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Different roles, one mission: transition to sustainable and resilient food systems for all

Photo by Deepak kumar/Unsplash

As part of the kick-off activities of the new phase of SIANI, a global online meeting took place on May 24th with more than 60 participants from different countries around the world. The meeting gathered speakers representing international organisations, civil society, academia, and government agencies who shared their knowledge, experience and perspectives about the challenges, opportunities, and pathways for transforming food systems to be sustainable, equitable and more resilient. 

To avoid the collapse of future agrifood systems, a transformation is needed 

As a first presentation, Lorenzo Giovanni Bellù, senior economist of FAO, shared with the audience the findings and vision of a FAO study regarding the future of agrifood systems, as presented in the report “The future of food and agriculture – drivers and triggers for transformation”, which received valuable inputs from SEI and SIPRI regarding the drivers and triggers for transformation in the future of food and agriculture. The study analysed historical trends and weak signals of over 200 variables to outline four different alternative future scenarios for agrifood systems. The study also outlined triggers and drivers for each scenario.  

Among the weak signals identified in the study are:  

  1. Increased food prices may persist in the future, regardless of the scenario. Agricultural producer prices have increased significantly in the last thirty years. If prices are to reflect the true cost of food, these prices will likely increase.
  2. Past achievements to reduce hunger are not resilient and easily reversible. Despite past successes in reducing prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) in the first decade of the millennium (2000-2010), historical trends show that it has increased in the last five years. In a scenario of exacerbated inequalities and increased climate changes, hunger will continue to increase.

Under these signals, future scenarios may be triggered by aspects such as: governance, consumer (citizen) awareness, income and wealth distribution and innovative technologies. The way we set up these triggers may shift the future scenario of agrifood systems.  

“Pessimism is a luxury that we cannot afford we need to transform food systems with all of our knowledge and experience”Lorenzo Giovanni Bellù 

Regardless of the worrying signals for the future of agrifood systems, we need to act by sharing knowledge and experience to transform food systems. Transformation requires changing our metrics and demystifying narratives about development to be able to shape a future of sustainability and resilience.  

Smallholder farmers not only produce food but knowledge and solutions 

“Small-scale farmers innovation and knowledge is the basis of the agriculture system and diversity in food systems” – Irish Baguilat 

To exemplify the pathways smallholder farmers are taking towards transformation of food systems, Irish Baguilat, coordinator of the Asian Farmer’s Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA) presented an overview of their work and current barriers. AFA acts as an extensionist to raise the voice of its 11 million small-scale family farmers in 16 countries of the Asian region, as well as provide solutions as accelerators to achieve the global agenda. Their agenda focuses on rights to natural resources, sustainable resilient agriculture by promoting agroecology practices, cooperative development and strengthening, empowerment of women and young farmers, and strengthening participation in international governance platforms.  

From their work, AFA sees that cooperatives are helping farmers to increase their income and market power and farmer and fisheries organisations gain prominence in the value chain and policy making. In addition, investments should also be targeted towards these groups to produce food while storing carbon in soil and protecting agrobiodiversity. 

However, AFA identified barriers to agricultural development which include policy incoherence, lack of implementation coordination, inadequate stakeholder participation, power imbalances, and unequal financing. 

Research is fundamental to support transformation pathways 

From a research perspective, Ivar Virgin, Senior Research Fellow from the Stockholm Environment Institute, presented how scientists can work together to transform food systems. He argued that the transformation agenda needs to be rooted in science and the best available knowledge and tailored to the local context. Following, he presented how AgriFoSe improves researchers’ ability to share their findings with stakeholders in the global south.  

Private sector roles to support food systems transformation 

John Mugonya, Regional Program Manager, Agripreneurship Alliance introduced ways in which private sector actors at different scales can enhance food systems transformation. These ways ranged from transferring innovation and technology, prioritising “informal” private sector, investing in eco-friendly start-ups, and finally collaborating with the private sector and other stakeholders in the food system. 

The National Determined Contributions (NCDs) of countries could be seen as an opportunity for the private sector to commit and support governments in achieving these targets and contribute to transforming food systems. Furthermore, African entrepreneurs can consider alternative protein sources, climate resilient crops, reduce food loss and recover resources from waste. 

He also pointed that to transform food systems, corporations should avoid taking over public governance systems, engaging in anti-competitive practices, disregarding for social and cultural factors that influence preferences in food productions, consumptions, and nutrition. He finalised highlighting the need for corporations to be transparent when sharing information with farmers.  

The role of donors in food systems transformation 

The round of presentations concluded with Elisabeth Simelton, Senior Policy Specialist in Agriculture of Sida, who provided an overview of how the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency plans to support partners in transforming food systems. For example, Sida has established a Committee on Sustainable Food Systems involving humanitarian, development, operations, and research organisations. The Committee aims to define “transformation” and “food systems” terminology to provide a clearer and common understanding of their meaning. Sida is also looking to understand the role of agriculture in conflict scenarios under the humanitarian development and peace nexus, including how to avoid donors’ contributions leading to increased agrarian conflicts or resource exploitation. Finally, the Agency plans to share knowledge with other groups and review past successes to support sustainable food systems in future projects. 

After the presentations, participants gathered in groups to discuss ideas about triggers for food systems to be sustainable and equitable. Some of the key messages from this discussion are outlined below: 

  • Reduce high consumption patterns in high-income countries. 
  • Shift the focus from attaining higher yields only, towards balancing the promotion of agrobiodiversity and reducing climate risks hand in hand with yield improvement. 
  •  It is important to balance the profit-seeking behaviour of the private sector with a more altruistic approach that prioritises sustainability and care for humanity. 
  • Innovation and technology need to be more accessible for small-scale farmers. 
  • Move away from working in silos, establish partnerships and collaborate to achieve the aims of sustainable food systems collectively. 
  • Encourage research and knowledge sharing. 
  • Traditional and indigenous knowledge can play a key role on the transformation of food systems but needs to be transmitted and transcend to other platforms. 

Watch the full SIANI Global annual meeting 2023:

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