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Increasing legitimacy in global food policies through science

Jennifer Clapp, international fellow to the KSLA General Section and the Vice Chair for HLPE-FSN, and guest panelists

Photo by Marta Anguera


  • Diverse roles and power differentials in food systems require us to design science-policy-society interfaces (SPSIs) in ways that ensure legitimacy through achieving the I-TrACE principles.
  • HLPE-FSN has unique legitimacy as it follows those few principles. It shapes ideas in policy reform that feed into policy convergence processes.
  • Challenges remain for SPSIs in food systems spaces. The design and ideas of SPSIs matter, but interests and geopolitics also shape outcomes.

The seminar was hosted at The Royal Swedish Agricultural Academy in Stockholm

Photo by Marta Anguera

In recent years, the number of people facing hunger and malnutrition has risen, partly because of the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic. Even before these immediate crises, there was an acknowledgment of the failure of the global community to tackle global hunger and meet the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG). Thus, there is a recognised need for a global food systems transformation, but there has yet to be a wide agreement on how that would best be accomplished. It highlights why we need science and knowledge to inform policy at the international level, and to carry legitimacy and balance that all stakeholders accept.

In collaboration with KSLA, SIANI co-hosted a seminar on this topic with Professor Jennifer Clapp at KSLA in Stockholm on the 26th of January. She is the newly elected international fellow to the KSLA General Section and the Vice Chair for the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN) that provides scientific advice to the UN Committee for Food Security (CFS). Also speaking at the seminar were Dr Matilda Baraibar, Professor at the Department of Economic History and International Relations at Stockholm University, Professor Sofia Boqvist, Senior Research Advisor Department of Biomedical Sciences and Veterinary Public Health at SLU and Programme Director for AgriFoSe2030, PhD Mairon G. Bastos Lima, Research Fellow at Stockholm Environment Institute and Dr Anna-Karin Norling, Senior Research Advisor on Research Cooperation at Sida.

The seminar was also broadcasted via Zoom

Photo by Marta Anguera

The current challenges facing the global food security policy context

Food systems have crossed the planetary boundaries of what is sustainable and are increasingly vulnerable to climate change. The issues do not lie in the lack of food production, as we now produce more food than ever, but in the uneven quality of food environments. While over 800 million people are chronically undernourished, 1.9 billion people are over-nourished.

At the seminar, Jennifer Clapp suggested that a main challenge concerns the complexity of policymaking in food systems, as it serves multiple functions in society and numerous participants and stakeholders have very different ideas about what food systems should deliver. She stated:

The food system is facing broadly a number of challenges, and this really brings into focus why we need science and knowledge to inform policy.

There are also challenges with corporate capture of food systems governance, since there is disagreement and concern regarding the large engagement and representation of corporations. The concern is especially evident in civil society sectors and social movements. While some corporate engagement channels are visible, there are numerous channels that are as effective and can skew policy outcomes but receive less attention. These include lobbying, research sponsorship, political donations and structural influence over trade and investment agreements.

Clapp further stated that the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 demonstrated confusion around which UN bodies are responsible for food security and nutrition policy coordination. This confusion in coordination, both in the UN bodies as well as the CFS, has become increasingly complicated due to the current crises. The political tensions at the international level around the Ukraine conflict are mirrored by those within the CFS itself and have resulted in inertia in policy discussions.

These different interests and vast power differentials, from small-scale producers to large corporations, have shifted the focus from the substantive and structural issues of hunger and undernutrition to private and state interests and geopolitics. It demonstrates the challenge of bringing science and knowledge into the policymaking process in a way that is viewed as legitimate by all participants.

The experience of existing expert panels in trying to support international food security policy development

What is unique about the CFS is its mechanism that allows for non-governmental participation from civil society, the private sector, and indigenous peoples – recognising expertise and knowledge coming from constituencies other than states. Through these mechanisms together with the evidence-based science and knowledge advice from the HLPE, Clapp implied that the CFS has gained legitimacy. She suggested that HLPE meets the so-called I-TrACE principles, which is why it has shown success in terms of legitimacy.

