Food systems transformation is about the ‘little things’

Food Systems Transformation is about the ‘little things’

By Dhanush Dinesh

I first came across the concept of food systems transformation in 2017, at COP23 in Bonn. Until then, climate-smart agriculture had been the buzzword within the food and climate communities.

But the concept of food systems transformation was different. It took a systems approach, covering agricultural production to consumption, and addressed issues within the system including climate change, biodiversity loss and malnutrition. It also called for a transformation rather than incremental change. Six years down the line, food systems transformation now rules the global narrative on food and climate, and we even had the first-ever UN Food Systems Summit.

However, while the narrative has grown, more stakeholders have joined, and more definitions and frameworks have been created. The risk is that food systems transformation remains just ‘talk’ in global summits and conferences. This isn’t good enough: Food systems contribute a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, a third of all food is wasted, nearly 800 million people go hungry, even as climate change is affecting food production. The evidence shows that a transformation is simply not happening and that food systems remain broken.

So what have we all been doing for the past six years? Why are we are still falling short? I believe that the answer is in the “little things”. Very often, at the global level, we are interested in the big picture: a new global initiative, a new declaration, a new report, etc. But having an impact means delving into the little things.

Take, for example, the issue of agricultural subsidies. It has been known for several years that we need to reorient the USD 800 billion of annual subsidies provided to the farming sector globally so that it makes a positive contribution to tackling climate change and protecting/restoring nature. Global frameworks such as the Policy Action Agenda, launched at COP26, seek to support this. However, we are not seeing a transformative shift in the efforts of countries. Why is this the case? Our work in Malawi shows that this is about those ‘little things’ which we may take for granted at the global level, this involves consulting farmers and stakeholders to identify the barriers which they face, and jointly developing alternative schemes which deliver for farmers and the environment.

Another example is emerging from our work at the county level in Kenya, where the needs of farmers are still quite basic, e.g., for capacity building, cross-cutting efforts, basic infrastructure, management of pests and diseases, maintaining soil health, access to markets, etc. On other hand, globally the discussion is about the billions needed in the sector. Calling for money to big global institutions is not enough, we need to find better ways to make the ‘little things’ work and get money to people who need it to take action. This means ensuring that there is accountability to ensure that global commitments and statements deliver for farmers.

A final example is from my own journey as a social entrepreneur. At the global level I have listened to speeches on the importance of entrepreneurship in the transition that is needed, how thousands of entrepreneurs are being empowered, but when you try it in practice, you hit roadblocks every step of the way, from opening a bank account, to getting a credit card, to securing a mortgage. All of these things are extra hard when you try to set up a non-profit organisation for global benefit. Unless these little things are addressed, the big global speeches will remain empty words, and people will simply not turn to entrepreneurship for social causes.

It seems the global community has little incentive to deal with these ‘little things’. They’re not glamorous, not the subject of attention from media or global summits, and they don’t capture the imagination of most funders.

However, unless we shift our approach to focus on these ‘little things’ we won’t get the change we seek. The priorities are well known, various reports have identified them, and we don’t need more prioritization, or another framework, or initiative, or conference, what we need is the action. Here is what I propose to constructively disrupt the system:

  1. Let’s make sure to discuss the ‘little things’ which limit action, especially at global conferences and roundtables, i.e. shift the narrative from big words to small tangible actions.
  2. Let’s hold global leaders, commitments, initiatives to account for the changes they deliver (not another statement or conference).
  3. Let’s share the little solutions to the little problems, to help accelerate the transition.
Previous Post
India’s lunar leap & food system moonshots: What’s the connection?
Next Post
Challenging the status quo: Disruptive Seeds for transformative change in Guatemala
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Category: Quick Reads & Blogs
Tags: Quick Reads & Blogs
You must be logged in to post a comment.