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Addressing the power gap: "How to effectively transform food systems with new inclusive governance mechanisms?" virtual event

  • Published on March 23, 2022

Missed the event? View the recording here.


Meeting global demand for healthy and nutritious food in ways that are equitable, efficient and sustainable requires solutions that are customized to local needs and realities. To achieve significant change in food systems, coordinated and large-scale actions by different stakeholders within and across countries are fundamental. Providing inspiration, these requirements have been channeled in many cities and, more recently, in many countries, through so-called ‘food systems multi-stakeholder mechanisms’ (MSMs hereafter), and which were studied by the report “Sustainable Food Systems Multi-stakeholder Mechanisms: an assessment of experiences”.

The urgency of food systems interrelated challenges, but also the genesis of innovative, participatory, deliberative multi-actor responses such as food policy councils, the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, or the SFS Programme, were key drivers in the convening of the Food Systems Summit by the UN Secretary General.

To shed some light on if and how existing multi-stakeholder mechanisms or ongoing deliberative/participatory processes have been leveraged or not by different countries in the context of the UNFSS, this virtual event dove into several UNFSS Food Systems Dialogue processes. The event was excellently moderated by Matheus Alves Zanella, who reminded the audience that because the challenges are complex, interlinked, and persistent, the international community has convened that food systems governance must be rethought.


The event kicked off with James Lomax, Food Systems and Agriculture Adviser at UNEP and secondee to the UNFSS Secretariat. James referred to the eight findings of the study on MSMs, pointing out that the study showed that "these mechanisms have to be institutionalized and be part of a (more) participatory decision-making process". James also alluded to the “power gap” that the study revealed as a persistent obstacle that MSMs have not been able to fully overcome: let's make sure that everyone has equal representation irrespective of whether they are powerful or not."

Joao Campari, Leader of WWF’s Global Food Practice, also referred to the power gap as a fundamental issue, highlighting that “fundraising is absolutely necessary to ensure that power imbalances are addressed, and that the voices of the under-privileged and under-represented […] are continuously raised.” Joao alluded to the fact that, for instance, food producers are some of our most important environmental stewards and therefore they must be part of decision making at all levels.

Adriano Campolina, Senior Policy Officer in the Economic and Social Protection Unit, FAO added a very important nuance from his experience as Observer in Brazil’s National Council of Food Security and Nutrition (CONSEA), an institution that has been argued to be the instrumental in shaping Brazil’s highly successful Zero Hunger policies, and which advised directly Brazil’s Presidential Office: “One aspect is addressing power imbalances and the other promoting inclusivity.” referring to the fact that these are different aspects that should not be seen as one and the same. “The transformation of food systems without really taking power relations through a much more sophisticated analysis…it’s not only about inviting people to a multi-stakeholder dialogue but also understanding the power inequities that are behind the situation, e.g. asymmetries in information, asymmetries on capabilities for advocacy, asymmetries on access to decision-makers. We need not only multiple stakeholders but a very strong and very defined strategy to address the asymmetries in power relations.”

After these opening remarks, it was time for the panel comprised of speakers with experiences in mechanisms or processes and how these related to the UNFSS Dialogue.

Patricia Palma de Fulladolsa, Director, Program of Information Systems for Resilience in Food and Nutrition Security for the SICA Region (PROGRESAN-SICA II), General Secretariat of SICA (SG-SICA) discussed how SICA, an inter-country cooperation entity, benefitted from years of working on food security and nutrition as a key regional issue, which allowed them to converge with all the national Dialogue experiences.

Anna Taylor, Executive Director, The Food Foundation, explained that she accepted the UK government’s invitation to act as the Chief Independent Adviser for the process of creation of the new UK Food Strategy process, which began even before event the UNFSS had been announced. However, the UNFSS announcement instilled momentum into the UK Food Strategy process. There was a deliberative consultation process, engaging citizens representative of key demographics (age, ethnicity, class, etc.). This was followed by a polling process to get nationally representative opinions. Anna explained how the “main lesson was how vitally important these steps were for building a license to act on the part of government – understanding where the public felt there was need for intervention, and where not.”

