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17 September 2021

Five Takeaways from the CFS Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition

Vegetable market.

Photo by Alex Hudson on Unsplash

At the 47th Plenary session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in February 2021, the CFS adopted the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition (VGFSyN). Focusing on food systems and nutrition transformation, the guidelines are a set of recommendations (voluntary and non-binding) which aim to produce policy coherence amongst governmental and institutional actors, and between different sectors. The VGFSyN were formulated through negotiations at a multilateral government level regarding the connections between food systems and nutrition, making this the only global policy instrument in the thematic area to have come about through such a process. When put into use, it is hoped that these guidelines will support the development of multi-sectoral national policies, laws, and investment plans to achieve healthy and safe diets within our planetary boundaries. The guidelines’ actual impact, however, remains to be seen.

In this article, we will provide some key takeaways from the VGFSyN in terms of content and scope- as well as insight into the reflections on the policy instrument from external voices.

Women on trail in North Vietnam

Photo by Ives Ives on Unsplash

1. The guidelines are meant for all, and thus, written for all

The VGFSyN have been created and formulated so that they can be used by all types of policy-makers, and institutional and organisational actors. As such, they take into account different national realities, levels of development, legislative systems, and capacities. More so, the guidelines are fully evidence-based and include agreed-on text describing concepts such as healthy and unhealthy diets, nutritious food, and sustainable food systems, to minimise divergences caused by differing interpretations of these terms.

2. Six of the guideline areas are more specific to food systems development

In the VGFSyN, there are in total seven policy areas. Six of these, focus more specifically on aspects of food systems development.

The first out of these six topical areas is entitled, ‘Sustainable Food Supply Chains to Achieve Healthy Diets in the Context of Economic, Social, and Environmental Sustainability, and Climate Change’. It hones in on the goal of achieving sustainable and resilient food supply chains, as well as sustainable consumption and production. This is to be achieved whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change, together with reducing natural resource degradation. Here, there is the mention of the benefit of sustainable soil and land management. Water-saving practices as well as the preservation of biodiversity, are also highlighted. This section moreover encourages the empowerment of farm and food system workers, as well as youth, across food systems.

The second area, ‘Equal and Equitable Access to Healthy Diets through Sustainable Food Systems’, aims to promote the equal access to affordable, safe, and nutritious foods, which fit the dietary needs and cultural preferences of different societal groups. The section therefore mentions that vulnerable and marginalised communities should have access to diverse foods which contribute to healthy diets. There is also a focus on the promotion of instruments which support the affordability and accessibility of healthy foods and diets for all members of society. Additionally, the need to recognise the role of the internet in influencing the constitution and quality of our diets is emphasised.

The third area, ‘Food Safety across Sustainable Food Systems’, regards the crucial role which safe food production, processing, and handling, play in food security. As such, this section’s guidelines promote the adoption of food safety legislation and regulations and a One Health approach to food safety along entire feed and food supply chains. It also encourages an enhancement of traceability in food supply chains, as well as enhanced training in implementing food safety measures.

The fourth area, ‘People-centred Nutrition Knowledge Education and Information’, regards the role of knowledge, skills, education, and quality information in ensuring healthy diets which promote sustainable food systems. This section outlines the need for governments to support the development of dietary guidelines for persons who have different nutritional requirements. It also calls for the reduction of inappropriate marketing of foods and beverages toward children, together with the implementation of evidence-based food and nutrition labelling. Furthermore, it encourages the integration of local food knowledge and cultures into policies and initiatives.

The fifth area, ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment across Food systems’, focuses on  gender equality and women empowerment in sustainable food systems and in achieving food and nutrition security. Here, it is recognised that women, in many countries, are the major contributors to food production, and key decision-makers about household diets. At the same time, they are unequally burdened with unpaid care and domestic work, do not always share the same land rights and community status, and do not have access to the same educational and fiscal opportunities. Women also often face higher levels of food insecurity and nutrition than men. As such this section encourages women empowerment, the promotion of women as entrepreneurs and key actors in food systems, and the need to address women’s nutritional status and deprivation.

The sixth area, ‘Resilient Food Systems in Humanitarian Contexts’, focuses on the link between humanitarian crises and an increase in food insecurity and malnutrition. This section outlines the need for long-term strategies during emergencies, which provide food security and nutrition in accordance with international humanitarian law and national legislation.

3. One of the guideline areas focuses on a more general societal development aspect, and provides a foundational block for the other guidelines 

The first part of the VGFSyN , ‘Transparent, Democratic, and Accountable Governance’, functions as a foundational section. As such, the other aforementioned guidelines can only really be implemented successfully if the foundational guidelines have been followed. As indicated by the title, this section highlights the importance of governments fostering policy coordination and coherence, and  strengthening leadership and accountability amongst food system actors.

4. The guidelines set out recommendations for their own implementation

The VGFSyN include guidelines toward the implementation and monitoring of their own use. These implementation guidelines fall under the three titled categories, (I) ‘Policy Formulation and Implementation of the VGFSyN’, (II) ‘Building and Strengthening Capacity for Implementation, and (III) ‘Monitoring Use and Application of the VGFSyN’.

The first part encourages CFS members and stakeholders to support and promote the dissemination and use of the VGFSyN at all levels within their constituencies and in collaboration with other platforms. More so, it invites governments to use the tool to implement national strategies, identify policy opportunities, and achieve policy coordination.

The second part regards building capacity toward the implementation and the ability to follow the VGFSyN. This regards mobilising adequate financial, technical, and human resources by governments. Here, it is pointed out that specialised agencies of the UN, bilateral cooperation agencies, and other development partners, can assist with such activities.

Lastly, the third part relates to the monitoring and evaluation of the use of the VGFSyN. Governments are encouraged to define evaluative indicators and integrate regional and local structures to report on these.

5. Not everyone agrees with the VGFSyN’s potential to achieve transformative change

Albeit the VGFSyN’s intentions to achieve positive transformation, and the uniqueness of this policy instrument in describing the multi-dimensionality of food systems and their interlinkages to food security, nutrition, and development, not everyone is in agreement regarding its potential to bring about much-needed change. In fact, the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM), representing civil society and Indigenous Peoples’ organisations, do not feel the VGFSyN are radical enough to transform our food systems toward becoming more resilient, fairer, healthier, and more sustainable. In fact, the CSM have expressed that the VGFSyN are more oriented toward maintaining the status quo rather than considering public interests. Furthermore, they point out that during the negotiations of the formulation of the guidelines, there was no attention drawn to the specific responsibilities held by certain actors in terms of their impact on food systems.  It is felt that the responsibilities held by different governance and influential actors have been blurred and have not been clearly stated. This could prove contradicting to the call for enhanced accountability amongst food system actors with influential power.

To conclude, it is clear that the VGFSyN are unique in their scope by being the first negotiated guidelines on the connections between food systems and nutrition at a multilateral level. However, despite their breadth and intent for inclusivity, it is pivotal that the critical voices and suggested improvements of the VGFSyN are listened to and considered. This will allow us to move towards achieving the true, transformative change our food systems need.

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