The I-TrACE principles for legitimate food systems knowledge and policy advice

In response to these challenges and to make science and knowledge for policymaking in the food space more legitimate, Jennifer Clapp proposed a set of interconnected principles in her latest article in Nature Food. These are referred to as the I-TrACE principles and suggest that science and policy bodies need to have procedures that are independent, transparent, accessible, consultative, and evidence-based.

Through its secretariat at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), separate from the CFS, the HLPE is independent. It is evidence-based and accessible through its mechanism of additional project teams of global experts being part of the panel, drawing on a range of data sources and using inputs from open consultations with stakeholders. It is transparent and consultative as it follows extensive review processes, including indigenous knowledge holders, farmer communities and organizations providing input throughout the processes.

Dr Matilda Baraibar, Professor at the Department of Economic History and International Relations at Stockholm University, was one of the guest speakers

Photo by Marta Anguera

Recommendations for knowledge and science in supporting food security policy going forward

When asked about observed successes in the field hitherto, Clapp pointed out the CFS 2009 reforms. The CFS has produced voluntary recommendations, included civil society and private sector mechanisms, and thus brought a more constructive and progressive discussion on food security issues. New topics such as agroecology, sustainability, agency, and equity have been discussed. A UN Food Systems Coordination Hub has also recently been established. She implied that these normative steps are important and could precede larger advancements.

To improve knowledge and science in supporting food security policy moving forward, Jennifer Clapp suggested a new approach which emphasizes multisectoral, interconnected systems and context-specific solutions. This new approach includes working toward a radical transformation of food systems as a whole; viewing FSN as a system interconnected with other systems and sectors; focusing on hunger and malnutrition in all forms, in their complex relation to one another; understanding that FSN and policy making is context-specific, requiring diverse solutions and policies.

Two additional dimensions – sustainability and agency must be added to the four standard food dimensions – availability, access, utilization, and stability.

Professor Sofia Boqvist, who spoke about AgriFoSe2030 and their work to translate policy into science in a developing context, also emphasized these context-specific solutions. She stressed the importance in the inclusion of smallholder farmers and focusing on their lived experiences. Similarly, Dr Anna-Karin Norling insinuated the importance of domestic research systems in all countries through a system approach to achieve successful policy translation on an international level.

Mairon G. Bastos Lima from SEI instead shifted the focus to the consumer population and highlighted the problem of food knowledge erosion and adaptations to fake food diversity while neglecting actual agrobiodiversity. He proposed individual producer inclusion as one way to diversify what we eat and how food is produced. Zooming out to a global perspective, Dr Matilda Baraibar brought up the problematic integration of the private sector, political will, and market interests in policy arenas, stating the need to redesign the incentives of the whole economic system.

Rather than creating new institutions, Clapp argued that the focus should be on improving and coordinating existing science policy bodies. She continued:

There have been some movements towards collaboration, or at least cooperation, amongst different scientist policy bodies that touch on food security issues.

The work of the newly established coordination hub has, however, not yet commenced and we have yet to see if it is going to result in any substantively different kinds of advice.

According to her, the changes needed within the CFS to meet these challenges concern formulating and agreeing on a framework for the CFS and governments to employ when crises occur to avoid gridlocks. Further autonomy of the HLPE from the CFS is needed, as it currently acts upon requests. It is also important to have additional processes in place to ensure follow-up on the policy recommendations by national governments through a regular reporting and monitoring system since these are presently voluntary.

To achieve widespread acceptance of food policies, there is a recognised need to increase legitimacy in policy making bodies and science and knowledge when informing such policies. The realization of the I-TrACE principles in policymaking processes plays a key role in accomplishing this. These ideas and designs must be integrated in science-policy-society interfaces to have all participants and stakeholders onboard towards a sustainable global food system transformation.

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