Agriculture and food system transformations benefit from system-wide involvement

Published on
August 30, 2021

Agriculture and food (agri-food) systems need to be reformed to provide nutritious, affordable, and sustainably produced food worldwide. When stakeholders are more involved, countries are better able to transform their agri-food systems, according to a recent publication by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Wageningen University & Research (WUR). The study, funded by the Government of Ireland, draws on the experiences of Costa Rica, Ireland and Rwanda, and their path towards sustainable agri-food systems transformation.

An analysis of policies, programmes and institutional mechanisms that shape agri-food systems transformation is documented in a recent publication by FAO and WUR. The study aims to inspire governments and stakeholders actively working to innovate agri-food systems. In the study, researchers conducted interviews in Costa Rica, Ireland, and Rwanda, countries that have undergone a big transition in agri-food in the last 10-15 years.

Researcher Herman Brouwer, Senior Advisor Multi-Stakeholder Processes in Food Security at WUR: “Everyone speaks of the importance of making transitions in the food system on country level, but little is known on which processes are needed to realise these transitions. This research looks at the practical ingredients of agri-food transitions. We see that they require leadership that can stimulate collaboration between public and private sectors, and citizens.”

Government recommendations

The study recommends governments willing to transform their agri-food systems to facilitate the contribution of all stakeholders. “The cases in this report demonstrate that when stakeholder engagement is encouraged the processes and transformation are more resilient”, says FAO’s Food Systems and Food Safety Division director, Jamie Morrison. “Agri-food systems are shaped by an immense number of activities and complex drivers, with an even greater diversity of actors and voices”, he mentions, “as established by the United Nation’s Food Systems Pre-Summit that took place between 26 and 28 July 2021”.

The researchers think that governments can benefit from the study by learning how frontrunners in agri-food system transformation are adapting approaches specific to their own situation. Morrison emphasizes how valuable the learnings from three country cases are: “FAO is extremely grateful to be able to share these lessons with member countries and extends its gratitude to the stakeholders that participated in this study so that other nations might be inspired by their actions on the complex journey towards agri-food systems transformation”.

From “paper promises” to “promised progress”

Based on conversations with policy and industry leaders and civil society actors spanning the agri-food system, the report provides a comparative overview of the contexts that have respectively shaped the agri-food systems of Costa Rica, Ireland, and Rwanda. The analysis has also culminated in five common insights highlighted from the three country cases. These insights can help make agrifood system transformations a reality.

Firstly, inclusive governance processes that are informed by data and science and which encourage broad engagement, with all parties having a real influence on key decisions, ensures that transformational plans are informed by the whole system. Secondly and similarly, governments must lead transformational agendas without taking over. Public sector leaders must safeguard the ability of all stakeholders to influence decisions and ensure that public resources contribute to enforce legal and policy parameters to protect sustainable transformation.

Thirdly, agendas designed for agrifood systems transformation can turn ‘paper promises’ into ‘promised progress’. These agendas should include tailored investment, implementation plans, target setting, mandated role allocation, and strong accountability mechanisms. These agendas are necessary considering the fourth finding, namely that transformation requires a multitude of processes. To transform an agrifood system, governments should for instance be able to allocate resources, act and deliver, relate and partner, adapt and self-renew, and, finally, address diversity and achieve coherence.

The silver lining

Lastly, the researchers found a silver lining for governments and citizens: national crises and disruptions can provide an opportunity for transformational change. These disasters can create a sense of urgency and stimulate stakeholders to work together on transformational change. Brouwer emphasises: “It is not that for example the COVID-19 crisis is ‘good’ for agri-food system transformations. But in addition to the negative effects of crises, the way that they completely alter the world can create a sense of urgency that is often needed for system-wide transitions. Still, you also need leadership, a sound process, and investments.”

Read the report “National processes shaping food systems transformations”