How to govern food systems transformation

The transformation of food systems is regarded as the new magic code, but effective strategies are lacking. A new group of experts discussed the prerequisites for efficiently managing this process, i.e. what the governance of transformation could look like. The experts representing politics, youth, civil society, farmers' organizations, private sector, and academia unanimously concluded: transformation is possible, but it needs a strong drive from within.

Experts agree that a sustainable transformation of agricultural systems is possible. ©Felix Mittermeier

By Daniel Montas

Daniel Montas is part of the Governance of Food Systems Transformation team at TMG Research gGmbH. He is currently finalizing a Master's degree in Global & Development Studies at Humboldt University, University of Pretoria and Chulalongkorn University. Previously, Daniel Montas worked for the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) and the European Union-Latin America and Caribbean Foundation (EU-LAC). He was also chosen as the Dominican Republic's Youth Representative to the United Nations for 2019.

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By TMG Research gGmbH

TMG Research gGmbH as part of the TMG Think Tank for Sustainability supports the implementation of sustainable development targets and the Paris Climate Agreement. The work of TMG Research gGmbH aims to listen to the voices of local actors in global processes while at the same time influencing the global processes in such a way that they become effective for concrete transformation processes at the national and local level

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By Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

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A specter is haunting the world; the specter of Food Systems Transformation (FST). In the past ten years, this term has found its way into the agendas of international politics, and even a dedicated UN summit was held on the subject. But what constitutes a food system, what its transformation should look like and, above all, in what direction it should be transformed, remains a matter of interpretation. One thing is very clear though: a transformation is necessary. And time is pressing.

 

Between the 17th and 20th of January, 13 experts from five countries met in Berlin to discuss governance, i.e., the steering and regulatory system of FST. The discussions included: What does transformation mean, what hinders transformation, what enables it, and what are the entry points for steering this process? Under the initiative of the sustainability think tank TMG, stakeholders from Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, and Malawi representing farmers’ organizations, youth, civil society, academia, and governments explored the question of what governance structures are needed to transform global food systems, and how these processes can be supported through international development cooperation. Together with TMG, the event was hosted by the Andreas Hermes Academy (AHA), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, the EU Commission, Welthungerhilfe (WHH) and the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF). The overall objective was to develop recommendations for joint governance of food systems. Within two days, these were to be presented to representatives of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Directorate-General for International Partnerships of the EU Commission (INTPA).

 

During the event series, the immense challenge was recognized: In 30 years, the world must produce enough food for ten billion people while reducing its impact on climate change. And this at a time when ten percent of all humanity is already suffering from hunger. Meanwhile, globally, 60 percent of biodiversity loss, 80 percent of deforestation and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to agricultural and food systems. Thus, the time to act is now.

 

The participants in the event series attempted to answer the big questions plaguing food systems. As key actors on the issue of food systems in their societies- they outlined the contours of a sustainable transformation and analyzed the corresponding state of implementation in their countries. Shamika Mone gave a succinct definition of what is meant by sustainability:

 

"What is not realized as a circular economy is not sustainable," stated the President of INOFO, the Intercontinental Network of Organic Farmers’ Organizations and IFOAM WB member.

 

"Farmers know the solutions," said Maness Nkhata, President of the Malawi Farmers Union. Too often, however, well-intended governance projects don't really reach the actors on the ground. "The main issue is reducing malnutrition," added Alemtsehay Sergawi from the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture.

 

Moderator Heino von Meyer interjected that a food system is not defined by agriculture alone: "It outlines a variety of sectors." Thus, a transformation crosses the entire spectrum of food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal. As a result, participants immediately agreed on one thing: "Relevant stakeholders, especially women, youth and marginalized groups, belong at the negotiating table," said Marcella D’Souza, Director of the Center for Resilience Studies at India's Watershed Organization Trust. "And whoever sits at the table must be accepted by the majority of society." Von Meyer commented that in Germany it is already difficult to get three ministries alone to sit at the same table. D’Souza: "A holistic systems approach is necessary". The group agreed that this approach comes closest to effective and practical solutions when the people at such a table meet at eye level.

