Pathways to transformations: adapting our food systems

A tractor sprays pre-emergence herbicide on a field. Agriculture was transformed due to several developments after WWII. Photo: Chafer Machinery.
(view original)
Dec 17, 2016


Laura Cramer, Caroline van Bers, Ioannis Vasileiou (CCAFS, University of Osnabrück, IFPRI/World Bank)

A new working paper explores how shifts in governance can lead to transformations in food systems

Food – what and how we eat – is at the very core of our being. As frequent readers of this blog will know, climate change is already affecting and will increasingly impact not only agriculture (the production of our food), but also the entire food system: from processing, transportation and distribution to consumption.

This sounds like a frightening prospect, but we should keep in mind that our food systems have undergone profound transformations in the past. After the Second World War, the food systems of the global North underwent an immense transformation when research on nerve gas was used to create pesticides and bomb-making factories became fertilizer plants. Agricultural production increased, food became cheaper, the population involved in farming declined in number due to automation and agri-chemicals, and western economies underwent huge shifts.

Today, many researchers are studying how we can intentionally bring about transformations in our food systems to help deal with many societal ills: childhood undernutrition, obesity and related lifestyle diseases, excessive food loss and waste, GHG emissions from agriculture, and vulnerability of agriculture to climate change. For example, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has published a comparative study examining food system transformation in Brazil, Rwanda, and Vietnam.

The United Nations has recognized the need for radical changes in food systems through its Agricultural Transformation Pathways Initiative. The report stresses that we need to move beyond incremental changes at local levels to look at national and international scales and identify avenues for change at the level of supply chains and other integrated systems. The private sector is also waking up to the opportunities for diversifying and expanding their markets. And as part of the urbanization process and increasing incomes in the global South, many countries are now experiencing a nutrition transition, with increased demand for livestock products.

Guiding transformations for resilient food systems

The changes needed to make our food systems resilient to climate change and help solve some of the major issues of the 21st century will need to involve shifts in how food systems are governed. A new working paper commissioned by CCAFS has investigated the links between transformations in governance and food system changes. The authors of Transformations in governance toward resilient food systems found that transformational change in food systems is often triggered by a shock to the system, or by increasing pressure to that system. But that alone is not enough to bring about a transformation. A number of preconditions and conditions need to be present: sufficient wealth or capital in the system with resources that can be mobilized, and sufficient flexibility in the institutional context to allow innovation to emerge and gain strength.

The CCAFS working paper presents the results of a coded review of literature from the following realms within which transformations have taken place: global sustainability, green revolution, Fair Trade, social protection, land grabbing, food sovereignty, sustainable agriculture, and structures of power. The study was undertaken as a preliminary examination of the literature to identify trends and avenues of further research. It grew out of a conference of governance experts in 2014 that was a launching pad for governance research within CCAFS. Another working paper, giving a detailed review of methods used in food systems governance research, also resulted from that conference.

A particular area of interest potentially supporting transformations is collective action, which often involves collaboration across geographical scales and interest groups. The authors found that collective action often begins with the development of local, regional and international solidarity for a specific purpose or cause, and, in doing so, engages stakeholders in planning and policy activities. An example is the Fair Trade movement, which has been moderately successful in bringing together different actors to work collectively for better incomes and working conditions for farmworkers and their communities.

The outcomes of transformations are often not easily discernible and measurable, and can take years to emerge. However, the outcomes, in terms of what has been transformed, are often social relations and institutions. Clearly, governance has a key role to play in creating the space for these outcomes to occur.

Furthering the research agenda

Some key questions to be addressed in follow-up studies include:

  1. What is the potential of collective action in facilitating transformations and what are the implications for governance?
  2. What has hampered transformations such as Fair Trade? How could this movement be better governed?
  3. What can be learned from transformations in other sectors?

Governance needs to facilitate transformation but some characteristics of governance need to be changed in order to do so. The authors of the working paper have examined on why and how governance systems transform, and the potential pathways for transformations (in governance) towards sustainable food systems.

The process towards transformation may be fluid or not, and may be stimulated by incremental adaptations or changes that constitute a first step towards transformation. Furthermore, operationalizing transformative change is challenging. It is not easy to identify transformative changes that are underway; often it is only in hindsight relative to a baseline condition that a change is acknowledged as truly transformative.

Download the working paper: van Bers C, Pahl-Wostl C, Eakin H, Ericksen P, Lenaerts L, Förch W, Korhonen-Kurki K, Methner N, Jones L, Vasileiou I, Eriksen S. 2016. Transformations in governance towards resilient food systems. CCAFS Working Paper no. 190. Copenhagen, Denmark: CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).