By Tavseef Shah and Olivia Riemer, TMG – Think Tank for Sustainability

The Expert Advisory Group of the project Assessment and Communication of Climate Impacts of Food (CLIF) convened in Rome, Italy, from 15-16 June 2023 to discuss key drivers and agents of agri-food system transformation. The results of the discussions and the outputs of the workshop, organized by TMG Research, will inform the development of the fourth strategic report published under the CLIF project, funded by the Federal Ministry for the Environment and Consumer Protection (BMUV) as part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI).

While 828 million people continue to suffer from hunger, the clock is ticking to reach SDG target 2.1 of ending hunger worldwide by 2030. As one of the main drivers of environmental degradation, agri-food systems are in need of urgent transformation. While the call for an overhaul of agri-food systems can be heard from all sides, the international community is struggling to figure out the necessary governance models to guide this transformation.

Responding to this pressing need to figure out what is required for a successful and inclusive transformation, the CLIF project aims to develop a more systematic understanding of how to transform agri-food systems by publishing a series of strategic reports. The first three strategic reports of the CLIF project were published by TMG Research as the FORESEE series earlier this year. The series explores the current agri-food system in light of challenges linked to the four crises known as the 4Cs (Climate, COVID-19, Conflict, and Cost of externalities) and offers recommendations on how to advance transformation efforts.

The workshop titled, ‘Drivers and Agents of Transformation,’ started with a general discussion on the current agri-food system transformation discourse. Participants offered region- and context-specific views on transformation, and agreed that it is necessary to employ a systems approach that supports the design of policy instruments aimed at bringing benefits across multiple objectives, while reducing the risk of unintended consequences. They acknowledged that the creation of multi-stakeholder platforms is insufficient in the absence of a guarantee of equal opportunities for all, given the existing power imbalances. A rights-based approach, taking people’s rights as a point of departure for the transformation, was another common thread across the different views expressed at the workshop.

Experts then provided feedback on the second CLIF scoping study prepared by Nadia El-Hage, food ecologist and Senior Fellow at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, Arizona State University. The study analyses the opportunities and constraints of different transformative solutions proposed for agri-food systems. It assesses twelve examples of transformative action in agri-food systems from different parts of the world using FAO’s Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture (SAFA) guidelines on the thematic areas of good governance, environmental integrity, economic resilience, and social well-being. The featured case studies range from comprehensive government programmes such as Brazil’s Zero Hunger Strategy and the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy to community-led initiatives such as Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Cooperative Union in Japan.

Based on the case studies included in the report, participants identified a broad set of drivers of transformation in agri-food systems. These include political will and effective policies, finance and investments, trade, community participation and consumer behavior. Participants expressed the need to include the role of trade in transformation debates. Globalization, trade, and regulatory liberalization, they noted, have considerably increased pressure on cost and specialization at the expense of diversity. In light of the new geopolitical realities and more trade tensions, they welcomed a stronger focus on food sovereignty.

Participants also considered the main agents that have played key roles in the studied transformation cases. They concluded that transformative processes must be community-led and government-supported, with adequate financing and investment from diversified sources. In this regard, political will is necessary to create an enabling environment for the transformation.

The workshop also included discussions on the outline and content of the fourth strategic report, based on the draft outline shared by TMG. The report aims at presenting a broad template to policymakers to strategize transformation in different contexts. Participants agreed that a set of principles could form the basis for a transformation strategy that can be applied in different contexts. These principles could be categorized under social (rights, equity, and justice), environmental (ecosystem integrity and public good), governance (transparency and accountability), and economic (economic resilience and power balance) aspects. Participants noted that transformation processes may not be scalable or replicable across contexts, but these principles can guide the processes in different contexts. An iterative process based on the core values of ecosystem integrity, common good through transparency and accountability, and fostering equity and resilience can guide the transformation, they agreed.

Looking ahead, participants discussed how to adequately address agri-food system transformation at the upcoming UN Food Systems Stocktaking Moment, World Food Week, and the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 28). They stressed that progress made in implementing transformation pathways requires monitoring, and an assessment of impacts of transformative actions is also needed. Experts agreed that the True Cost Accounting (TCA) approach and the SAFA guidelines provide a good starting point in this regard.

The fourth report in the FORESEE series tentatively titled, ‘Agents and Drivers in Agri-Food Systems’ Pathways to Transformation (ADAPT),’ will be published toward the end of the year after peer review by the members of the CLIF Expert Advisory Group and regional thought leaders.