How food systems sustainability is impacted by narratives

How food systems sustainability is impacted by narratives

NWO (2020) The implications of implicit choices: how food systems sustainability is impacted by narratives, entry points and transition pathways. Paper in the Synthesis Study series of NWO-WOTRO’s Food & Business Research programme. By Daniel Gaitán-Cremaschi, Paulina Bizzotto Molina, Daniëlle de Winter and Ellen Lammers. 36 pages. 

20 January 2020. The implications of implicit choices

A simple ‘more-food’ approach is not the solution to addressing growing food and nutrition security (FNS) challenges across the globe, especially for poor and vulnerable groups. Systemic and holistic approaches are called for to shift to more sustainable food systems. The synthesis study examined how narratives, entry points for interventions, and transition pathways influence sustainability transitions in food system and their relationship with power and politics. The findings presented in the full paper are based on insights from eight interdisciplinary research projects funded by NWO-WOTRO that were carried out in eleven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America between 2016-2020. All projects were encouraged to take on a food system approach in their research and engage in a thorough stakeholder mapping exercise before the project was implemented.

The synthesis built on and tested the assumption that the food system narrative that is embraced by policy makers, researchers and practitioners, determines their analysis of current food systems, as well as the policy responses and approaches they will propose towards more sustainable food systems. The four main narratives identified are food systems for 

  1. feeding the world, 
  2. improved nutrition and health, 
  3. improved resource use, and 
  4. improved equity.
Identifying the underlying narrative of policies and programmes is helpful, the research projects showed, to reveal which food system outcome is prioritised and what stakeholder engagement strategies are used as part of the resulting transition pathways.

A bias towards engaging only a subset of stakeholders (e.g. only producers, or only consumers) runs the risk of decreasing the effectiveness of interventions that aim for system-wide change. Increasing the diversity of actors involved in a project – in design, implementation and monitoring and learning –helps to ensure that different perspectives are taken on board. It will also help to identify unintended negative impacts of project interventions, and to ensure that these are avoided or accompanied by measures that distribute the costs and benefits more fairly over different stakeholder groups.

The synthesis puts forward the following suggestions for policymakers and practitioners who aspire to contribute to sustainable food system transitions:

  • Challenge your own assumptions and discover your blind spots by exposing your policies to other narratives. Trying out another perspective to problems and possible solutions may help to minimise trade-offs and maximise synergies.
  • Stakeholder mapping pays off. Build in sufficient time for an initial power scan of the context together with local stakeholders and to discuss, again together with stakeholders, the project’s ambitions and limitations.
  • Build in moments throughout the project, not only at the beginning, to revisit assumptions and to assess changing dynamics. New barriers to change, but also new opportunities, are likely to arise during the course of the project.
  • Ensure to make narratives explicit and seek for a balanced diversity in the overall project portfolio and policies. The diversity of narratives and transition pathways presented in this synthesis have shown that these decisions determine how our policies and programmes play out in practice.

On 10 December, ECDPM organised the parallel session ‘Sustainability transitions of food systems: A political affair’ as part of the virtual Food&Business Research Final Conference ‘Scaling insights for sustainable food systems’ by NWO-WOTRO and the Food & Business Knowledge Platform, which took place on 9-10 December. 

The recording was put online 25/01/2021

  • François Uwumukiza, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Kigali 
  • Frank Mechielsen, Hivos 
  • Vivek Vivekandan, South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS) 
  • Caro Krijger, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs ECDPM’s 
  • Paulina Bizzotto Molina facilitated the session together with Nina de Roo

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