Three Policy Lessons for Transforming Food Systems

Article by: Abigail Muscat. Dr Muscat has just completed her PhD from Wageningen University on circular food systems and their relation to other bio-based systems and the role of scientific knowledge at the science-policy interface.

The Challenges and Promises of Escaping ‘Silo’ Thinking: Policy Coherence for Food Systems

In 2015, the launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) promised an escape from ‘silo’ thinking and an emphasis on the biophysical, institutional and policy connections between systems. The goals utilised cross-sectoral partnerships of stakeholders and conceptual tools such as the nexus approach to avoid institutional silos and a ‘project-based’ view of sustainable development. Particularly the nexus approach, which studies the critical linkages between different drivers or causes of sustainable development (e.g. the links between gender, health and education or climate, food and environment), helped push forward a ‘systems’ view of sustainable development.  Now between the release of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy and the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), the same promise is being extended to food systems

Looking at things from a systems perspective makes the tradeoffs, synergies and inherent contradictions between different policy goals more clear. Maintaining a systems perspective isn’t always easy, especially if it means ensuring policy coherence across different policy domains. The SDGs are an example of how difficult it can be to minimise trade-offs and make progress. While trends show that most goals are going in the right direction, many are going too slow to meet the 2030 targets. Other goals, such as the climate and biodiversity goals, are going in the wrong direction. With UN progress reports saying that progress on the SDGs has gone at a snail’s pace, especially on the goals most important for food systems, are we at risk of failing to make real progress?

To answer this, we must back up and examine what silo thinking is and how ensuring coherence between policies can help. The call to break down ‘silos’ (i.e. working only within one’s institutional boundaries) and aim for policy coherence or policy integration was a central feature of the process leading up to the SDGs. Policy coherence or policy integration refers to the organisation of policy processes in such a way that inconsistencies, trade-offs and mismatches are minimised while synergies between policies are exploited. For example, seeing connections between human health and planetary health, policies can exploit the synergy of reducing animal-sourced food in countries with high consumption rates, which would benefit both people’s health and environmental sustainability.

When the SDGs came out, I remember the excitement at the EU council meetings I was attending about how policy coherence would help us think outside of our institutional silos and usher in a new age of progress. In retrospect, it was clear that we expected too much from policy coherence. 

Firstly, we should have realised it was not entirely new. The international community has been talking about it since the dawn of sustainable development itself. Secondly, we should have realised that policy tools on their own are not enough to fix long-standing sustainability and development problems.

The emphasis on taking a ‘systems’ view in food systems ahead of the food systems summit brings back memories of the start of the SDGs. While the jury is still out on whether the SDGs have been successful, there are a lot of policy lessons to be learnt from their implementation towards food systems, especially ahead of the UNFS.

Lesson 1: Keep it Complex

Food systems are complex. What does this mean? Complexity is a feature of systems and often entails specific features or behaviours. As much as we would like to draw lines around the food system, through better definitions and better models, it is likely that there will be interactions that fall outside these system boundaries – like the effects of food production on wild ecosystems. This means that policy must work with increasingly networked, multi-scaled and interconnected problems. However, these interconnections mean less predictability. For example, drivers of the COVID-19 pandemic are complex. Drivers may be both spatially as well as temporally distant from effects and include industrial methods of animal agriculture and human encroachment on wild ecosystems. In this context, the traditional relationship between science and policy as one where science can reduce reality to actionable facts may need revisiting. In other words, science may not necessarily come up with simple answers. Instead, policymakers will have to deal with multiple, sometimes conflicting messages. Policy coherence and systems approaches are a good first step, but policymakers still have  to make decisions under uncertainty. 

In my own research, I explored different definitions of marginal lands across different food system actors in the European Union. Marginal lands are often framed as a solution to increasing land scarcity; the argument goes that marginal lands should be used to avoid competition for land across different uses. For example, the production of bioenergy crops can be moved from productive to marginal lands to avoid competition with food production. Marginal lands are notoriously difficult to define; are they lands of lower productivity, land that is far away from key markets, contaminated lands? The food-system actors I studied attempted to solve this problem by coming to singular definitions and mapping marginal land to fit certain needs. However no singular definition or map of marginal lands could be produced due to inherent complexity; for example, should we define marginal lands depending on soil characteristics, slope, distance from key markets, level of pollution or simply abandoned land? 

Part of the reason it was difficult to find a singular definition was due to unacknowledged frames emerging from different value stances of the stakeholders involved. For example, some actors had more ‘productivist’ values, which led to arguing that as much marginal land should be used as possible. While others, often from an ‘ecological’ stance, argued that marginal land could instead be used for much-needed ecological restoration. Other actors argued that some marginal lands are only marginal from an agricultural perspective and are in fact valuable communal lands used for a wide range of purposes, from medicines to sacred rites. These frames also largely emerged from unacknowledged power dynamics between different actors where less powerful actors in the food system, such as indigenous communities, are given less legitimacy in the debate. This has an effect on a policy’s ability to be inclusive and provide legitimacy. (See lessons 2 and 3)

The inherent complexity of finding a definition as well as unacknowledged value stances mean that we will need far more than an acknowledgement of the interactions between different policies. Due to these uncertainties, leaving space for ambiguity and complexity, rather than technical and administrative solutions, is the best way forward. 

