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Adapting Food Systems to New Realities

A program field technician demonstrates good agricultural practices such as pruning and trellising to a female long bean farmer.

Photo: USAID/Cambodia HARVEST/Fintrac Inc. / flickr.

Catch up with the covering of two SLU students: Closing the loop: making food systems circular and Fostering food systems transformations through innovation

The Agri4D conference – short for Agriculture for Development conference – has been organised yearly since 2015 by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). For the first time, the conference’s focus was food systems, taking a more holistic approach to the issue of food, moving away from the mere production side. In a world with changing climate, steep population growth, rapid technological advances, increasing economic gaps and changing consumer demands, it is time to find a way to feed the planet sustainably.

The hybrid character of the conference made it possible for over 500 people from 80 countries to participate in the event. Each day of the three-day conference was organised around two specific topics, enabling a broad, cross-cutting approach to issues discussed. Researchers, policymakers, and farmers associations from around the globe were able to share their work and to present posters on an online platform, that could be used as a networking tool. The broad lineup of session topics, ranging from Justice in Food Governance to Circularity and Resilience allowed researchers from various disciplines to share their views on food systems related issues and to discuss how to best transform food systems, its myriad of compounds changing at a rapid pace.

Here are the main takeaways from the conference.

Innovation to increase circularity in food systems

Throughout the sessions, there was an emphasis on the need to aim for more circularity, i.e., to reduce the amount of resources going into food systems (e.g. water, fertilisers, pesticides) as well as escaping from them (in the form of food loss and waste, pesticide leakage, and carbon emissions). The role of innovation is diverse and can happen in institutional, organisational, and technological environments. It can very well be based on spiritual/mental and technology-based models. Once an innovation is out, there’s a need to make it become a reality on the ground, a step often overlooked by innovators. Multisectoral activities must first analyse the needs, develop a suitable solution and then make sure the innovation is adopted by those who need it most. Universities can play an important role in this multistakeholder approach and should aim for more cross-departmental research.

Presenters/Participants also discussed digitisation in innovation, pointing at both the risks and opportunities of opting for tech-solutions: Who owns data? What happens when something needs to be fixed? Tech-solutions can, at times, take away people’s power over what they do.

Farmers won’t innovate if they can’t support their family, reminded Magnus Jirström, SLU, mentioning here the importance of strong institutions for any endeavour related to food systems.

Inclusiveness and food justice

The topics of innovation, digitisation, research, and access to markets come down to the importance of involving farmers and food transformers directly. As Ivar Virgin, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), pointed out; “According to farmers themselves, to what extent should this happen?“.

Truly farmers-centred approaches should make sure the realities on the ground and the actual needs are understood, and understand the real struggles, capacities and hopes of the people who need the most support. These go against a long tradition of top-down approaches, where solutions aren’t adopted in practice in the end, since they are not tailored to a specific situation.

Agricultural training was raised as a way of disseminating knowledge and applying research on the ground. But similar questions persist here; Who decides whom to invite to training sessions? Who pays for them? Inclusiveness must be thought of at every step of any process.

Gender issues prevail when discussing food systems, as an estimated 43% of the food worldwide is produced, transformed and prepared by women. Women lack representation when it comes to trading – if supported in the right direction, they would see big improvements to their independence. These actions should be taken with an understanding of the need of bettering gender relations and not only women empowerment, to avoid a gender imbalance of a new kind. For instance, this would also differentiate people’s treatment depending on their caste or religion.

“You might end up giving more work to women instead of equalising rights” (Bridget Bawlya Umar, The Nordic Africa Institute).

The topic of food justice comprehends an inclusive way of tackling issues related to food. Policy decisions and governance participation must consider the role of underrepresented groups (such as women, smallholder farmers, and Indigenous People). As for innovation, it remains difficult to talk about food justice when access to land and water aren’t even secured, as Prince Simunkombwe, Knowledge Exchange Hub, pointed out. Many hurdles are yet to be overcome before considering a different – inclusive and equal – approach to food governance.

Farmers sitting on a tractor in front of crop fields in Manoli Village, Sonipat District in Haryana, India.

