Solution Cluster 6.1.2

Coalition of governments for food systems transformation through policy reform

This cross-cutting solution proposes building a Coalition of regional, national and sub-national governments who commit to food systems transformation through policy reform and peer learning. Coherently aligning relevant policies with sustainable food system goals is one of the most powerful levers for food systems transformation and should therefore be a priority at all government levels. Given the complexities of food systems this involves scrutinizing and aligning many sectors’ policies, spanning agriculture, trade, finance and health to name a few. A coherent set of policies should simultaneously address – and not compromise – interconnected economic, environmental, climate, health, nutrition and social objectives, reflecting the true cost of food. It should incentivize sustainable and health-promoting practices, constrain and disincentivize unsustainable and unhealthy ones, and support scaling of transformative agroecological systems.

Supporting policy makers at regional, national and sub-national levels with the complex task of policy reform should be a foundational priority for implementing UNFSS conclusions. Experience shows that policy makers greatly benefit from exchanging with peers from other geographies, sharing insights and evidence to make a compelling case for change, tools (e.g. models, metrics) that help to manage systemic complexity, and expertise on how the required reforms can be put in place. These efforts will support Coalition governments in identifying policy reform needs and developing coherent transition strategies with clear timeframes that allow stakeholders to adjust systems.

About this Solution Cluster

Most policies influencing food systems are based on an outdated paradigm focusing on maximizing single crop yields and cheap calories, at the cost of many unwanted social, health and environmental outcomes. In addition, these policies have often been developed in silos, neglecting possible synergies and spillover effects. Such policies perpetuate unsustainable systems by rewarding investments and business models that do not account for the true cost of food and overlook the benefits of sustainable practices. Policies, however, can also mobilize many food system transformation levers identified through the UNFSS process: the generation and dissemination of knowledge and technologies, the application of sustainable production practices and business models, investments in food system transformation, and raising public awareness. 

Coherent policies are needed to ensure alignment with food system objectives defined at regional, national or sub-national level as well as with various UN agreements, particularly the SDGs. Such policies should incentivize (new) market mechanisms that consider environmental and social externalities to level the playing field on which truly sustainable actors are currently systemically disadvantaged. However, since food system related policy reform is a lengthy process that often meets fierce resistance from those with vested interests in existing business models, it is crucial that policy makers can learn from peers with relevant experiences on how to overcome barriers and lock-ins (i.e. dealing with the political economy of food systems reform).

Policy reform providing consistent incentives for food system transformation is recognized as a key lever by many organizations and strongly emerged from UNFSS Action Tracks, dialogues, and groups. An increasing number of countries, federal states and municipalities have shown that – with political will – food system policy reform is actionable, impactful and can reduce overall societal costs. As policies influence all aspects of food systems, such reform will have positive effects on human health, equitable livelihoods, regenerating environmental integrity, while providing income opportunities particularly for rural youth and women. Policy reform provides the enabling environment for other game changing solutions to thrive. Policy makers will learn, be supported and inspired by peers addressing similar challenges in similar contexts. A global platform will show-case best practice and celebrate leaders whose reform actions deliver progress.

Governments who wish to transform their food systems need to define food system objectives and ambitious targets. Targets are highly context-specific, embedded in landscape and culture, and typically relate to reducing malnutrition, protecting consumers from harmful food, aligning production with sustainable diets, ending conversion and degradation of natural ecosystems for food and feed production, reducing the use of synthetic pesticides and antibiotics, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from food systems, ensuring living incomes of food producers and creating new jobs in sustainable food systems. Subsequently existing policies relevant for food systems must be reviewed (including agriculture, fishery, spatial planning, health, environmental, rural development, climate, trade), assessing gaps and associated opportunity costs, aligning policies with food system objectives and removing incoherence. Assessing the coherence of existing policies with sustainable food system goals and their internal consistency across different sectors’ policies needs to take place in a multi-stakeholder setting, which may require new governance mechanisms (see Food System Governance solutions cluster). The coalition can leverage global mechanisms (e.g. human rights, action on climate change), collectively dismantle lock-ins and entrenched structural barriers, and develop and operationalize mechanisms to protect policy from conflicts of interest.

This process will lead to revised and new food systems-related strategies, policies, regulations and action plans. Four groups of policy interventions can synergistically transition food systems to more sustainable ones: (i) specifically supporting transformative agroecological systems through a combination of push, pull and enabling measures (including research investments), while improving their performance; (ii) stimulating the pull-effect of an increasing market demand for healthy, sustainable and affordable food items (including awareness raising); (iii) incentivizing incremental improvements in mainstream food systems with regard to combined sustainability objectives (e.g. through repurposing public money and adjusting taxes); and (iv) continuously raising legal requirements and industry norms in order to successively phase out particularly unsustainable and harmful practices. Such policy reforms will lead to gradual adjustment of costs and prices to better reflect the true cost of food (internalize externalities), upscaling of investments in sustainable systems, adjustment of business models and behavior change of food system actors. The impact will be twofold: 1) a gradual shift of mainstream systems towards health and sustainability and 2) up-scaling of transformative agroecological systems; both of which are moving with different speed into the same direction of sustainability.

The proposed coalition and its allies can support regional, national and sub-national policy makers in implementing policy reforms by establishing mechanisms and platforms for peer learning, sharing good practice in terms of policy instruments and processes and facilitating access to expertise and analytic tools related to food system policies. This includes guidance on implementation of food systems related UN recommendations like the CFS Policy Recommendations on Agroecological and Other Innovative Approaches, and Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) Framework for Action. Since policies need to be adjusted to the territorial context and are substantially different for industrialized countries, low-income countries and politically fragile contexts, such peer-to-peer exchange and advice should be organized in clusters of similar background. A global platform hosted by a suitable organization (tbd) could support and coordinate clusters, facilitate use of synergies, and showcase developments. Through this coordinating platform governments would share policy commitments and action plans and progress in food system transformation.

An increasing number of regional, national and sub-national governments have already started reforming food system related policies through peer exchange models, and are already showing great promise and are ready to share their experience. Joining the Coalition enables governments to share commitments to food systems transformation through policy reform, learning from others and showcasing achievements. This proposition would foster coherent food system policies simultaneously addressing diverse objectives and reducing overall societal costs. As a “one-stop-shop” the Coalition can help identify practical ways of overcoming barriers and silos and of implementing various UN agreements and policy recommendations related to food systems. The Coalition is a key to ensuring the UNFSS has an enduring impact and truly delivers food systems transformation beyond 2021.

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