Democratic directionality: Principles for transformative food systems research

Published on
March 16, 2022

Translating knowledge to policy processes is critical for food system transformation. Yet, recently, there has been a healthy debate on what forms such processes could or should take.

After the EU Standing Committee for Agricultural Research’s (SCAR) 5th Foresight exercise (2019-2020), the Team of Experts (including researchers, public servants and a journalist) reflected on their processes with the aim of contributing to this debate. Their conclusions are summarized in a new comment in the journal Nature Food –Democratic directionality for transformative food systems research— led by Dr Jessica Duncan from the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University & Research.

From shared goals to divergent pathways: science provides the guardrails

Research for transformation assumes that science and innovation can be oriented towards achieving shared goals. The team found that it was rather easy to reach consensus on food system goals. However, it is often assumed that alignment on goals implies a uniform trajectory, which is not the case. Indeed, the team had to deal with a wide range of divergent interpretations on the pathways to achieving these goals. Through multi-stakeholder conversations and by making sure diverse experiences and values of participants were made visible, the team developed a stronger understanding of research–policy–action pathways.

Debate with stakeholders

There is a risk policy goals can exert too much influence on research agendas. The team argues that directionality (that is, indicating the directions we need to be moving in, or the food system goals) should emerge from deliberation and debate with stakeholders, notably those most-affected by transformations. 

In their comment, the team argues that a comprehensive democratic directionality framework is needed to identify shared goals and to avoid pathways of unsustainable directionality. From here, the key job for scientists is to clarify the possible impacts of proposed pathways (‘identifying the guardrails’), while also being as concrete as they can about trade-offs and systemic risks.

Transformations across food systems demand comprehensive democratic directionality, supported by research that is responsible, pluralistic, collaborative and open.

Four principles for transformative research and innovation

Building on this framework, the team put forward four principles for transformative research and innovation for food system policy. These principles are aligned with more specific efforts to articulate a research and action agenda centred on a collective task of revitalizing biodiversity and ecosystem services to transform towards healthy, circular, safe and just food systems.


Research for transformation presupposes an ethical commitment of researchers and funders to shared goals, and to the intended and unintended consequences of research application.


Plurality recognizes that food system transformations include multiple and often competing visions and accepts the viability of a plurality of these visions.


Collaboration is a key component to ensuring effective democratic directionality for food system transformations and the application of principles of responsibility and plurality. Such collaboration, in turn, requires institutional support.


Openness implies freedom of access to research outputs, data and tools that can multiply collaborative opportunities between researchers and citizens. It distributes resources, contributing to a level playing field.  The four principles are put forward with a view towards sharing learning. They are intended as an initial resource that offers a renewed vision of ‘the what’ and ‘the how’ of future just and sustainable transdisciplinary research and action.

The team recognizes that there are fields where science, policy and politics are inseparable and have indeed always depended on each other. For science, a transition from linear processes of knowledge to action would benefit from greater integration of knowledge and action. They also recognize that food system transformations require more joined-up, inclusive, just and radical approaches.