Photo: Katrin Park (International Food Policy Research Institute), 1 June, 2016 / flickr.

Agroecology and people-centred approaches

Agroecology was addressed not only during the sessions specifically dedicated to the topic, but also alluded to during the other sessions. The term doesn’t only denote a growing method, but it is also a description of how people make a living, and brings attention to human and social values as well as rights. People are at the centre of these processes, along with natural resources. Responsible and equitable governance are key fundaments of agroecology. Increased participation in agri-food value chains can be perceived as part of the movement as well.  

Certifications, often praised as the saviour logo to alleviate producers from poverty and ensure sustainable production methods and livelihoods, were, in some cases, found to be harmful to local communities, as they “may weaken social cohesion and traditional institutions and even foster contrary development, increasing the power positions of Transnational Companies (TNC)”, added Franziska Ollendorf, Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF), working with cocoa producers in Ghana.   

Regarding the costs of agroecological practices, these might be higher than conventional ones, but they hold the dual promise of being able to feed a population while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as shown by a Swedish study conducted by Dr. Arthur Granstedt at the Swedish Biodynamic Research Institute and Dr. Olof Thomsson at Svenska Biodynamiska Forskningsinstitutionen (SBFI). Thus, 

there’s a need for world leaders to make uncomfortable decisions

that might have financial consequences at first but then improve the conditions for all, concluded Georg Carlsson, SLU, at the closing of the agroecology topic. 

Resilience to shocks to secure livelihoods

Any food system related-activity presents a high risk, as it entirely depends on agricultural production, that in turn, depends on factors difficult to tame such as precipitation, droughts, sunshine, temperature, pest amongst many others. During the sessions, COVID-19 was also a reoccurring thematic, as it has disrupted lives and food systems worldwide. Researchers mainly focused on coping strategies of smallholder farmers, often taking a gender perspective on the issues.  

Resilience, presenting a paradox as it may uphold an unwanted system in providing resistance to shocks, was tackled from various angles. Tech-solutions such as heat resistant wheat were presented alongside societal approaches and political frameworks, that all have a similar purpose but with different trade-offs: enabling people to produce, transform, trade and eat food in the most securely, resisting shocks and surviving in difficult times. The commodification of food – as food being perceived as a good with financial value and being traded – has led to a higher vulnerability in the agricultural profession. In a neoliberal market, farmers must take more personal risks and experience increased pressure to remain competitive. Hanna Nikkanen, Stockholm Resilience Centre, researching socio-ecological traps, economy and resilience on Finnish farms, stated that “debt is a barrier and a growing problem among farmers” and highlighted how it leaves farmers less able to respond to a changing world, including shocks and stresses. 

Lulu Works Trust Ltd is a business owned and run by South Sudanese women. Milly Gabriel pots up the company’s mosquito repellent, made from pressed Lulu nuts, beeswax and eucalyptus.

Photo: Jane Beesley (Oxfam) / flickr.

Thought-provoking ideas are to lead to change within food systems

Should we support smallholders or rather go for big-scale agriculture, leaving them all behind? Or is it time to support something else?” (Magnus Jirström, SLU). The answer to these thought-provoking questions isn’t clear, as two camps are designed here: the ones supporting scaling up of farms to reach competitive markets, and the ones aiming at securing farmers’ livelihoods and traditions, protecting them from an imposed transformation. But more important than the topic of scale are land tenure issues, knowledge transfer, power relation between stakeholders, integration of farmers in the food value chain, just to name a few. Support to and consent from the most impacted by degraded soils, biodiversity loss, climate shocks, and deficient state intervention is crucial. 

Even though shifting to a more plant-based diet is often reserved to Global North countries, the mindset remains the same: change must occur at various levels to create resilient food systems. Farmers must adopt nature-friendly production methods, and regeneration should have a central role in it all. New realities can be met fairly and sustainably only if and when all species are considered of equal importance. There’s a strong need for innovation in every sector: “the science is clear; we have the recipe, but we need to start cooking” concluded Matthew Fielding, moderator at Agri4D 2021. 

Reporting back by Josefine Jacobsson, intern at SIANI, and Magdalena Knobel, Communications Consultant at SIANI.