Blog post

Global Governance of Agriculture and Food Systems, towards global consensus and action

November 17, 2020

Author: Prof dr ir Louise O. Fresco, President, Wageningen University & Research

Major, far-reaching sustainability transitions are needed to provide a growing world population with nutritious, safe, healthy, affordable, and sustainable food. To achieve large-scale sustainability transitions, we need coordinated action based on undisputed scientific information – disseminated through a trusted platform that informs government decision-making. The 2021 Food Systems Summit provides an unique opportunity to catalyse global action to make food systems inclusive, climate-adapted, resilient, and supportive of sustainable peace.

Considerations for preparations for the Food Systems Summit 2021

It is generally acknowledged that far-reaching transitions are needed to ensure sufficient availability of nutritious, safe, affordable and sustainably produced food for a growing world population. The production of food and agricultural products is extremely diverse, involving many different commodities and technologies depending on ecological and socioeconomic settings. HLPE1 identified five main groups of interacting factor that may act as a barrier to innovation: governance factors, economic factors, knowledge factors, social and cultural factors and resource factors. Most food-insecure people live in areas characterised by instability and severe poverty. New ways have to be found to increase productivity of land and water while decreasing emissions and halting destruction of habitats and ways of life. It is imperative that the manifold transitions needed are tailor-made, and be based on scientific evidence.

Food systems: from concept to policy

Systems thinking has gained prominence in the agriculture and food sector in recent years, fuelling discussions amongst both scholars and policy makers about the ‘unsustainability’ of modern food systems. Béné2 et al (2019) define four different sets of narratives about the failure of the food system:

  • Inability of the system to feed the future world population
  • Inability of the system to deliver a healthy diet
  • Inability of the system to produce equal and equitable benefits
  • Unsustainability of the system and its impact on the environment

Because food is an integral part of culture and so closely linked with tradition, values and emotions, solutions to food system failures are subject to intense debate and controversy. There are polarised views on issues like fertilisers, genetic modification, animal welfare and so forth. There is also confusion and uncertainty about facts, e.g. how much agriculture and food may contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, climate mitigation (carbon capture) and adaptation. Moreover, public confidence in science-based solutions seems to decline.

At national level, this complexity, confusion and polarisation often lead to a policy stalemate and a distorted institutional landscape. No country has developed a comprehensive agricultural and food policy. At the same time, no country can expect to take national policy measures in isolation because imports and exports, emissions and technology always affect other countries as well.

Global governance of food systems

Agriculture is not just about food, but also about other public goods like natural resource management, climate change, trade regimes, competition for foreign direct investments, international research and innovation, public health and food safety, and stability. Achieving SDG 2 has to go hand in hand with achieving other SDGs and therefore requires new thinking about the governance of agriculture and food systems3.

In that spirit, a broader, system wide partnership is needed with the private sector, financial institutions, civil society organizations and academia. A shared understanding on where we are and need to go with our global food system, what technologies and policies are available and a degree of agreement on concerted action are essential. That will create a level playing field for solutions that are truly ‘best in class’ and can be shared so that everyone benefits.

To get there, a truly multi-stakeholder approach is crucial. The private sector (including farmers) plays a dominant role in the (re) shaping of food systems. Roles and relations vis-à-vis present institutional arrangements such as the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the scientific bodies of the Rio Conventions and the CGIAR system are to be worked out. Next to member countries and international organisations such as those in the UN system, national public organisations and private sector organisations representing industries, foundations and NGOs would need to be involved.


The recent rise in hunger, undernourishment and obesity call for a renewed global effort to lay the foundation for concerted action, based on undisputed scientific information. An evidence-based movement aimed at building consensus as the cornerstone of future agriculture and food systems, accompanied by effective institutional arrangements, must lead the way.

1HLPE (2019)report on agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. Summary and recommendations.

2Béné, C. et al (2019). When food systems meet sustainability – current narratives and implications for action. World Development 113; 116-130.

3Based on von Braun, J. et al (2017). Designing global governance for agriculture development and food and nutrition security. Review of Development Economics 21 (2), 265-284