Catherine L. Mah, Canada Research Chair in Promoting Healthy Populations and Associate Professor, is also a participant in the new multi-stakeholder institution created in 2019 new Canadian Food Law, The Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council, which intends to give response with a ‘food systems approach’. Catherine explained her experience in the newly formed, promising institution, which held its first meeting weeks before the Canadian government’s UNFSS National Dialogue: “timing is always an issue”. “I do remember this distinct feeling after the Dialogues that I had found myself invited to the dinner table being very hungry, but then being tapped on the shoulder and invited to the kitchen and being asked to now cook the meal.” Catherine talked to the power gap issue, and contrary to points raised by previous speakers, alerted that (inclusive) representation is just a bare minimum for systemic change. “What we’re talking about to address these practical problems is institutional change. Institutions that we very well know were built on colonization and the taking and holding of power by force.” She added a provocative reality check: “in a food systems approach, most of the policy levers to enact this lasting change that we want are not in the food system. They lie well outside of food. The success of multi-stakeholder mechanisms may not depend on their institutionalization – it depends on how effective they will be at prompting us to take a hard look at the underlying conflicts as well as the institutions.”

The next intervention by Francisco Ramos, Minister of Agriculture from São Tomé and Príncipe, acting Vice President of the National Food Security and Nutritional Council could have not come at a more appropriate time. The Minister’s main reflection after introducing the country and its food challenges pointed back to the consequences of colonization: “perhaps it’s because of the export-oriented nature of our agricultural production (coffee and cocoa) that we have not yet been able to consolidate a class of family farmers.”

The Minister explained that São Tomé and Príncipe already had a multi-stakeholder Council for Food Security and Nutrition issues, with the participation of concerned ministries, civil society and private sector. Most importantly, however, the country took a very bold choice that can prove fundamental in taking urgent action that food systems demand today: the prime Minister is the Chair of the Council for Food Security and Nutrition. This ensures food systems matters are at the top of the government’s hierarchy, addressed as a pressing policy agendas matter.

Momede Nemane, Director of Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture of Mozambique explained that even though the country had a pre-existing Council on Food Security and Nutrition, they understood early that the thematic scope needed expansion in order to address food systems holistically. Mozambique thus set up of a new specific committee with participation of a larger range of relevant actors from different sectors. Importantly, from their past experience in multi-stakeholder settings, they decided that it was fundamental that in the new body non-state actors outnumber government actors in order for the former to not be afraid of speaking up. This would contribute to creating a sense of a safe space for those actors not used to voicing their concerns and demands.

As the moderator posed questions from the audience, one could not help but notice the rich range of provocative thoughts that were coing in through the chat box. These are some of them:

“It would be naive to assume that such conflicting interests are resolved by themselves. So, what is your experience with mediating between such conflicting interests? Can we expect multi-stakeholder platforms resolve them, where they have evolved over time and often reflect historically configurated inequalities in society?”

“Current food systems do not fail: they deliver what they were designed for: profit for some and cheap food that is mostly unhealthy and unsustainably produced.”

“Very often some issues and ideas are lost in translation during the institutionalization process, and this is often the result of the power dynamics mentioned before.”

One participant shared relevant literature on the subject: “For the experience of civil society and social movement actors in multi-stakeholder food system governance mechanisms”.

“Can someone explain why the business term ‘stakeholder’ is used so often - some of us - probably many of us - have no business agenda - the term is highly problematic and blurs very important boundaries and implies we all want the same thing.”

“Momede´s point is crucial: are communities being included in the dialogue spaces as a feel-good strategy or to really take into account their opinions, ideas and worries in the decision-making processes?”

Finally, there was also an inspiring announcement to close: Rome, a city that so many associate with food, has just established its own Food Policy Council. let's hope its one of many more, but let's especially hope that we learn from inclusive governance mechanism experiences and improve the bottlenecks and challenges that were highlighted by participants.


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