Putting the “how” into food systems transformation


The Food Systems Summit, coming up in September this year, is triggering an unprecedented wave of creativity and initiatives to transform food systems.  Across this impressive array of ideas and effort I have wanted to see how best I can contribute not only to the Summit preparations, but over the next decade, so that by 2030 we all can benefit from more equitable, sustainable, and resilient food systems.

As Global Head of the UNDP Food and Agricultural Commodity Systems practice, I am connected into UNDP’s portfolio of over $1.2 billion in technical assistance for sustainable food and agricultural commodity systems. The portfolio covers all the areas of thematic expertise needed for sustainable food systems across inclusive growth, climate change adaptation and mitigation, ecosystem management, land management and gender, across more than 100 countries and almost 500 landscapes. This is a truly unique position being able to oversee and be part of so many diverse yet integrated efforts. Combined with more than 25 years’ experience in sustainable development I have a good sense of what is working and not working and what the global community should focus on as we look for transformation in food systems in the coming decade.

I start from a simple but powerful observation: what we are doing (and that is the collective we) isn’t working sufficiently well to put the world on a sustainable trajectory. Multiple high-level reports have recommended pathways and solutions, including: more sustainable agricultural practices; a reduction in food loss and waste; more inclusive and productive livelihoods for farmers; and healthier and more nutritious diets. But still people go hungry, farming livelihoods are precarious, and agricultural activity contributes significantly to climate change and biodiversity loss.  So WHY is the change not happening at the needed pace?

At a generic and global technocratic level, we know what needs to be done, but to see these pathways and solutions change the way food systems function, we need to go deeper into the why and the how of systems change, and not focus solely on what is needed to change.

I believe that three key barriers are often overlooked:

  1. Solutions and improvements in the functioning of food production are often expected to emerge from technical, and especially agricultural technological, innovations. Yet individual, institutional and societal innovations are just as essential for change, perhaps more so.
  1. The current quality of multi-stakeholder collaboration in the sector is inadequate to meet the scale and nature of this challenge.
  1. The food sector needs new systems thinking leadership – with new mind-sets, tools, incentives, metrics and ways of working that can navigate and measure complexity and collaboratively deliver future food systems that are fit for purpose, particularly at the national and sub-national levels.

These barriers can begin to be addressed if we view and frame interventions in food systems at three main levels: System wide; Institutional; Individual. And then we think and plan on how we inject and embed the HOW across the 3 levels.

More effort should be devoted to collaboratively building mindset change and systemic thinking skills in individuals and organisations engaged in, or supporting, the development of food systems. The individual actors must be equipped with the skills and approaches that will enable them to change as individual leaders but also in support of catalyzing wider systems change. So individual capacity building then needs to be integrated into wider system change processes. This requires system boundary mapping with power analysis to find windows of opportunity for individuals to be empowered and included in system decision making. This enables the farmer voice at the table to co-create solutions and connect to the system stakeholders.

This HOW, enhancing connection, is a key missing component in increasing technical adoption of new research, practices and technologies. All the actors in the food system – from smallholder farmers to processors, investors, governments, traders, manufacturers, brands, retailers and consumers – need to commit to be actively involved and collaborate.  Special attention is needed to vulnerable communities, as part of an integrated focus on the participation of individuals in systems. When farmers are part of the design process and finding solutions and practices suitable for them they will be more likely to take them on board. The relationship between technical solutions and collaborative systemic change is a virtuous circle: improving multistakeholder collaboration improves the adoption of new technical innovations which, as they succeed, improves trust and collaboration.

This seems common sense but it means shifting the balance of technical assistance and investments from technical analysis, planning and solutions towards multistakeholder collaboration for systemic change at all three levels.

Andrew Bovarnick
Global Head, Food and Agricultural Commodity Systems; Nature, Climate & Energy at the United Nations Development Programme

Sign up to receive the latest content and insights in your inbox

You may also be interested in: