The food policy world has been abuzz with talk of transforming food systems. It’s part of growing recognition that we’re way off course to meet the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) – to end hunger, improve nutrition and green agriculture. The coronavirus pandemic has put added strain on food systems, especially in terms of employment and affordability of food.
The systems link between food, diet, health and ecosystems is reflected in upcoming policy milestones. The UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 aims to “unleash the benefits of food systems for all people”. The Japanese government is due to announce the date of the third Nutrition for Growth Summit to “strengthen the link between diet, food systems and health”. Both events have the SDGs’ target date of 2030 in their sights.
But in 2030 when we look back at this critical period, will we see an opportunity wasted? Did our urgency and impetus to ‘transform’ food systems distract us from the realities of the most important food systems, of the majority poor?
To avoid policies and interventions missing their targets, the report appeals for wider understanding of how these food systems that feed and provide livelihoods for low-income citizens – what we might call the food systems of the majority – really work. It calls for interventions to seek common cause with the farmers, enterprises and consumers that comprise them: a shared rather than imposed agenda.
Food systems of the majority
These food systems operate largely through the informal and semi-formal economy, without large scale corporate structures. They are often perceived as residual, soon to be eclipsed by modernisation.
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has provided authorities with another justification to crack down on the informal food economy. But food systems of the majority are often resilient and dynamic and, in many situations, against the odds, provide citizens with affordable, accessible and nutritious food (PDF).
Their supply networks can stretch over great distances, connecting with increasing numbers of farmers via small towns and emerging urban centres that are active informal market nodes. At the consumption end, especially in the informal settlements that house a quarter of the world’s urban population, these food systems meet a growing demand for prepared food, thereby providing numerous livelihoods especially to women and youth. In fact, women are central to the food systems of the majority, from growing and harvesting to marketing and cooking.
Policy neglect of these food systems is rife, as is lack of trust between food system actors and governments; this lack of trust may extend to NGOs and their projects. Most efforts to formalise these food systems have had little lasting impact.
Agency and advocacy
It’s clear that sustainable diets for all will not be achieved without the understanding of and partnership with the food systems of the majority which will continue to do the heavy lifting of food and nutrition security for the poorest.
‘Transformation’ will need to start from the women and men who comprise this system, their lived experience and priorities, their organisation and agency – in other words, meeting people where they are.
The SD4All programme adopted citizen agency as a framing principle, emphasising the capacity of people to act on their own priorities and to influence decisions that shape their food systems. An agency perspective puts an important check on a common assumption that people lack the knowledge to improve their lives. It challenges our definitions of ‘sustainable diets’ and ‘sustainable food systems’.
In practice, a focus on citizens’ agency and lived experienced has built a basis for SD4All to establish genuine common cause. Partnerships have been established to enable Bolivian women cooks to be more competitive as diets become increasingly westernised, to lobby local government to recognise Zambia’s local food vendors, to support rural communities in Uganda to revive indigenous foods, and to improve diets of school-aged children in Indonesia where young people themselves gather evidence.
Multi-actor approaches such as ‘food parliaments’ set up in Uganda are involving citizens in improvements to their food systems, especially at the local level.
Partnerships and citizens
But putting citizen agency at the centre of advocacy and interventions has also brought complexities. At the outset of SD4All, we did not get this right, but we adapted our ways of working over time.
One of our dilemmas has been around representation in our partnerships with civil society organisations (CSOs) and NGOs. The Dialogue and Dissent programme of the Dutch government (that funds SD4All) put CSOs at the core of its strategy to support advocacy on behalf of citizens’ priorities.
This is a bold and welcome approach. But there is the risk that CSOs and NGOs fail to see the importance of, and difference between, citizen-based priorities and their own civic agendas. SD4All’s advocacy toolkit has helped partners to effectively work with citizen-based actors, especially in the food system of the majority with its high level of informality and complexity.
For genuine transformation to be on the table at the UN Food Systems Summit, the Nutrition for Growth Summit and beyond, food policymakers and influencers should seriously recognise the vital role of informal food economies, and citizen agency approaches within them.