around were:

  • the multiple drivers affecting food security and nutrition, and the importance of cooperation across spatial scales and sectors
  • the lessons learned from various contexts including from successful bottom-up initiatives and examples of community resilience
  • the impact of innovations and technologies with its related power and access issues
  • the triple burden of malnutrition – hunger, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity
  • potential synergies, tensions and trade-offs between changes in agri-food systems and Sustainable Development Goals (e.g. regarding the need for decarbonisation)

The impact of the Covid-19 was cutting across most conference sessions. The crisis clearly exposed how vulnerable current food systems are. At the same time many inspiring examples on how the related challenges were addressed with creative solutions were presented. The experiences from different parts of the world illustrated the capacity of communities to self-organise, manage crises and build resilience. The presenters often highlighted that municipalities could have played a more prominent role in managing COVID-associated shocks. Specific examples referred to include better communication to the public around the (perceived) food shortages, and more efficient support to the most affected population groups. A negative example of a municipal response was shutting down farmers markets due to stricter COVID-19 measures while leaving supermarkets open. The decision-makers in this case adhered to the common narrative that supermarkets are the main provider of food in the society (Moragues, F. 2020). They ignored how many people live from the informal sector and that many small farmers engage in direct marketing.

When people organized themselves at a local level to improve access to food and support local economies, this often led to new governance arrangements in the form of associations, producer-consumer cooperatives, and new forms of community action. More specific solutions included the mapping of vulnerable groups and distributing food vouchers to them; developing city networks to share knowledge, resources, and successful actions; establishing transversal working groups with key stakeholders in decision-making; and closer coordination and cooperation between governmental institutions and community organisations. It was argued that the “survival” of these new forms of governance after the pandemic could support continued efforts in making food systems more resilient. It is therefore important to have such positive practices and the lessons learned  upscaled and formalised.

Circularity was another big topic on the conference agenda as one of the ways to achieve sustainability. The argument was that if increasing urbanization and the global economy continue with a ‘business as usual’ model, future global food systems could be at stake. Circularity aims at using the available resources more efficiently at local, regional and global level. Although circularity can help to address challenges, new issues might occur when the approach is realised. They include access to new technology, the need for improved logistics and new forms of governance, as well as increased costs in production (Wolf, p.l., et.al. 2020). Trade-offs between future costs and benefits should be considered.

According to conference discussions, a rapid transformation in food systems could also jeopardize equity. Inequality in access to food and inputs to produce food persists, especially in developing countries. It is therefore crucial to shape these transformations in a way that also low-income producers can participate and benefit. Traditional indigenous food could, for example, be one innovative way of tackling malnutrition. Indigenous food is often nutritious and environmentally friendly produced, and it is culturally accepted.

What is the role of research in all these initiatives that address food system challenges?

It is meanwhile more and more acknowledged that disciplinary and conventional research approaches have a limited capacity to deal with the multidimensional challenges of our time. The role of science is being re-defined: a shift from mere technology transfer and provision of evidence to problem-driven and solution-oriented participatory research is increasingly recognised (Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1993; Hirsch Hadorn et al., 2006; Jahn et al., 2012; Lang et al., 2012; Mitchell et al., 2015; Popa et al., 2015; Šūmane et al., 2018; Takeuchi, 2014). This practically calls for more inter- and transdisciplinary approaches, and multi-actor collaborations where academic and practitioner knowledge are brought together (Knickel et al., 2019).

The conference discussions revolved along similar lines emphasising the importance of “system thinking beyond disciplinary approaches”. Participatory approaches like Theory of Change, Living Labs and Participatory Foresight can help to genuinely include marginalised, disempowered stakeholders, foster cross-sectoral cooperation, avoid siloed approaches and enable transformational impacts.

The key messages in this regard were the following:

  • Both researchers and practitioners need to learn how to work in inter- and transdisciplinary kinds of cooperation. It is a demanding exercise that requires particular knowledge and skills from all involved. It includes researchers being more sensitive to the needs and goals of practice partners, and be supportive and flexible along the way.
  • Adaptive management strategies should be employed in joint work (i.e. adjusting goals and processes en route). They can be effectively supported by continuous monitoring and evaluation.
  • Collaborative research and innovation should be seen as a process, and conflicts resulting from the joint engagement with a “wicked problem” need to be carefully managed.
  • Well-functioning research-practice cooperation and networks that are open for new partners also help to forge alliances and deal with vested interests.
  • Government has an important role to play in creating an enabling environment for change, for example through more coherent policies, the support provided for innovation networks, and more future-oriented investments.
  • A good balance of and interplay between top-down and bottom-up approaches is needed.
  • Transformative spaces where researchers act as knowledge providers and as facilitators, tend to foster transformational impact (Pereira et al., 2020).

The conference was concluded pointing to:

  • The necessity to identify obstacles to change (including conflicting interests), to build resilience at different levels to cope with shocks, and to better manage risks and uncertainties.
  • The fact that the idealisation of innovation and technology is a potential problem: technology does not contribute to a more sustainable development by default, and it sometimes widens inequality gaps.
  • The problem of a politicised context and vested interests (e.g. of influential agro-industry lobbies) which tends to hinder desirable changes in food systems.
  • That food security goals and SDGs are not always aligned. Transparent, multi-perspective analyses are therefore needed to support the management of trade-offs and harnessing synergies. At the same time, there is a particular demand for local indicators and assessments in support of policy-development.

Many of the key messages voiced at the Global Food Security conference were also echoed in the recent SCAR report – “Resilience and transformation.  Natural Resources and Food Systems: Transitions towards a ‘safe and just’ operating space” (5th SCAR Foresight Exercise Expert Group, 2020).


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