 

The fact that such a template for governance cannot be drawn up on a drawing board was vividly demonstrated by a schematic representation of the discussion on a pinboard in the seventh-floor meeting room of the Scandic Hotel in Berlin's City West. "Governance is not the same as government," said Zwide Jere, Executive Director of the Malawian nongovernmental organization Total Land Care, and underscored the concept of eye-level discussions. "It means a multi-stakeholder approach." Furthermore, Agatha Thuo, CEO of the private sector led Agriculture Sector Network (ASNET) in Kenya, advocated for “more inclusion of the private sector in the transformation of food systems.” As a result, 13 white cards with components such as "Political Participation" or "Transparency & Accountability" were grouped around a pink card labeled "Enabling Environment" on the wall, which in turn were framed by the 20 yellow cards like satellites with more detailed descriptions. "The theoretical complexity is well illustrated - but in practice it can be even more challenging," commented co-host Jörg Schindler from TMG.

 

But this graphic representation of the discussion's content became more vivid as the hours passed - and was condensed into a three-page paper with key messages for development partners. It was presented two days later, on the sidelines of the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) at the Berlin Exhibition Grounds. The paper identifies two main factors for successful transformation: development partners should increasingly recognize and harmonize their dual roles: on one hand, as supporters of enabling environments for transformation in the Global South, and on the other hand, as influential voices in agreeing on goals and strategies at the international level. "This requires a transformation of development cooperation," the document concludes. " A more political approach is necessary to improve or even implement the governance of food systems transformation.” Among the key demands is that food systems transformation must be a goal of explicitly long-term development initiatives. Local needs should serve as the foundation towards the strategic conception of development initiatives. And: There needs to be "appropriate investment in applied research and extension services that focus on sustainable practices and take into account local traditional knowledge," summarized Thuo. Ultimately, the 13 key stakeholders concluded, there needs to be greater harmonization of support from development partners.

 

"I can subscribe to almost everything here," replied Sebastian Lesch from the BMZ. The head of the agriculture unit acknowledged that food systems had to take in consideration all relevant actors, especially those most affected. “Farmers are at the core of this, and they should be directly involved in the process”, Lesch mentioned. Leonard Mizzi, Head of Unit for Sustainable Agri-food Systems and Fisheries at the EU Commission's Directorate General INTPA, also mentioned the need for more discussions about policy approaches such as the EU Green Deal including the components around Farm to Fork and Biodiversity and Climate. At the same time, with the inflation and national debt an emergency in 2022-23 (compounded by the fallout from Covid and the aggression of Russia on Ukraine), he posed the question, "How do you make smart policies now with tight budgets at the disposal of many Governments in the developing world?" - Moreover, "food systems are not (always) a priority with many governments," he continued. Empowerment, said Mizzi, is also a process at the government level

 

Leng Socheata, Youth and Nutrition Champion from Cambodia, then intervened, "Even though food systems are often not a priority, they should be seen as part of long-term processes. What we negotiate now, we do for generations to come."

 

And Daniel Mwendah M’Mailutha from the Kenya National Farmers' Federation, KENAFF, suggested, "Maybe we should start looking at food as a public good. That would trigger a fundamental change." Mizzi had also mentioned in his statement that there was no so-called "silver bullet," i.e., an all-encompassing magic bullet, in the transformation of food systems. Philipp Conze-Roos then then made the case for widening the scope. "We don't have a single silver bullet, but with the diversity of actors involved, we can have many small ones," said the Deputy Executive Director International of the Andreas Hermes Academy. Wrapping it all up, Lesch underscored the need and value of collaboration, thereby reflecting the spirit of the event series: “Food systems need to be transformed at a global level. It’s a fight that needs to be tackled on all fronts.”

 

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