Every dialogue is shaped by the voices at the table.
This is something Food Forever Champion, Dr. David Nabarro, has come to understand deeply. As a UN special representative for food security and nutrition from 2009 to 2017, special adviser to the Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2016 and 2017, and co-awardee of the 2018 World Food Prize, he has discussed the need to transform food systems at a great many tables in the past decade.
“During that period we have been looking at food systems with an increasingly interconnected approach,” Nabarro reflects. “Transformation has to be thought through quite carefully because food is always a local issue, and there’s a lot of political contest around food. It’s not a case of having the UN or any other international agency, or even national governments, giving edicts about how food should be done.”
“A key step is to have dialogue between the stakeholders that are involved so that they can at least start to see issues from each other’s perspectives, and collectively find ways to handle the inherent trade-offs that are present in any change.”
When it comes to changing food systems, everyone is a stakeholder. Yet despite its universal importance, the conversation still tends to be dominated by familiar voices from a limited “agri-food” constellation of institutions, industries and disciplines.
Voices of transformation
Enter the Food Systems Dialogues, bringing many more people to many more tables. In the first thirteen Dialogues in 2018 and 2019, nearly 700 stakeholders have gathered in cities from Oslo to Jakarta to discuss transforming food systems, in small groups, on a more horizontal basis.
The Dialogues encourage all participants to share their voices equally, under the “Chatham House” rule: nothing said at the tables will be attributed to an individual. Instead, the resulting proposals for transformation are published in summary reports. In 2020, the “red threads” of ideas that run between the successive Dialogues will be presented to the UN General Assembly.
The Food Systems Dialogues are taking place through the concerted efforts of Nabarro and a number of collaborators. These include the World Economic Forum, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, EAT, the Food and Land Use Coalition – and now, Food Forever.
Tabling biodiversity in Nairobi
The Food Forever Dialogues are taking place across Africa, with a focus on building an African food movement and on the crucial role of crop and livestock diversity. The first event kicked off in Nairobi on 15 March 2019, alongside the United Nations Environment Assembly.
While high-level policymakers were busily engaged in the Assembly itself, Food Forever invited a more unusual local mix of participants. About two-thirds Nairobi locals, the participants included Nairobi City County, urban farmers, small enterprises, and regional and international NGOs.
Following the Food Systems Dialogues format, the participants sat at five tables. Each table was asked to address a specific area of Kenya’s food systems with a proposal that could, ideally, be put into action within the next three years. Their proposals were collected into a Summary Report.
“There were some remarkable things about Nairobi,” Nabarro observes. “I sat and listened to the talk at all the tables, and I was super impressed by the interplay between professional groups. It was people participating from Nairobi County, but because of the way in which urban–rural relationships are very fluid in many African countries, we were able to actually explore food systems issues from a Kenya-specific point of view. That made it very powerful.”
The politics of diverse food
“When we do Dialogues at a national level – and we’ve done them now in Indonesia, in Norway, in Australia, in Ethiopia and in India – the issues tend to be much starker than when we do them at an international level,” says Nabarro. “The nature of the tensions, and the trade-offs that in a way precipitate those tensions, become clearer. It doesn’t mean that it makes it more difficult. It just makes it more vivid.”
Vivid, too, were the red threads running between this Dialogue and those in other cities. The first proposal to come out of Nairobi, Proposal 1: Focus on educating consumers on nutritious diets, shares a sentiment expressed in many earlier Dialogues: how essential it is for consumers to drive transformation in food systems through the dietary choices they make. Another, Proposal 3: Improve the bargaining power of smallholder farmers, echoes ideas from other Dialogues, such as the one held in New Delhi last October, on ways that farmers can act collectively to improve their market access. It also links directly with Proposal 4: Better support farmers to grow food that is sustainable and nutritious, a proposal for conserving soil quality, embracing indigenous crop species and rebooting extension services.
For Nabarro, these are some of the most fascinating and important topics that come up around the tables. “The link between what happens on the production side and the way that feeds through to health and nutrition, that’s always an issue that’s of great interest in the national Dialogues. And it’s not easy – it’s not as though, if you want more nutritious production, you just change what farmers produce in their fields. It’s more complex.”
Another table put the spotlight directly on crop diversity. Proposal 2: Make food a political issue to increase agrobiodiversity aims at scaling up production of, and access to, a more diverse basket of African crops. The participants framed this in terms that are perhaps surprisingly political. According to their summary, “Access to safe and nutritious food should be made into a political issue. This will increase political will and pressure on political actors to take action.” The participants believe such will and action can lead to currently under-utilized crops becoming more affordable and available.
Nabarro appreciates this take on agrobiodiversity, a topic that is too often discussed in technical terms that drain it of its political relevance. “What we’re finding is because the Dialogues focus on trade-offs, there is inevitably a need to focus on the politics in a way that’s not fearful,” he says. “Politics are a reality of life, and it was quite nice that it worked out like that.”
Who is sitting at your table?
Food Forever plans to organize several more Dialogues by the end of 2020, with upcoming locations including South Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the participants in the Nairobi Dialogue see it as a starting point for a national conversation that will continue for a long time to come.
Their final proposal, in fact, is Proposal 5: Hold more food systems dialogues across Kenya. In this they acknowledge that “there is not enough agreement or even awareness of the steps required to transform Kenya’s food system,” and more dialogues across the country could help to bring actors on the same page to lead to real policy and practical change.
Nabarro is excited to see this happen, and having felt the enthusiasm in Nairobi, he believes it will. At the same time, now that he has introduced the idea here alongside Food Forever, he is happy to let it take on a life of its own.
“I don’t on the whole seek to prescribe how things move forward. The whole atmosphere of the Dialogues is an approach that people can use, and then we trust it will go from there,” he says.
It is a simple approach to opening up the potential of dialogue to transform systems. A simple approach, and also a simple question: Who is sitting at your table?