The implications of implicit choices

A simple ‘more-food’ approach is not the solution to addressing growing food and nutrition security (FNS) challenges across the globe, especially for poor and vulnerable groups. Systemic and holistic approaches are called for to shift to more sustainable food systems. This synthesis study examined how narratives, entry points for interventions, and transition pathways influence sustainability transitions in food system and their relationship with power and politics.

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The findings presented in the full paper are based on insights from eight interdisciplinary research projects funded by NWO-WOTRO that were carried out in eleven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America between 2016-2020. All projects were encouraged to take on a food system approach in their research and engage in a thorough stakeholder mapping exercise before the project was implemented.

The decisions that catalyse sustainability transitions of food systems are influenced by – often implicit – narratives and assumptions. Power and political and economic interests play a part in choosing the preferred food system outcomes (e.g. improved nutrition or improved resource use) as well as in determining which stakeholders are engaged to achieve these outcomes. The synthesis illustrates that implicit assumptions and decisions matter and need to be recognised upfront if the ambition is to achieve inclusive, sustainable food system transitions. Some of the key insights on the relevance of explicitly acknowledging the possible synergies and trade-offs between different (and often competing) food system goals are presented below.

Implications of implicit narratives

The synthesis built on and tested the assumption that the food system narrative that is embraced by policy makers, researchers and practitioners, determines their analysis of current food systems, as well as the policy responses and approaches they will propose towards more sustainable food systems. The four main narratives identified are food systems for (1) feeding the world, (2) improved nutrition and health, (3) improved resource use, and (4) improved equity. Identifying the underlying narrative of policies and programmes is helpful, the research projects showed, to reveal which food system outcome is prioritised and what stakeholder engagement strategies are used as part of the resulting transition pathways.

A bias towards engaging only a subset of stakeholders (e.g. only producers, or only consumers) runs the risk of decreasing the effectiveness of interventions that aim for system-wide change. Increasing the diversity of actors involved in a project – in design, implementation and monitoring and learning –helps to ensure that different perspectives are taken on board. It will also help to identify unintended negative impacts of project interventions, and to ensure that these are avoided or accompanied by measures that distribute the costs and benefits more fairly over different stakeholder groups.

Transitioning towards sustainable food systems

Within each narrative, there are different views of what route should be taken to achieve a more desirable food system. The synthesis distinguishes between those that promote optimization of current food systems through incremental innovations, those that suggest reforming the food system, and those that aim for a more radical transformation to the food system’s status quo. The chosen transition pathways are shaped by the scale, scope and depth of change that is deemed necessary to achieve the desired food system outcomes.

The study showed that there are multiple pathways that can support the transition towards sustainable food systems, even when the food system challenges as well as the desired outcomes are similar. A pattern emerged that projects with a more transformative vision of food system transitions, worked together more often with niche actors (e.g. informal female small-scale fish processors), or with representatives of the ‘locked in’ majority of stakeholders, whilst projects seeking to optimise or reform systems, mostly collaborated with dominant regime actors within the current system (e.g. leading agri-food company or the Ministry of Agriculture). The synthesis study furthermore highlighted how stakeholder mapping allowed research partners to develop more aligned strategies towards potential blockers and champions of the desired changes. This eventually led projects to adopt more informed and strategic approaches towards stakeholder engagement.

Key lessons

The synthesis of the project insights clearly showed the diversity of ways to improve the sustainability of food systems (from optimize to reform and transform). Although many projects are critical about the industrial/dominant paradigms about how to achieve sustainable food system transitions, they recognise that a diversity of food systems is necessary to reach the multiple and sometimes contradictory food system goals that are relevant and beneficial to different stakeholder groups.

The synthesis puts forward the following suggestions for policymakers and practitioners who aspire to contribute to sustainable food system transitions:

  • Challenge your own assumptions and discover your blind spots by exposing your policies to other narratives. Trying out another perspective to problems and possible solutions may help to minimise trade-offs and maximise synergies.
  • Stakeholder mapping pays off. Build in sufficient time for an initial power scan of the context together with local stakeholders and to discuss, again together with stakeholders, the project’s ambitions and limitations.
  • Build in moments throughout the project, not only at the beginning, to revisit assumptions and to assess changing dynamics. New barriers to change, but also new opportunities, are likely to arise during the course of the project.
  • Ensure to make narratives explicit and seek for a balanced diversity in the overall project portfolio and policies. The diversity of narratives and transition pathways presented in this synthesis have shown that these decisions determine how our policies and programmes play out in practice.
Download the paper

Authors: Daniel Gaitán-Cremaschi, Paulina Bizzotto Molina, Daniëlle de Winter, Ellen Lammers

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