Lesson 2: Keep It Political and Embrace Multiple Viewpoints

Leaving space for ambiguity does not mean escaping clearly set goals or avoiding assigning responsibility. On the contrary, ambiguity allows for science to step back from giving the final answer to questions that need to be deliberated politically or it encourages reflection on definitions or metrics that may hide inequalities under the guise of scientific objectivity. In science, this is desperately needed in order to  maintain the pluralism necessary to halt environmental degradation. 

For example, conservation science has been criticised for its lack of acknowledgement of the plurality in which humans interact with nature, such as spirituality and leisure. Scientific definitions of biodiversity have so far largely ignored equity and justice dimensions in particular by ignoring the potentially political causes of biodiversity decline, such as investments and the actions of transnational corporations or specific agricultural sectors. Focusing only on proximate drivers such as resource exploitation on a global scale ignores the role of specific actors at local and national levels.

In policy, we risk alienating civil society and the voices of those most affected by food system impacts by trying to escape the tricky work of politics: the acknowledgement and discussion of multiple viewpoints, the inclusion of a diversity of actors, especially civil society and farmers, as well as making value-based decisions when science does not give a clear answer. 

The alienation of civil society from the processes leading to the UNFSS and the eventual boycott from civil society groups such as the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism and academics, risks this ambitious policy event losing legitimacy. More importantly, without a plurality of voices and a partnership between all food system actors, any future changes in the food system risk benefitting only small groups of people.  

We can therefore distinguish between the ambiguity that is needed to allow for a plurality of definitions and a forum for politics versus the type of vagueness that allows for the depoliticisation of the policy process. For example, vagueness in my research meant asserting marginal lands as a solution, without making it explicit which marginal lands were meant, where and owned by whom. Within the UNFSS this has meant focusing on ‘systematic solutions’, which may hide the privileging of one set of solutions, for example climate-smart agriculture, over others, such as agroecology. 

Vagueness in this sense allows for depoliticisation, the process by which decision-making processes are stripped of their political aspects, thereby ignoring power dynamics, values or opinions. Authors in the field emphasise that both ambiguity and vagueness can help generate consensus, but this can be negative when it frames policy solutions as ‘neutral’ and science-based when the science is unclear. 

Talking about ‘food systems’ alone will not be enough to inspire concrete action, even if it may be vague enough to bring everyone to the table. I have often heard the comment that it is a shame that civil society and academic groups are politicising the UNFSS and that they are blocking the consensus needed for change. However their claims that the table may have already been set should not be ignored. Besides the fact that depoliticization disenfranchises smaller and weaker groups, is consensus even needed or desirable? The complexity of food systems and the inevitably diverse feelings people have about food and agriculture will mean that different solutions will be required at different scales and places. This is why we must stop pretending that decisions can be made in a value-less objective vacuum and acknowledge how we frame food systems.

Lesson 3: Framing Matters

If science cannot always provide singular and neat answers due to different value judgements, then the task of science is to make underlying analyses that frame decision-making explicit. Frames are a way of looking and speaking about the world, and connecting a problem to its causes and solutions in a specific way. Frames are important, not only because they shape how we see the world but also because they determine how we act within it.

Particularly when scientific analyses affect other stakeholders, they should be open to democratic scrutiny and deliberative processes. This does not mean that science becomes free to any interpretation, but rather that scientific assumptions in contexts of high uncertainty (e.g. predictions about future technological development) are weighed against other possible pathways. This is particularly important as the policy options that science provides can have a ‘performative power’. In other words, by studying different technologies, pathways or solutions, policy-relevant science can bring these policy options into being. The case is the same with policy; how we frame our food systems will determine the sort of solutions we find possible and acceptable. 

The concerns of civil society groups and researchers surrounding the UNFSS essentially boil down to a perceived emphasis on food systems from only one kind of frame: that of food as a commodity. Civil society groups such as the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism argue that the UNFSS has framed the debate in terms of high-tech solutions that favour commercial and intensive farming rather than agroecological methods, which tend to be smaller scale and farmer owned. A frame that the Farm to Fork Strategy within the EU also chose to focus on, while excluding other frames, such as food as a human right or common good. Fears that these frames are being excluded are combined with concerns that the downsides of framing food as a commodity will largely be ignored. These concerns should be taken seriously, as these ‘downsides’ include sweeping negative effects such as food waste, biodiversity loss and overconsumption. Ultimately, how we frame things can make a bigger impact than organisational changes and procedural tools. 

If we as policy-makers, researchers and civil society are serious about the ‘transformation’ of food systems, then the meaning of the word transformation should not be diluted. We as policy-makers and researchers can no longer continue doing the kind of ‘neutral’ science and policy we used to do before, as well-intentioned as it might have been. We need to be pluralistic, face power dynamics head-on and show the direct implications, both negative and positive, of each frame. We should furthermore support the civil society groups, policy-makers, researchers, farmers and fisherfolk who have already taken these steps. If the pandemic has shown us all anything, it’s that our world is more fragile than we thought and will require a break from business-as-usual.

Photos by Margot Pandone, Julian Hochgesang and Erik Aquino on Unsplash

Peer review declaration: This is a peer-reviewed article written by an academic researcher. It has been put through double-blind peer review.

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